Many tragedies ago, the late U.S. Rep. Andy Jacobs Jr., D-Indiana, told me about a tough vote he’d cast on guns.
It was on the 1994 federal assault weapons ban. Among other things, that law limited the size of the magazines that could be bought or sold.
Congress considered the measure in the aftermath of a mass shooting considered horrific at the time.
A disturbed man began shooting passengers on the Long Island Rail Road when it pulled into the station at Garden City, New York. He shot 25 people and killed six. The killing stopped when the shooter was forced to reload. Some passengers realized that and jumped on him.
That was what persuaded Andy – we were friends and he was a good man, so I’m going to use his first name – to vote in favor of the ban.
It wasn’t an easy decision for him.
He believed the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution did guarantee an individual right to bear arms. But he also believed that no individual right was absolute, particularly if the exercise of that right compromised or violated the rights of other individuals.
Where to draw the line? That was the question.
The political pressure was intense.
The National Rifle Association had completed its transformation from being an organization promoting fellowship among outdoorsmen into becoming the high-pressure lobbying arm of the weapons industry. Its mission was to promote the free-and-easy sale of firearms and weapons paraphernalia, regardless of how deadly those things might be.
The NRA vowed to target all lawmakers who supported the ban.
The vote was close in the House, 216-214.
Some news reports said Andy cast the deciding vote.
He voted the way he did, Andy told me, because he thought about what it must have been like for the passengers on that Long Island commuter train. When the shooter had to stop to reload, the other passengers had a chance to subdue him.
Which they did.
And the killing ended.
Andy said the assault weapons ban was an imperfect but effective solution in an imperfect world. It preserved the individual’s right to own a gun. But it also limited the harm deranged individuals could inflict on their fellow human beings.
In other words, he sought out a way to balance rights and constitutional duties. His was exactly the kind of nuanced and thoughtful reasoning now impossible in the supercharged, highly partisan politics of today.
The assault weapons ban was in effect from 1994 to 2004. By 2004, the NRA owned enough votes to keep it from being renewed.
Did the ban end gun violence in America?
It didn’t even end mass shootings. One of the worst – the massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado – took place while the ban was in effect.
But, overall, there were fewer mass shootings than there were before the ban took effect – and far fewer than we see today. In fact, there were a couple of years during that decade-long period when no mass shootings occurred.
We’ve just experienced another horrible weekend in America. Two disturbed individuals opened fire on crowds of innocent people in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio. Between them, they killed nearly 30 people. Dozens more were injured.
In both cases, the shooters used weapons with high-capacity magazines of the sort the assault weapons ban outlawed.
That’s not surprising.
The five deadliest mass shootings in American history all have occurred since the assault weapons ban ended.
President Donald Trump and his NRA-backed allies say guns aren’t the issue. Mental health is.
The president’s critics say Trump has increased the likelihood of deadly violence through regular appeals to hate.
Both sides have a point.
But they both also evade a key question.
If there are so many disturbed people in states of increased rage, why should we make it easy for them to get weapons that allow them to kill others by the dozen or even the hundred in little more than a heartbeat?
The crisis we Americans face now requires the sort of thoughtful, balanced leadership Andy Jacobs provided during the assault weapons ban struggle.
It’s a pity there are so few leaders like Andy around now.