The last time Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) argued for passage of an assault weapons ban, a Republican colleague suggested “the gentlelady from California” needed to become “a little bit more familiar with firearms and their deadly characteristics.”
Rising, Feinstein eloquently reminded him that she did indeed understand the power of guns; she had ascended to mayor of San Francisco when George Moscone was shot to death at City Hall and had put her finger in the bullet hole of her mortally wounded colleague, Supervisor Harvey Milk, searching for a pulse.
That exchange with Idaho Sen. Larry Craig, a National Rifle Assn. member, was just a chapter in a Feinstein crusade that led to last year’s unlikely passage of a ban on 19 forms of military-style semiautomatic assault weapons. But less than a year after the landmark legislation was signed into law, the victory is already in jeopardy.
Republicans who now control Congress have vowed to repeal the weapons ban, and Feinstein is again leading the charge to save it, vowing to stage “the mother of all filibusters” if necessary to block action in the Senate. Already, she has begun appearing at press conferences with gunshot victims and pondering whether to propose a 1996 state ballot initiative for a California law stronger than the federal one.
“It says something very disillusioning about our process to have to go through this thing again,” Feinstein said from her San Francisco office, where she spent much of last week’s spring recess drumming up support for gun control. “This is an uphill battle that I believe in my deepest being has to be fought and has to be won. Or else it’s an open field on the manufacture of any weapon of war.”
The House is poised to take up the explosive debate the week of May 15 while in the Senate, Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) has promised the NRA he would make the ban’s repeal a priority of this year’s business.
The balance has shifted dramatically in Congress since the weapons ban was passed last year. The NRA pumped $1.9 million in direct contributions to congressional campaigns in 1994 and 32 incumbents who favored gun control were voted out.
A repeal is expected to easily pass in the House, where 224 of 435 members hold an “A-rating” from the NRA. Even gun control advocates concede that if voting took place today, the ban would probably lose by about 30 votes. (Support in the California delegation largely follows party lines, with Rep. Steve Horn of Long Beach the only Republican to support the ban on assault weapons and San Diego Republican Brian Bilbray undecided.)
That means the battle will likely to be won or lost in the Senate. Eight of the 56 senators who supported the ban last year did not return to Congress, leaving a majority in question and Feinstein gun control’s strongest ally.
“She has made this one of her top priorities,” said Bob Walker, legislative director of Handgun Control Inc., the Washington, D.C.-based group led by Sara Brady. “Without Sen. Feinstein we would never have passed an assault weapons ban in the Senate in 1993, there is no question in my mind.”
The last time around, Feinstein distinguished herself as a freshman lawmaker who overcame considerable odds to win those 56 Senate votes when observers predicted she would be lucky to get 25. She walked the halls of Congress with gunshot victims, pressing House lawmakers for votes, an unusual practice for a senator. She recruited law enforcement agencies, children’s advocates and women’s groups to lobby undecided House members. She debated the NRA’s executive vice president on network television. And when Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) teetered on indecision, Feinstein delivered to him a notebook listing assault weapons shootings in his home state, which he credited with persuading him to support the ban. It passed the House by just two votes.
Until Republicans threatened a repeal, Feinstein had planned to introduce no other gun control legislation this year. Now she says her “adrenaline is up” and she has vowed to work for stricter controls, possibly a California initiative to ban the possession of any military-style assault weapon, not just those manufactured since the federal law was signed in 1994. Feinstein said she will go forward with the initiative if she can raise $1 million to support it.
But the immediate fight is in Washington and the second-term senator comes to it this time as a member of the minority party with considerably less clout than before. Her strongest weapon now is the filibuster, a tactic used in the Senate to prevent debate and stop a floor vote, thereby killing a bill. Her second strongest weapon is public opinion; polls consistently show a majority of Americans favor an assault-weapons ban. If all else fails, President Clinton has indicated he would veto any repeal sent to him by Congress, and Feinstein believes she can muster the votes to sustain it.
“The strategy is to tell the people that what’s at play here are the rights of the many to be safe and secure . . . the right to be safe in your home without bullets coming through the walls,” Feinstein said. “I am absolutely convinced that the people of America believe assault weapons should be banned.”
A Feinstein-sponsored panel discussion last week in San Francisco included some powerful testimony about assault weapon bullets that pierced two walls and a freezer before finally stopping; about an assailant whose four military-style weapons carried more firepower than the combined arsenal of the 104 police officers summoned to subdue him; about the police officer who was shot by that assailant and died in the arms of his captain, an NRA member who supports the weapons ban.
But this is a battle royal and the NRA has been doing some education of its own, recently meeting with Republican congressional leaders and holding public hearings featuring crime victims who protected themselves with weapons.
“We have people who have had profound experiences at the hands of criminals and who have been able to successfully defend themselves with privately owned firearms, some on the banned list,” said Tom Wyld, an NRA spokesman in Virginia. “Sen. Feinstein is certainly eager to press her point. We are also eager.”
* PROTEST MARCH: Nearly 1,000 demonstrators marched in Los Angeles on Sunday to protest gun violence. B1