How the NRA and Gun Makers Got Around the Last Ban on Assault Rifles

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How the NRA and Gun Makers Got Around the Last Ban on Assault Rifles
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How the NRA and Gun Makers Got Around the Last Ban on Assault Rifles

Those following the gun control legislation bubbling up on Capitol Hill must be getting a lot of déjà vu, since similar legislation made its way through Congress 20 years ago. We're specifically talking about the ban on assault rifles that was supported by Sen. Diane Feinstein in 1994 and a new one she says she'll introduce in 2013. Thanks largely to the National Rifle Association (NRA) and others in the gun lobby, Feinstein's original ban expired in 2004 but not before gun manufacturers came up with all kinds of ways to get around the law, leaving some to wonder if it was even effective in the first place. How'd they do that? Let us count the ways. 

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The very sobering reality of the story behind the assault rifle ban is that it came about after an event much like last week's devastating shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. As New York Times reporters Michael Luo and Michael Cooper recount in a story due to appear on the front page of Thursday's paper, a "troubled drifter" with an assault rifle opened fire on a California elementary school playground in January 1989, killing five children between the ages of 6 and 9 and injuring 29 others. Feinstein and a phalanx of senators got to work right away on gun control legislation that would ban the weapons, characterized by combat-type features like pistol grips, flash suppressors and large-capacity magazines that are easy to reload. It took them five years to get the law passed, and by that point in time, the gun industry had already made most of the adjustments that would allow them to continue selling the same assault rifle-like weapons with the ban in place.

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A lot happened in DC during those five years. Two Democrats, Ohio Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum and Arizona Sen. Dennis DeConcini, introduced bills that would ban assault rifles that floundered under pressure from the gun lobby, despite DeConcini having once been named the NRA's "legislator of the month." Speaking of the NRA, the powerful organization was busy elsewhere in Washington strong-arming organizations into halting research into gun violence. They eventually helped pass a bill that stripped the Centers for Disease Control of $2.6 million in funding, a sum that happened to be the exact budget for its firearms research. Somewhat short on research and struggling to win support, the anti-assault rifle senators eventually got the ban passed by tacking it onto a 1993 crime bill, under Feinstein's leadership.

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The ban was hardly absolute, many say, thanks in part to the crushing pressure of the gun lobby. For instance, it didn't do anything about the 1.5 million assault rifles that were already on the streets and couldn't control the flow of high-capacity magazines which were legal to import if they were manufactured before the ban. The ban also allowed for plenty of wiggle room within the definition of "assault rifle." As The Times points out, the ban defined an assault rifle "as one able to accept a detachable magazine and that includes at least two other combat-type features." Gun manufacturers started tweaking specifications, like adding a somewhat hard-to-access button to release the clip which mean it was not detachable according to federal law.

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We don't know what Feinstein's new law will look like yet, but it's probably safe to say it's be dragged through the trenches just like the 1994 ban was. The trenches will be messy for everybody, too, not just the lawmakers. Take it from Garen Wintemute, director of the Violence Prevention Research Program at the U.C. Davis, who's spent much of the past two decades researching gun violence. "There was a time when federal law enforcement agents recommended that I wear a ballistic vest," he told Slate. "There is a wanted poster on the Internet."

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