Americans are famously bad at remembering their own history.
For example, it would probably come as a surprise to most that President Ronald Reagan, the patron saint of the modern Republican Party, signed his name to a letter in 1994, along with Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, that began: “We are writing to urge your support for a ban on the domestic manufacture of military-style assault weapons. This is a matter of vital importance to public safety.”
Americans might be even more surprised to learn that the letter actually achieved its goal, and that later that year, Congress went ahead and passed a ban on assault-style weapons, which was then signed into law by President Bill Clinton.
These historical facts seem utterly incompatible with today’s political narrative: that there is a long-standing, legitimate, and principled political case against banning high-capacity magazines and semi-automatic firearms. When it comes to addressing the mass shootings in Aurora and Sandy Hook and San Bernardino and now Orlando, today’s Republican Party would have you believe that since the age of Lincoln, it has been the GOP’s sacred constitutional duty to stand in the way of any reasonable discussion of gun policy in America.
This rabid and anti-historical ideology is alive and well in Washington state.
To quote the relatively moderate U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Auburn, in 2013, following the Sandy Hook massacre: “It is not assault weapons and high-capacity magazine bans that reduce gun violence. Instead, gun violence is best reduced through data-driven approaches and the enforcement of our laws.”
Oh, really, Rep. Reichert? Prithee tell, which laws would those be? What laws are on the books, ready to be enforced, that would have stopped James Holmes, Adam Lanza, Syed Rizwan Farook, or Omar Mateen from obtaining their killing machines? Because by all accounts the answer appears to be none. A survey of law-enforcement investigations by The New York Times this week shows that every single one of these four murderers’ assault weapons was legally purchased, either by themselves or friends and family.
Republicans like Reichert get away with their deadly waffling because, again, we are a nation of forgetters. If past is prologue, Republicans will use obstinence and silence to render gun control, yet again, a non-starter and thus a non-issue. In a few months, Orlando will be filed away with the rest of the tragedies.
Consider: Since the Affordable Care Act passed in 2012, Republicans have attempted to repeal it no fewer than 60 times. Meanwhile, in the past four years of American gun terror, there has been one floor vote, in one chamber of Congress, to reinstate the ’90s-era assault-weapon ban, which expired in 2004. Introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the law is essentially a facsimile of the legislation Reagan voiced support for a generation ago. The Senate voted 60-40 against the ban.
Today, many Democrats have grown resigned to the fact that nothing will happen, so radicalized has the GOP become. You could almost hear it in President Barack Obama’s voice Sunday, when he addressed a nation that has tuned in to hear him talk about mass shootings with morbid regularity since 2008.
But this country of forgetters must remember it hasn’t always been this way. The assault-weapon ban passed in 1994 was far from perfect. It included many loopholes that allowed for continued sales of some dangerous weapons, and it included a sunset provision that meant the ban would be lifted in 2004 unless Congress acted again, which it did not.
Yet the ban shows that it can be done. We must remember Sandy Hook and Aurora and Orlando. We must remember the victims, and how they died. We must remember that as a nation we faced this menace before, and we must remember that for no reason beyond mindless ideology we allowed it to return.
We must remember the words of Reagan: “While we recognize that assault-weapon legislation will not stop all assault-weapon crime, statistics prove that we can dry up the supply of these guns, making them less accessible to criminals. We urge you to listen to the American public and to the law-enforcement community and support a ban on the further manufacture of these weapons.”