Feinstein in the News
After another mass shooting, Dianne Feinstein back on front lines of gun control fight - San Jose Mercury News
Oct 05 2017
By Casey Tolan
Originally appeared in the San Jose Mercury News
SAN FRANCISCO — After a gunman walked into a San Francisco law firm and killed eight people in July 1993, then first-term Sen. Dianne Feinstein channeled national horror to push an assault weapons ban into law.
Now, after yet another horrific mass shooting, Feinstein is again at the center of the national debate over gun control, fighting for a far less sweeping measure that would ban a device used by the gunman in this week’s far deadlier Las Vegas massacre.
With signs Thursday that Republicans — and even the National Rifle Association — are open to exploring her bill, Feinstein’s leadership on the high-profile debate could reassure Californians who have been questioning whether the 84-year-old senator was ready to give up her role as one of the Golden State’s most important political voices.
Feinstein’s bill to ban “bump stocks,” which the gunman used to drastically increase his rate of fire as he killed 58 people Sunday night, got a significant boost on Thursday: The National Rifle Association — a longtime Feinstein adversary — said it supported “additional regulations” on the mechanism. Bump stocks are already banned in California.
Comments from Republican leaders are encouraging, Feinstein told the Bay Area News Group in an email, but she said they “need to turn those words into actions.”
Feinstein’s focus on gun control was forged in the most traumatic moment of her political career. In 1978, Feinstein — then president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors — was one of the first people to find the dead body of Supervisor Harvey Milk, who was gunned down by a former colleague along with Mayor George Moscone. By the time she got to the Senate in 1992, she knew she wanted to fight for new gun laws, said Adam Eisgrau, a lawyer in Feinstein’s office at the time who worked heavily on the assault weapons ban.
Then, on the afternoon of July 1, 1993, an entrepreneur named Gian Luigi Ferri killed eight people and wounded six others before committing suicide at a law firm at 101 California Street. His arsenal included semiautomatic handguns.
Carol Kingsley, whose husband Jack Berman was one of the victims, remembers waiting at home for hours with the TV and radio on at the same time with no information about whether he was dead or alive. Seeing television coverage of the Las Vegas shooting and the victims’ families was like “reopening the wound,” she said Thursday.
“You know the sadness that will stay with them for the rest of their lives — it just doesn’t go away,” said Kingsley, 66.
Shock and horror over the 101 California shooting turned into action, as Feinstein pushed her colleagues to pass an assault weapons ban in 1994. Several of the victims’ family members testified before Congressional committees, including Michelle Scully Hobus, whose husband John Scully died as he threw his body over her during the shooting.
“She was tireless,” Hobus, 51, said of Feinstein. “I don’t think it would have passed without her.”
Feinstein said the bill was a product of months of negotiations, compromises, and one-on-one meetings with wobbling senators.
“The Senate was a different place 25 years ago,” she said. “There wasn’t this crippling fear of the NRA, and there were more senators in the center of the political spectrum. There was more room for compromise and debate.”
One breakthrough came in an appendix to the bill listing 670 gun models by name that were exempted from the ban. That provision was strongly opposed by some gun control groups, but it let conservative lawmakers show their constituents that their hunting rifles wouldn’t be affected.
“That bill was very far from perfect, but it was a watermark of bipartisanship, of reaching across the divide,” Eisgrau said.
But gun control advocates said it was a crucial mistake to include a sunset provision, allowing the ban to expire in 2004. Feinstein described it as a compromise she thought she had to make, while Eisgrau called it “a late, well-intentioned addition to the bill that may not have been necessary.”
In the 24 years since 101 California, a litany of mass shootings with body counts reaching higher and higher haven’t had the same impact in provoking Congress to act. The bump stock bill is a sign of how gun control advocates’ goals have shrunken, at least at the federal level. Even legislation with broad support from the public, like mandatory background checks for all gun purchases, is seen as unlikely to pass a Republican-controlled Congress.
Feinstein lays the blame on the increasing influence of the gun lobby.
“I still can’t believe we did nothing after 20 first graders were slaughtered in their classroom” in Newtown, Conn., she said. “The NRA and its power are the main reason why.”
The NRA didn’t respond to a request for comment, but California gun advocates are unimpressed with Feinstein.
“She has no idea how guns work,” said Sam Paredes, the executive director of Gun Owners of California. “Focusing on the devices instead of the criminal and what he did is the wrong way to go.”
Feinstein said Wednesday that her daughter almost went to the Route 91 concert in Las Vegas that was the target of the shooting, and she would have stayed at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, from where the gunman fired away on concertgoers.
Some political observers say the return of America’s gun control debate could bolster Feinstein’s profile and energize her. She has been under considerable pressure from liberal Democrats for not taking a more aggressive stand against President Donald Trump. She has remained silent about whether she plans to run for re-election next year.
A Public Policy Institute of California poll last week found that a majority of likely California voters would prefer Feinstein — the oldest member of the Senate — to retire and not run for re-election in 2018.
If she’s able to pass the first substantive federal gun control legislation in years, it could scare away any potential primary challengers.
“Maybe seeing Senator Feinstein doing her thing — leading the charge against gun violence once again — will remind any wobbling Democrats of how passionate and effective she can be,” said Dan Newman, a San Francisco political strategist who hasn’t worked with Feinstein.