Monday, August 15, 2022
Aug. 15, 2022

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Camden: Assault weapons’ lesson of 1994


As a consumer of arguably too much news in print and on various screens, it is a rare day when I’m not confronted by some pundit or talking head who can’t understand why Congress won’t pass a ban on assault weapons when the polls say the vast majority of Americans support one.

The answer is quite simple: Politicians may forget their campaign promises as quickly as they are elected, but they remember forever things that cost other politicians their jobs.

A ban on assault weapons is pretty close to the top of that list, possibly only behind a suggestion that Social Security benefits should be drastically reduced.

Or at least that’s what they took away from the 1994 election, the last time Congress passed a ban on the sale of assault weapons and a ban on the sale of high-capacity magazines — something else pollsters suggest would be well received.

Like 2022, 1994 was a midterm election year for a new Democratic president whose party controlled both chambers of Congress. President Bill Clinton had a much bigger majority to work with in Congress, but resistance to an assault weapon ban was bipartisan, as was its support. A standalone ban failed the House early in that year, but supporters had hopes of bringing it again before the election, something talking heads have suggested after current failures.

The bans were suggested as additions to the massive Crime Control and Prevention Act, which had other things popular at the time, including federal money for tens of thousands more police officers, longer sentences for violent criminals and more protections for women facing domestic violence.

Unlike 2022, the number of mass shootings was nowhere near averaging one a day in 1994. But there was one mass shooting that year that had a profound impact on the fate of the bill and had many of the same elements as today’s massacres. It happened in Spokane County.

Dean Mellberg, a 20-year-old former airman who had been forcibly discharged from the military after showing signs of mental instability, bought a semiautomatic military-style rifle known as a MAK-90, and separately purchased a 75-round drum magazine. He returned to Fairchild Air Force Base, where he believed his problems with Air Force mental health doctors began. In a rampage through the hospital and a medical office, he killed four people and wounded 22 others. He was eventually shot dead by an Air Force police officer, Andy Brown, who rushed to the scene.

In the wake of that massacre, the local congressman — who also happened to be the speaker of the House — said he would support the pending ban on semiautomatic assault weapons.

Rep. Tom Foley was finishing his 30th year in Congress and had received support from the National Rifle Association for most of his career.

After he supported the assault weapon ban, that endorsement was revoked and Foley’s picture would be featured in the center of a bull’s eye on posters around the Eastern Washington district. He drew four Republican challengers, each of whom competed for the NRA’s endorsement.

Despite his public support for the ban, Foley warned Clinton privately it would cost Democrats seats in Congress.

On Election Day, Foley lost to George Nethercutt and three other Washington Democrats in House — Jay Inslee, Maria Cantwell and Mike Kreidler — lost their races.

To say the Democratic bloodbath was solely the result of the assault weapons ban would be a gross oversimplification. But the lesson many Democrats and Republicans seemed to learn from 1994 was that the NRA was not to be crossed. When the assault weapon and large capacity magazine bans expired in 2004, they weren’t renewed.

The growing number of mass shootings around the country could cause supporters of greater gun control to base their vote for candidates on that issue. But politicians who are usually risk-averse may be unwilling to take that chance.

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