Politics & Policy

Democratic Dishonesty on Assault-Weapon Bans

Joe Biden greets supporters after speaking during a campaign rally in Philadelphia, Pa., May 18, 2019. (Mark Makela/Reuters)
When they had the power to reinstate it, they didn’t even hold a vote.

‘The 1994 assault weapons and high-capacity magazines bans worked. And if I am elected president, we’re going to pass them again — and this time, we’ll make them even stronger,” Joe Biden promised this week.

The only thing stopping the assault-weapon ban from getting through the Republican-controlled Senate, Biden wrote in a New York Times op-ed on Monday, is “weak-willed leaders who care more about their campaign coffers than children in coffins.”

Accusing anyone of caring more about getting campaign contributions than stopping the murder of children is incredibly vicious. It’s the type of ad hominem attack you would not expect from a candidate who portrays himself as a bipartisan dealmaker who can restore civility and unite a divided country.

It’s also an incredibly hypocritical attack coming from Biden. Do you know how many votes Democrats held on gun control during the first two years of the Obama-Biden administration, when there were huge Democratic congressional majorities? Zero. If “weak-willed leaders who care more about their campaign coffers than children in coffins” are the only thing stopping the assault-weapon ban, isn’t that a searing indictment of President Obama, Vice President Biden, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Majority Leader Harry Reid?

Unlike most elected Republicans, who believe that an assault-weapon ban would be unconstitutional and ineffective at stopping mass shootings, those Democratic leaders all believe the assault-weapon ban is constitutional and actually works. So why didn’t Pelosi and Reid hold any votes when Democrats had a once-in-a-generation supermajority in Congress?

Reid, for his part, is blaming the Senate’s 60-vote requirement to end debate for the failure to pass gun control. “People ask why the federal government hasn’t lifted a finger to stop the growing epidemic of gun violence, despite Americans’ demands for action and overwhelming support for common-sense reforms like universal background checks and bans on high-capacity magazines,” Reid wrote in a separate New York Times op-ed on Tuesday calling for the abolition of the 60-vote requirement. “They ask how we can stand by as the country suffers tragedy after tragedy and averages more than one mass shooting every single day. The answer once again: the filibuster.”

But it’s misleading for Reid to blame the filibuster alone for the failure to pass a ban on “high-capacity magazines.” Democrats held 59 or 60 seats from 2009 to 2011 — when Reid was majority leader — and there were a handful of Republicans in the Senate who in 2004 had voted to extend the 1994 assault-weapon ban, which prohibited the sale of a number of semiautomatic rifles, based largely on their cosmetic features, as well as magazines that hold more than ten rounds of ammunition. Yet Reid never brought an assault-weapon bill to the floor, much less engage in the kind of arm-twisting he used to pass Obamacare.

It wasn’t until 2013, when Republicans controlled the House, that Reid allowed a vote on an assault-weapon ban after the Sandy Hook massacre. At the time, Democrats controlled the upper chamber 55–45, but the ban received just 40 votes. Sixteen Democrats joined 44 Republicans to vote it down. Democratic senator Michael Bennet of Colorado, who voted against the ban, told me at the time: “I didn’t think that bill was carefully drawn.” Just one Republican who is no longer in the Senate (Mark Kirk of Illinois) voted for the ban.

The Senate also voted on a standalone measure co-sponsored by Bennet that would ban magazines that hold more than ten rounds of ammunition, but that too failed to get the support of a majority (only 46 senators backed it). Again, the filibuster was not to blame.

The reason why neither the assault-weapon ban nor a narrower ban on “high-capacity magazines” passed the Democratic Senate is simple: From 2004 to 2012, Democrats intentionally retreated on gun control because they believed this was necessary win elections. And a critical number of Democrats voted with Republicans to oppose most gun-control bills.

A charitable interpretation of this history is that pro-gun Democrats genuinely believed in the position they took on the issue and that Democratic leaders’ recruitment of pro-gun Democrats was simply a prudential judgment. But if Democrats like Joe Biden want to attack motives and blame “weak-willed leaders who care more about their campaign coffers than children in coffins” for the failure of gun control, they ought to look in the mirror first and do a little soul-searching.


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