When the original assault weapons ban was considered nearly three decades ago, Congress’ partisan lines were a bit messier than they are now. For example, 77 House Democrats opposed the bill, while 38 House Republicans voted for it. The result was a narrow, 216 to 214 victory.
Late last week, when the newest version of the policy reached the floor, the parties were far more united. NBC News reported:
The House passed legislation Friday that would ban assault weapons for the first time since 2004, in a sign that Democrats intend to pursue more aggressive gun violence prevention measures after a spate of mass shootings.... The legislation, authored by Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., would criminalize the knowing sale, manufacture, transfer, possession or importation of many types of semi-automatic weapons and large-capacity ammunition feeding devices.
The final tally was 217 to 213. Five Democrats opposed the ban, which might've been enough to block the legislation were it not for two Republicans — Pennsylvania’s Brian Fitzpatrick and New York’s Chris Jacobs — who broke ranks and voted for the bill. (Jacobs, you might recall, endorsed an assault weapons ban after the recent racist mass shooting in Buffalo. A partisan backlash from the GOP base soon after forced him to announce his retirement.)
All of which leads to a sentence that I’ve typed so many times, I can practically do it while sleeping: The popular bill now heads to the Senate, where it will face an inevitable Republican filibuster. How many Capitol Hill observers believe it’s realistic to think 10 GOP senators will allow members to vote on the assault weapons ban? None. The votes simply aren’t there.
But before proponents grudgingly accept the political realities and turn their attention elsewhere, it’s worth taking a moment to reminisce about the circumstances that led to the passage of the original assault weapons ban in Bill Clinton’s first term.
The original ban was championed in the Senate by Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, who pushed the policy as an amendment to a larger criminal justice package. On Nov. 17, 1993, it passed 56 to 43, fueled in part by 10 Republican votes.
Some readers are probably thinking, “Wait, how could the measure have passed with only 56 votes? Didn’t it need 60?” The answer is, no, it didn’t need 60 — and therein lies the point of this stroll down memory lane.
In 2022, filibusters requiring supermajorities are the norm for every bill in which the tactic can be applied, but what often goes overlooked, even by some sitting senators who apparently don’t know better, is that the Senate didn’t used to work this way. The routinization of the 60-vote threshold is a modern invention wholly at odds with the institution’s historical norms.
Indeed, Feinstein’s assault weapons ban was approved by a simple majority because it wasn’t filibustered. As recently as 1994, most bills were considered on majority-rule votes.
Consider the relevant data: In the first two years of Clinton’s presidency, there were 46 cloture votes — and by historical standards up until that time, that was a fairly large number. So far in the current Congress — which still has several months remaining — there have been 262 cloture votes.
Taking a look back at the way in which the original assault weapons ban passed is like looking through a window at an unrecognizable political landscape: Not only were there 10 Republican senators willing to help pass a worthwhile gun bill intended to save lives, but the Senate itself was willing to consider the legislation as if were still a majority-rule institution.
When opponents of Senate reforms insist that the status quo must be maintained, it’s important to remember that they’re protecting abuses, not norms. The current system too often fails to meet the nation’s needs, not because of design flaws in the Senate, but because the Senate itself no longer resembles the chamber it once was.