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June 22 — The U.S. Senate's rejection of four pieces of gun control legislation after the largest mass shooting in American history came as no surprise to several historians.
It's the culmination of a move away from political consensus regarding the regulation of firearms and towards a highly polarized political landscape surrounding the issue over the last 100 years, two historians told Bloomberg BNA.
The June 20 vote was in stark contrast to the almost universal support gun control measures enjoyed from both parties over the first half of the 20th Century, the historians said. But it also falls in line with changes in the politics surrounding guns and gun control in more recent years.
“It's a pretty dramatic shift,” said Mark Byrnes, a professor and political historian at Wofford College. “Something has definitely happened in the last 40 years.”
Recent efforts to pass gun control measures have caused an uproar in Congress, with the U.S. Senate rejecting regulation legislation largely along party lines. Even a compromise bill put forth by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) fell short of the 60 votes needed to advance in the Senate.
Meanwhile, Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wisc.) is refusing to allow voting on a House bill mirroring the one crafted by Collins. In response, House Democrats staged a sit-in for more than 24 hours in an effort to get legislation on the floor for a vote.
But the first piece of modern gun control regulation in 1934 was so widely accepted, it likely passed using a voice vote. Approval of gun legislation since then has trended away from bipartisanship. Although the Gun Control Act of 1968 passed with the support of both parties, that dynamic flipped in 1994 to the more contemporary polarization, with Republicans broadly opposing regulation and most Democrats supporting it.
The gun control amendments to an appropriations bill focused on increased funding to run background checks on firearms purchases, bans on gun purchasing by suspected terrorists and the mentally ill, and closing the loophole that allows for firearm sales between individuals at gun shows without background checks.Gun Control Legislation
National Firearms Act of 1934, passed (no record available)
Gun Control Act of 1968, passed House 305-118, Senate 70-17
Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act (1993), passed House 238-189, Senate 63-36
Federal Assault Weapons Ban (1994), passed House 235-195, Senate 61-38
To address gun violence and improve the availability of records to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (2016), failed Senate 47-53
Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act of 2016, failed Senate 44-56
To Secure our Homeland from Radical Islamists by Enhancing Law enforcement Detection (2016), failed Senate 47-53
To Authorize the Attorney General to Deny Requests to Transfer a Firearm to Known or Suspected Terrorists (2016), failed Senate 47-53
The initiatives were put forth in response to a mass shooting at an Orlando nightclub early on June 12, killing 49 people and injuring 53.
The two separate bills that would have banned suspected terrorists from buying guns were proposed by Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), and each failed by seven votes. Of the four bills, votes broke down along party lines with most Senate Democrats blocking the two Republican-supported measures and most Republicans blocking the two authored by Democrats.
Four major pieces of legislation show just how much the politics surrounding the gun control debate have changed, Byrnes said.
The landmark weaponry regulation came in 1934 with the passage of the National Firearms Act, which required registration for machine guns and short-barrel shotguns and rifles and levied a $200 tax per firearm that heavily restricted purchases, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Byrnes said the bill was seen as a common-sense response to the rise of gun violence related to prohibition and organized crime in the 1920s—specifically the 1929 St. Valentine's Day Massacre that killed seven gang members in Chicago—and the 1933 assassination attempt of then President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt.
The bill, which likely passed by a voice vote, was met with almost no controversy because it was seen as “common-sense” legislation, Byrnes said. The only opposition evidence Byrnes said he found related to the practicality of enforcement, rather than a constitutional argument.
In fact, the National Rifle Association supported the 1934 legislation, said Saul Cornell, a professor and Second Amendment historian at Fordham University.
“That [legislation] is clearly a reaction to the fact that this means of self-protection was so self-evidently not being used for protection, but for crime by bootleggers and the mafia,” Byrnes said.
Similar political circumstances surrounded the Gun Control Act of 1968, which Byrnes said responded to the assassinations of former President John F. Kennedy in 1963 and Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy in 1968.
The 1968 legislation banned mail-order rifles and shotguns and prevented purchases for certain citizens, including convicted felons and minors ( 18 U.S.C. § 922).
The legislation wasn't generally contested by the NRA, Cornell said. Byrnes added that while the legislation wasn't unanimously supported, neither party came out in significant opposition to its passage.
