In 1994, Congress passed a ban on assault weapons. It was only for 10 years. By the time it came up for renewal in 2004, the National Rifle Association and its allies had marshaled their arguments that the ban wasn’t effective. They called it “cosmetic.” Their mantra: guns don’t kill, people do.
Senator Diane Feinstein claimed the ban was effective because "It was drying up supply and driving up prices." Scholars argued that if the ban had been in effect for a longer time, clear evidence of benefits would begin to appear.
Bills to reinstate the ban were introduced regularly. Routinely, they never got out of committee. It was a victory for guns rights advocates, heavily influenced by the NRA, one of the country’s most powerful and influential lobbies.
After his election in 2008, Barack Obama put reinstatement of the ban on the sale of assault weapons as an item on his first term agenda. No action was taken.
During the 2012 presidential election, a plan to control gun violence was not raised by any of the candidates.
The politics of guns are rooted in American culture. According to the NRA, there are more than 20,000 gun laws in the United States. In the years following the expiration of the federal ban on assault weapons, the NRA and other pro-gun organizations influenced state legislatures and local government agencies to liberalize gun rights even more. Among other things, it is legal to carry concealed weapons in most areas of the United States.
Those who defend the right to carry guns and fight proposals to control possession and use of guns are well organized. They consider the right to defend oneself with a gun as part of the American identity going back to the country’s frontier history.
Gun violence seems to have escalated in 2012, with multiple mass shootings at a mall this week in Oregon, and in a Sikh Temple in Wisconsin and a movie theater in Colorado earlier. The need for legislation banning the use of assault weapons was raised after each tragedy, but there was no sense of urgency to do something, anything.
After Friday’s horrific shooting at a school in Newtown, Connecticut, fresh calls for action are being heard among the tears of anguish and sorrow. The President acknowledged this in calling for "meaningful action," although he did not specify a call for stricter gun control.
"We're going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this regardless of the politics," Obama said.
The key phrase is “regardless of the politics.” The forces against new laws to control gun possession and use are well aligned and well funded. Congress will act only if it recognizes a rising anger and demand for action from grassroots groups and citizens across the country.
Bob Giles, a long-time newspaper editor, is former curator of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard and is commentary editor for GlobalPost.