Feinstein in the News

By Carolyn Lochhead

Originially published in the San Francisco Chronicle.

WASHINGTON — The weapon used to kill 17 people in last month’s rampage at a high school in Parkland, Fla., was banned from manufacture and sale in the United States for 10 years under a law written by Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

Now Feinstein is pushing for a new ban, an effort she began last fall after a shooter killed 58 and injured 851 concertgoers in Las Vegas, and, in Parkland’s wake, Democratic leaders in Congress are embracing it. But the same questions that discouraged Congress from renewing the original ban are being raised again.

A federally funded study in 2004 found that the reduction in gun violence resulting from the ban was “small at best and perhaps too small for reliable measurement.” Just as it had done in 2004, the National Rifle Association used those results to quash Feinstein’s efforts to revive the ban in 2013 after 20 children and six adults were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., and is using them now to ensure that it goes nowhere after the Parkland shootings.

Not all supporters of gun restrictions are fully supportive of Feinstein’s push for a new assault weapons ban. They argue that the issue is too controversial and that her efforts detract from other approaches to gun violence such as universal background checks that have more political support. Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, argued last month that assault weapons are “much thornier to deal with,” and an attempt to ban them “goes beyond a heavy lift.”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., holds up an advertisement for a 12-gauge Striker shotgun during a news conference on Capitol Hill to discuss restrictions on assault weapons in 1994.

Feinstein acknowledged in an interview last week that the original ban “wasn’t a perfect bill,” but that newer studies show that the number of deaths involving assault weapons fell, as did the number of mass shootings.

“I know that the 10 years worked,” Feinstein said. “I have to do this, I believe in it so strongly.”

She said an airline pilot recently told her, “My 7-year-old daughter came to me and said, ‘I’m scared to go to school, Daddy.’

“Is this what we want America to be — where youngsters 7 years old are scared to death to go to school, and teenagers are in fact getting killed in schools?” Feinstein said. “I don’t understand how if you want to do the right thing, why the right thing isn’t taking these weapons of war off the streets so they can’t be misused.”

The original legislation prohibited the manufacture and sale of new military-style assault weapons and large-capacity magazines capable of holding more than 10 rounds. These included the AR-15 semiautomatic rifle used in Parkland, Las Vegas and Newtown, as well as shootings in San Bernardino, Aurora, Colo., Orlando and Sutherland Springs, Texas.

Feinstein called the guns “weapons of war, modified and glamorized for civilian use.” But she had to accommodate objections of the gun lobby to get the bill passed. The law left existing military-style weapons, then estimated to number 1.5 million, in circulation. She included a sunset clause that allowed the ban to expire after 10 years.

“That’s a very standard NRA playbook,” said John Donohue III, an economist and law professor at Stanford University. “You have a regulation, you gut it so that it’s completely feckless, and then you say, ‘Oh look, the regulation is feckless.’”

The 2004 study said the provision exempting the existing weapons meant that the ban’s effect on gun violence would take time to unfold and might have been stronger had the law remained in effect.

More recent studies found that the ban might have had a greater effect on reducing mass shootings than on lessening overall gun violence. Louis Klarevas, a lecturer at the University of Massachusetts, found that during the years that Feinstein’s bill was in effect mass shootings incurring six or more fatalities fell 37 percent from the previous decade.

Even if all weapons and high-capacity magazines were banned today, “you would still have mass shootings,” Klarevas said. “The goal shouldn’t be, ‘Eliminate them all, or don’t pursue anything,’” but rather to “reduce the frequency and lethality of these shootings.”

Christopher Koper, the lead author of the 2004 study and an associate professor of criminology at George Mason University, found in new research published last year that assault weapons make up a small share of guns used in crimes generally, but they could constitute “upwards of 40 percent for cases involving serious violence,” including police killings.

In a 2013 study, Koper found that assault weapons as a share of guns recovered by police dropped sharply in several cities during the 10 years of the ban, including a 72 percent plunge in Boston. If the ban were reinstated, he said, it could “help to reduce the number and severity of mass shooting incidents.”

Laura Cutilletta, legal director of the Giffords Law Center in San Francisco, a group supporting tougher gun controls, said Feinstein’s ban was too weak because of “compromises that were made for the gun lobby.”

“Unfortunately,” she said, “the result is that now they can point to it and say it didn’t work.”

Feinstein’s new legislation would still grandfather existing guns, which both sides agree have proliferated since 1994. Nobody knows how many exist because the government is prohibited by law from keeping track.

Her bill would tighten the definition of a military-style weapon to make it harder for gun makers to evade the law, and would again ban high-capacity magazines, which experts widely cite as the most effective part of the original ban.

“If you want to get rid of the mass shooting problem you really have to get rid of high-capacity magazines and assault weapons,” said Stanford’s Donohue.

Feinstein’s bill has drawn no Republican co-sponsors, nor has a companion bill by Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., introduced in the House last week. But Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York has included the ban in a package of bills that Democrats are pushing, and Feinstein is working to get the nine Democrats still in the Senate who voted against her 2013 ban to change their positions in an effort to build momentum.

Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, who was at the congressional baseball practice in June where a gunman opened fire and gravely wounded House GOP Whip Steve Scalise and two others, said he does not think a ban would stop any shootings.

“I got shot at last year,” said Barton, who is retiring this year. “I was facedown on the ground with my two sons getting shot at for 10 minutes. So I’m not about politics. I want things that solve problems. We had two armed security officers that were with Steve Scalise. They saved my life and my children’s life, because they had guns and they were there and they attacked the shooter. I watched ’em do it.”

Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-Conn., who represents Newtown, said Barton is “just flat out wrong.”

“People need to do their homework,” she said. “We had thought that the slaughter of 6- and 7-year-olds in a classroom” would lead to enactment of gun restrictions.

“The parents, all of us, were so shocked and horrified, we couldn’t actually believe it wouldn’t happen,” Esty said. “We just couldn’t believe that this good and great country wouldn’t take action.”

It’s been five years since Sandy Hook. Getting tougher gun laws “is going to require single-issue voters on gun safety,” she said, something she believes can happen with the student activism after Parkland.

“It’s pretty hard to look your kid in the eye who’s had to walk over the bodies of his or her friends, and say, ‘I’m not willing to do anything.’”