In 1994, former Presidents Gerald R. Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan endorsed a House bill that would ban the sale of certain automatic weapons. The bipartisan support for the legislation is in stark contrast to the modern state of U.S. gun policy.
In the spring of 1994, Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California authored a bill that would ban the manufacture and sale of 19 varieties of semi-automatic assault weapons. Having already passed in the Senate, the bill faced a steep challenge of receiving enough votes in the House, according to the Los Angeles Times.
A similar bill had been overwhelmingly swatted down in 1991. Then-sitting President Bill Clinton championed Feinstein’s new legislation and was aided by the support of three former commanders-in-chief, two of them Republican.
Carter, Ford and Reagan all signed an open letter addressed to the House voicing their support of the assault weapons ban on May 3, 1994.
Former President Richard Nixon had died less than two weeks earlier. President George H.W. Bush, the only other living former president at the time, had declined to lend his name to the letter.
“We are writing to urge your support for a ban on the domestic manufacture of military-style assault weapons,” the letter read. “This is a matter of vital importance to public safety.”
The three presidents cited the outsized role the firearms played in shootings, pointing out, “Although assault weapons account less than 1 percent of the guns in circulation, they account for nearly 10 percent of the guns traced to crime.”
The three former presidents added, “Every major law enforcement organization in America and dozens of leading labor, medical, religious, civil rights and civic groups support such a ban.”
The letter concluded that while Carter, Ford and Reagan “recognize that assault weapon legislation will not stop all assault weapon crime, statistics prove that we can dry up the supply of these guns, making them less accessible to criminals.”
The House did pass Feinstein’s bill and President Clinton signed it into law, banning a variety of assault weapons including the AR-15, a semi-automatic rifle that had been designed for military combat. The ban lasted for a decade until Congress allowed it to lapse in 2004, according to The Huffington Post.
As of June 14, 2016, Democratic lawmakers have renewed their calls to reintroduce an assault weapons ban following the massacre of 49 people in Orlando, Florida, on June 12. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, who had been the first lady in 1994, currently leads the charge.
“We can’t fall into the trap that is set up by the gun lobby that says if you can’t stop every shooting in every incident you should not try to stop any,” Clinton told CNN. “We did have an assault weapons ban for 10 years. I think it should be reinstated.”
The 29-year-old man who killed dozens in an Orlando nightclub reportedly used a .223 Sig Sauer MCX, an AR-15-style rifle. Variations of the AR-15 were used in the Aurora movie theater shooting in Colorado, the San Bernardino terrorist attack in California and the Newtown elementary school massacre in Connecticut.
Republican lawmakers are unlikely to support an assault weapons ban that would prohibit the manufacture and sale of weapons such as the AR-15.
In 2013, the National Rifle Association effectively lobbied against a movement towards an assault weapons ban following the Sandy Hook Elementary school massacre. The NRA currently bills the AR-15 as “America’s rifle.”
GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump has vowed to oppose any gun control measures. The business mogul suggested the Orlando massacre would not have occurred if the nightclub patrons had been armed themselves.
“If you had guns in that room ... you wouldn’t have had the same kind of tragedy,” Trump said.