WASHINGTON — Under pressure from Democrats, the Senate’s Republicans have agreed to allow a series of votes on restricting gun sales in the aftermath of the shooting rampage in Orlando, Florida. Rival measures from Republicans and Democrats to be taken up on Monday seek to address the “terror gap” allowing people on terrorist watch lists to buy firearms, and to expand background checks for purchases at gun shows and online. Separately, President Barack Obama wants to ban the sale of semi-automatic assault weapons similar to those used in recent attacks, but that issue is not on the Senate’s agenda.
Q: Do any of the measures stand much chance of passage?
A: Probably not. Although Senate Democrats forced votes this time by filibustering for 15 hours beginning Wednesday, and Donald Trump has expressed support for stopping people on terror watch lists from buying guns, Republicans voted down similar proposals in December after a shooting rampage in San Bernardino, California, killed 14 people. Several moderate Republicans are working on a compromise, but they face an uphill fight because of election-year politics and the threat of opposition from the National Rifle Association for any Republican who breaks from the party’s traditional stance.
Q: Would a renewed ban on assault weapons have stopped the Orlando gunman from buying the weapon he used in the attack?
A: Possibly. The gunman, Omar Mateen, who had been on a terror watch list until 2014, bought a Sig Sauer MCX rifle — a spinoff of the military-style AR-15 — as well as a 9-millimeter handgun at a Florida gun shop about a week before the attack. The original assault weapons ban passed by Congress in 1994 prohibited the sale of 19 kinds of semi-automatic weapons, including AR-15s, AK-47s and Uzis, as well as dozens of types of handguns, ammunition and other rifles that met certain military-style conditions. It is unclear how many of these military-style features were on the AR-15-style rifle that Mateen used, so it may or may not have fallen under the ban.
Q: How did the 1994 assault weapons ban ever get through Congress?
A: President Bill Clinton pushed the ban through as part of a far-reaching, $30 billion crime bill, making it a “nonnegotiable” element in the face of Republican resistance. Rising crime rates, gang violence and a number of attacks on police officers by criminals using assault rifles all helped get the ban through Congress. When he ran for re-election, Clinton released an ad saying, “Bill Clinton did something no president has ever been able to accomplish: He passed and signed a tough law to ban deadly assault weapons.”
Q: Was the assault weapons ban effective?
A: There is dispute about its effect to this day. Some academics credit the ban with keeping tens of thousands of dangerous assault weapons off the streets beginning in 1994 and contributing to a drop in violent crime. At the same time, many types of high-powered weapons fell outside the ban, including knockoffs, older versions and altered rifles that filled the void. A study financed by the Justice Department said the effectiveness in reducing crime was “mixed” from city to city.
Q: What happened to the 1994 assault weapons ban?
A: In 2004, Congress allowed the 10-year ban to expire amid lobbying by the NRA and gun-rights advocates in Congress. John Kerry, the Democratic nominee for president that year, accused President George W. Bush of failing to do enough to win passage of an extension.
Q: Have there been efforts to bring back the ban?
A: Yes, the large majority of the most notorious recent mass shootings in the United States — including the attacks in San Bernardino; Newtown, Connecticut; and Aurora, Colorado — have involved semi-automatic weapons. After almost every one, there has been an effort in Congress to bring back the ban. But all have failed in the face of Republican opposition. The NRA and other gun-rights advocates argue that the weapons should not be called assault rifles at all, and that they are usually used for hunting, marksmanship or self-protection. Some Democrats believe the passage of the 1994 ban contributed to the Republican takeover of the House that year, and the memory of that political effect has been sobering for gun-control advocates.