The Assault Weapons Ban: Lessons about Congress

In the wake of the tragic massacre in Newtown, President Obama set forth a list of proposed gun control measures including a new assault weapons ban. An earlier ban expired in 2004. Regardless of how you feel about the proposal or how effective the previous ban was, its 2004 expiration illustrates four features of the legislative process. What follows: a timely case study in congressional policymaking.

1) It is much easier to achieve your goals when they require inaction.
The passage of the first assault weapons ban in 1994 required a substantial legislative fight and represented a very rare defeat for the National Rifle Association—and their last defeat. The contentiousness of the ban is exemplified by its narrow passage in the House, which then had a Democratic majority, by only a 216-214 vote. It was even opposed by the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee—the reporting committee. The provision was written to expire after ten years, unless renewed. It lapsed simply because it was not renewed. One of the issues being debated currently, a ban on high capacity magazines, also expired as part of the assault weapon ban.

The expiration of the ban happened with a whimper, not a bang. In the 108th Congress, when its time ran out, there was no legislative action in the House, not even a hearing. In Congress it is far easier to run out the clock than to enact something

2) It’s true—a powerful interest group really can call the shots.
The expiration of the assault weapons ban was the top legislative priority of the National Rifle Association. Nonetheless, there was Senate action, but it was action that was a total rout for the groups favoring gun control. In March 2004 the Senate voted to add the ban to a bill that would have immunized gun manufacturers from liability suits stemming from violent gun crimes. Despite favoring the immunity provision, the National Rifle Association urged defeat of the overall bill. In the wake of NRA lobbying, the Senate voted overwhelmingly, 90-8, against the final bill.

3) Active presidential leadership is needed to move most issues onto the agenda.
President George W. Bush said that he favored the renewal of the assault weapons ban. Nonetheless, he took no action to bring about that result in Congress. When asked about this lack of presidential action, Press Secretary Scott McClellan replied that “the president doesn’t set the congressional timetable. Congress sets the timetable.”

This assertion was disingenuous. While the President doesn’t set the schedule of Congress, he largely establishes its priorities as President Bush did with No Child Left Behind and two major rounds of tax reduction.

4) Passive opinion does not trump a stable inertia.
An Annenberg Center (University of Pennsylvania) poll at the time the ban ended found that 68 % of Americans supported renewing the ban. There was, however, little active public pressure on Congress, and Majority Leader Tom Delay was probably quite right in asserting that there weren’t the votes in the House to pass a bill. It is of course even easier to ignore public opinion when no bill is on the floor.

Going Forward: The Electoral Math Does Not Favor Serious Action
Given the horror and revulsion most Americans have felt, it may be that “this time is different.” However, the likelihood of that outcome is mitigated by another point about Congress (especially the House)—the only election that matters for most members is the primary election. The Cook Political Report noted that 219 of the 234 House Republicans in the new Congress represent districts that also went for Romney in 2012—i.e., reasonably safe Republican districts. A Pew public opinion poll after the massacre found that 69% of Republicans said it was more important to protect the right to own guns than to control gun ownership. Republican Members of Congress have been uniformly opposed to any further gun restrictions. They cannot afford to be otherwise, because in low turnout primary elections their only threat is an opponent claiming to be more conservative. Having such an opponent sponsored by the NRA is a potent threat in terms of their financial backing and the perceived importance of an NRA rating in guiding conservative voters. For Democrats in competitive (i.e., more conservative) districts on the other hand, voting for gun restrictions is unlikely to affect any potential primary challenge, but could be fatal in a general election. So, while important Democrats like Senators Mark Warner and Joe Manchin appear to have defected from the NRA bandwagon, it will still be an uphill fight in the House.

In summary, the view that “this time it is different” is probably correct in the sense that gun control will be on the legislative agenda, which has not happened after the past several massacres. Whether any serious legislation is enacted, however, is entirely another question.