How the assault weapons ban has been assaulted

The recent massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut—the second worst school shooting in U.S. history, behind the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007— has renewed calls for the reinstatement of the assault weapons ban.

Responding the Sandy Hook shooting, in which suspected gunman Adam Lanza, 20, fatally shot 26 people, including 20 6- and 7-year old children, President Obama suggested he is prepared to take a tougher stance on gun control.  The president recently said, “we have to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this. Regardless of the politics.”

Meanwhile, the White House expressed its continued commitment to an assault weapons ban, reflecting a 2008 and 2012 campaign pledge by Obama.

When President Bill Clinton signed the Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act into law in 1994 as part of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, the measure was popular and enjoyed broad public support and the blessing of law enforcement.  The ban on semiautomatic pistols, rifles and shotguns expired in 2004 under the Bush administration due to a sunset provision in the law.

Since that time, the gun control debate has subsided, and numerous attempts to reinstate the ban in Congress have failed.  Typically, the proposals have failed to get out of committee due to the lack of political will among Democrats and Republicans alike.

Further, in 2011, following the assassination attempt on Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona, the Justice Department developed a list of measures to expand background checks to reduce the risk of criminals and the mentally ill obtaining guns.  The proposals also called for enhanced sentences for people who act as straw purchasers for those who cannot pass a background check.  But the department shelved the proposals as the 2012 election campaign season approached, and the Republican-controlled Congress began investigating the Operation Fast and Furious gun trafficking case.

This resistance to enacting even the most modest gun control reforms is the result of the power and influence of the pro-gun lobby in U.S. politics, and its ability to frame the terms of the debate. Gun control advocates have lost control of the narrative because their advocates in Congress fear retaliation from the National Rifle Association, or the NRA.

Backed by conservative lawmakers and judges, the NRA has succeeded in promoting an uncompromising interpretation of the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms.  The amendment states: “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”

And the gun lobby—which opposes all forms of gun control, assault weapons ban, firearms registration and background checks—spends overwhelmingly to support Republican candidates and defeat Democratic candidates.  According to, of the $17.6 million the NRA spent on the 2012 federal election cycle, $11.4 million was spent to vote Democratic candidates out of office, and $5.9 million to support Republican candidates.  In 2010, the NRA spent at least $100,000 to support or oppose 11 different candidates, with over $1.43 million to help Pat Toomey (R-Pennsylvania) win a Senate seat against Democrat Joe Sestak.

During the 2012 election, the NRA ran ads in battleground states accusing Obama of chipping away at the right to bear arms.  And four years earlier, gun sales surged after the president was elected, amid concerns that Democrats would restrict gin ownership.

In July of this year, one week after the Aurora, Colorado mass shooting, the NRA halted U.S. ratification of the United Nations Arms Trade Treaty to prevent the illicit flow of arms to war-ravaged regions of the world.

The NRA has spent over $2 million on lobbying this year.  Of the organization’s 28 lobbyists, 15 have previously held government positions.

Mother Jones reports that in the past four years, the NRA has passed 99 laws in 37 states making it easier to own guns and carry them in public, and more difficult for the government to track these guns. The laws, two-thirds of which were passed in Republican-controlled state houses, often received bipartisan support.