A new-old mission for Feinstein
Her past efforts to tighten control of guns drew on the awful aftermath of violence, so there was a certain sad symmetry to Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s pledge last week to work with her colleagues to outlaw the extended ammunition clip that allowed Tucson shooter Jared Loughner to fire at so many people so swiftly.
Feinstein said in an interview Friday that she was exploring the idea of reviving a law to limit the size of ammunition clips. The assault weapons ban of 1994, of which Feinstein was the principal sponsor, limited clips to 10 bullets, a third of the size of the one Loughner used to kill six people and injure more than a dozen, including Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, his intended target.
The size limit, along with all of the rest of the assault weapons ban, expired in 2004, when gun-control opponents in Congress blocked its reinstatement.
“We have cried out in vain,” the Democratic senator said at the time, adding that “it makes me sick to my stomach.”
The same sentiment festered last week amid a national conversation about gun rights, mental illness and angry public rhetoric. While acknowledging that the political environment now might not stand for any tinkering with gun laws, Feinstein said she planned to talk to her colleagues and law enforcement officials to see whether something, even a small something, could be done.
“The ability of this young man to go into a licensed firearms dealer and just, bingo, get a gun, I think that’s another issue and I don’t have a solution right now to that issue,” she said. “Limiting the number of bullets is a step that might not be that controversial.”
Except, she added from experience, among some it would be.
To a certain extent, Feinstein’s entire statewide career rests on gun mayhem. In 1978, she was president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors but had decided to get out of politics. She was in her office in City Hall when Dan White, a former supervisor, crept into the building and shot dead Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk.
Feinstein heard the shots that killed Milk, the legendary gay rights leader. After White bolted out of his own office, Feinstein pushed against its door and found Milk’s body. Seeking a pulse, her finger slipped into a bullet hole. She recounted the episode during the Senate fight over the assault weapons ban, after Idaho Sen. Larry Craig suggested that the “gentlelady from California” needed to become “a little bit more familiar with firearms and their deadly characteristics.”
“Senator, I know something about what firearms can do,” she replied.
Video of a stunned Feinstein announcing the deaths of Milk and Moscone opened the first advertisement of her campaign for governor in 1990, which though unsuccessful led to her election to the Senate two years later.
In those years, guns were one of several issues that marked California campaigns, because of a series of mass killings in the state. In 1984, almost two dozen people were shot dead in a San Diego County McDonald’s by a man carrying an Uzi and other weapons. In 1989, a loner took aim in a Stockton schoolyard, killing five children and injuring 29 people with weapons said to fire 100 rounds a minute. In 1993, a gunman with high-powered weapons killed eight people in a San Francisco legal firm.
After the Stockton rampage, California became the first state in the nation to ban military-style assault weapons. The measure was signed by the state’s Republican governor, George Deukmejian. Restrictions were tightened in 1999 under Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, on the heels of the televised shoot-out in North Hollywood between police and better-stocked bank robbers. Among the state’s restrictions is one on ammunition magazines exceeding 10 shots.
Since that time, however, guns have receded as a campaign issue in California, in part because the majority of gun-control advocates aren’t passionate about it, while the smaller set of gun control opponents cares a great deal. The result is stasis. There are other reasons as well, chiefly the crime rate.
“The truth is that violent crime is down in the United States and so, in addition to the political barriers on gun control, there isn’t a tremendous amount of personal crime anxiety,” said Franklin Zimring, a UC Berkeley law professor who has written often about guns and crime.
“Sure, we all feel vulnerable when there is a kind of mass shooting, but very few of our neighbors have been robbed and shot lately, and the concentration of what violence we have in the least influential segments of society … creates very difficult sledding” for gun control proponents,” he said.
Nationally, the assault weapons ban lapsed more than six years ago, and tragedies like the killings at Virginia Tech have not led to new restrictions. Last week, no one was predicting that the violence in Tucson would break that streak.
Some Democrats have joined with Republicans in opposition to new restrictions. Others said they would seek changes. Sen. Barbara Boxer, at a press conference last week, endorsed an effort by New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg and others to renew the ban on extended clips. Feinstein said Friday that she had talked to Boxer and would soon talk to other senators. (Feinstein has not returned to Washington since undergoing knee replacement surgery on Jan. 5.)
The size of the clips mattered in Arizona; according to accounts of the crime, citizens at Giffords’ event were able to pin him down only after he ran out of ammunition after 31 shots and tried to reload.
“This particular incident really points out the importance of these very big clips,” Feinstein said. “What I call the big guns, the semi-automatics, fire very fast. And if you have let’s say 30 bullets, no one can get to you to disarm you.” Had there been only 10 shots before he had to reload, she implied, the carnage would have been diminished.
But pressing gun restrictions in past decades depended on law enforcement support, enthusiasm among voters and political will. The cops may still be up for a fight, but public passion has ebbed, and there seems to be little desire among politicians to resurrect the issue.
“It’s a very hard battle now,” Feinstein acknowledged.
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