In the Democratic majority Congress, the bill passed with 71 percent of the U.S. House of Representatives. The Senate passed it with 70 percent of the total vote. Democrats and Republicans supported the bill almost equally.
“Both parties seemed to be on the same page in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s,” Byrnes said.
Even former President Richard M. Nixon believed in strict handgun regulation and didn't see the need for any civilian to own firearms, both Byrnes and Cornell said.
However, the 1960s and 1970s were also a tumultuous time in American history with violent reactions to protests of the Vietnam War, Byrnes said. Many citizens felt like there was a breakdown in society and reacted in two different ways, he said.
“Some people saw the guns as a symbol of the breakdown in order and want to control the guns,” Byrnes. “Others saw it as that much more essential to own guns.”
When Congress passed the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act in 1993, the makeup of votes shows a wide berth between the parties, with mostly Democrats voting in support of the bill and mostly Republicans voting against it.
The cause behind that shift is a combination of politics and popular culture, according to Byrnes and Cornell.
In the 1970s, Cornell said there was “a radical takeover” at the NRA's leadership, changing the organization's focus to making the Second Amendment a “totemic ideal” of American civil rights.
It also wasn't until around 1976 that Byrnes said the right to bear arms even became part of the Republican Party's mainstream platform.
Additionally, popular culture saw many movie figures who fit into the category of “good guy with a gun taking on the system and setting things right,” Cornell said.
Figures like Rambo or John McClane in “Die Hard” were updates on the Lone Ranger character who used violence as a means for redemption, he explained. That contributed to Americans' feelings on gun control, causing them to think that individual access to guns can make them safer, Cornell said.
Meanwhile, Cornell said the issue of gun control became more localized with traditionally liberal parts of the country like the Northeast and West Coast passing stricter regulations and Midwestern and Southern states loosening their gun laws.
The country has been “sitting on two tectonic plates shifting in opposite directions,” Cornell said. “Part of America is drifting toward Europe and some are shifting away from the industrial West” in terms of regulation.
After former President Ronald Reagan left office, he became an advocate for handgun regulation under the Brady Bill—inspired by the assassination attempt on his life that also left his press secretary, Jim Brady, partially paralyzed—according to an opinion piece Reagan wrote for The New York Times in 1991.
“If [Reagan] was for something, it became more difficult for anyone to oppose it,” Byrnes said.
About 69 percent of House Republicans and 64 percent of Senate Republicans opposed the bill.
Later that same year, Congress passed the Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act—informally known as the Federal Assault Weapons Ban—with even greater margins of Republican opposition.
The Assault Weapons Ban expired in 2004. No significant legislation regulating guns has been passed since 1994.
The Senate's Monday votes broke down along clear party lines.
Senate Democrats blocked the two bills proposed by Republicans. On the bill put forth by Cornyn, all but two Democrats voted against it. Only one Democrat voted in favor of the bill introduced by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa).
When looking at the big picture, Byrnes said today's political landscape makes sense as the two political parties have become increasingly polarized and partisan.
“The parties themselves are much less diverse, ideologically,” he added.
Byrnes explained that the moderate liberal and conservative factions within the parties that tempered the extreme ideologies are gone.
“The only thing to say is that the vote reaffirmed the partisan divide on the issue,” Byrnes wrote in a follow-up e-mail June 21.
Cornell said he wasn't surprised by the votes, but thinks the conversation around the vote seems different than in recent history.
“More people are jumping on to support the idea that we have to do something,” he said.
Before the Internet, Cornell said that gun enthusiasts got together at gun shows to discuss how to get involved in the national debate, but a similar forum didn't exist for gun control advocates.
Thanks to social media, Cornell said that groups who typically haven't had a voice are able to educate advocates on how to get involved. Social media mobilization gave rise to advocacy groups like Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, he said.
Cornell said polling shows that gun regulation is one of the most important issues for mothers in America and social media helped them unify.
“[Mothers] are all doing 600 things at the same time, so without Facebook or e-mail, how would they learn how and where to counter the local NRA group?” Cornell explained. “This is a profound change. Moms are tipping ground in the battleground states.”
Cornell said he believed Congress would eventually pass new gun control laws, but wasn't sure when that might happen. He speculated that any such passage would have to wait until voters in the heartland feel that gun violence is a real threat.
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