More than two decades before Newtown, there was Stockton.
In January 1989, a troubled drifter in his 20s opened fire with a semiautomatic rifle in a California elementary school yard packed with students. Five children between the ages of 6 and 9 were killed; 29 others were wounded, along with one teacher.
The resulting national shock and outrage plunged Congress into a debate over whether to ban military-style assault weapons.
“The American people are fed up with the death and violence brought on by these assault weapons,” Sen. Howard Metzenbaum, D-Ohio, said on the Senate floor. “They demand action.”
Action, however, would take time. The gun lobby put up roadblocks. The politics, just as today, were fraught. It took five years of legislative slogging to pass a federal assault weapons ban that finally took effect in 1994. But the price of passage was a host of compromises — most painfully for supporters, a sunset provision added late in the legislative wrangling that paved the way for the measure to expire in 2004.
Now, after another massacre at an elementary school by a gunman with a semiautomatic rifle, the Obama administration is working to develop a new set of proposals.
President Barack Obama declared on Wednesday that he would make gun control a “central issue” as he opens his second term, promising to submit broad new firearm proposals to Congress no later than January and to employ the full power of his office to overcome deep-seated political resistance.
At an appearance in the White House briefing room, the president said that he had directed Vice President Joe Biden to lead an interagency effort to develop what the White House said would be a multifaceted approach to preventing mass shootings like the one in Newtown, Conn., last week and the many other gun deaths that occur each year.
With calls from some in Washington and across the country for reviving the assault weapons ban, the experience of the early 1990s offers lessons that can inform the current debate.
Just as it was then, the most difficult terrain to navigate will most likely be political, as any new federal measure would have to overcome the opposition of pro-gun lawmakers and the gun lobby. Already, leading House Republicans responded to the president’s pledge by restating their firm opposition to enacting new limits on guns or ammunition, setting up the possibility of a bitter legislative battle and a philosophical clash over the Second Amendment.
Contours of the policy will be nettlesome as well. As states and the federal government have experimented with various kinds of bans, gun manufacturers have excelled at finding ways around the restrictions, tweaking their guns just enough to comply with new laws.
The federal ban also yielded mixed results in its decade of existence. A 2004 study by the University of Pennsylvania, financed by the Justice Department, found that the measure, which included a ban on ammunition magazines that could hold more than 10 rounds, had only a limited impact on gun crime.
The study explained that part of the issue was all the exceptions to the law. Assault weapons and large-capacity magazines manufactured before 1994 were exempted from the ban, meaning that more than 1.5 million assault weapons remained in circulation. In addition, the country’s stock of large-capacity magazines actually continued to grow after the ban, because it remained legal to import them from abroad as long as they had been made before the ban.
Another challenge for lawmakers was defining precisely what an assault weapon is, which allowed the industry to continue manufacturing guns similar to those that had been banned.
Connecticut, in fact, has an assault weapons ban, similar to the old federal law. But law enforcement officials have said that they believe the guns that Adam Lanza used in the Newtown shooting — including a .223 Bushmaster semiautomatic carbine, which is often described as a military-style assault weapon — were legally acquired and registered.
A little more than half a dozen states have laws banning assault weapons, but definitions vary.
Brian Malte, the director of network mobilization at the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said that assault weapons bans should be written “to give as little room as possible for unscrupulous gun manufacturers to evade such a law.”
Beyond the policy questions facing lawmakers, however, lie the tricky political calculations — just as they did two decades ago.
The chief protagonists then included three senators: Metzenbaum, a longtime liberal firebrand from Ohio; Dennis DeConcini, a moderate Democrat from Arizona; and California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, who was new to the Senate then.
In the House, Rep. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., now a senator, was the workhorse.
The most surprising member of the group was DeConcini, who had consistently voted with the NRA and was once even named their “legislator of the month.”
The Stockton shooting, however, was a galvanizing moment, he said in a telephone interview. He approached NRA officials to see whether they would work with him in drafting a “responsible bill,” he said. After conversations over several months, NRA officials broke off talks, saying they feared they would lose members if they went along.
“I’ll never forget that,” DeConcini said.
Both Metzenbaum and DeConcini introduced bills to ban assault weapons after the Stockton shooting. A proposal passed the Senate that year but went nowhere in the House.
In the years that followed, more high-profile mass shootings involving assault weapons made headlines. Gang violence involving high-powered weapons also escalated.
Crucial to how the ban finally moved forward in 1993, however, was the emergence of a large omnibus crime bill, filled with popular measures, such as adding 100,000 police officers to the nation’s streets, a top priority of the Clinton administration.
Through some nimble legislative footwork, the ban’s supporters in the Senate, led by Feinstein, were able to get a version of the ban added to the crime bill and through the Senate in November 1993.
Although there was pressure from the White House to drop the assault weapons ban for fear that it might scuttle the entire crime bill, former legislative staff members recalled, its proponents held fast.
“That was courage,” said Michael Lenett, a former counsel to the Judiciary Committee who was assigned to Metzenbaum.