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How the NRA Went From Best Friend of the Nation's Police to Harsh Enemy of Law Enforcement

As it became more unwilling to compromise over even minor gun controls, the NRA is now on the bad side of police.

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The Backlash

Today, the conventional political wisdom is that the two gun-control laws passed by Democrats and signed by President Bill Clinton in his first term—an assault weapons ban in 1993 and a week-long waiting period for gun buyers in 1994 (the Brady Bill)—led to the Republican takeover of the House in 1994 with the help of a vengeful NRA. That narrative has frequently been cited by a generation of congressional Democrats who didn’t want to support new gun laws and invoke the NRA’s wrath.

But that storyline is missing some big historical elements, namely, that the backlash against the NRA’s uncompromising tactics and rhetoric included key Republicans, from House members who were put off by shrill NRA mailings to their districts to the George H.W. Bush administration, which started the push for banning assault rifles.

Nearly a year before Bush became president in 1989, Reagan’s Secretary of Education, William Bennett, who would become President Bush’s drug czar, proposed banning military-style semi-automatic weapons. These were not as fully automated as machine guns, which were illegal, but they could rapidly fire a stream of single bullets. At this same time, the first version of the Brady Bill was introduced in the House, creating a one-week waiting period for gun buyers to pick up a gun. The idea was to prevent someone from buying a gun in a passionate moment and then using it.

In typical fashion, the NRA sent overly shrill letters to its members in congressional districts of representatives who supported the bill. The letter to Wisconsin Republican F. James Sensenbrenner Jr.’s district said the proposed bill would “impose total, strict gun control on all America.” Sensenbrenner was so annoyed he wrote a letter to all House members calling the NRA mailings “misleading” and “inflammatory.”

Then, three days before George H.W. Bush’s inauguration in January 1989, that era experienced its version of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre: a lone gunman walked into a grade-school playground in Stockton, California, and began firing a civilian version of the AK-47 military rifle, killing five children. The incident prompted immediate calls for state and federal bans on this type of weapon.

Then, as today, the NRA said the problem was not access to military-style rifles, but a criminal justice system that did not identify and lock up the shooter. But what began that spring led to the final passage of the Clinton-era assault rifle ban. State legislatures and city councils were quicker to act than Congress and started passing laws banning this category of gun. The supposedly all-powerful NRA was powerless to stop them.

On his first day on the job as Bush’s drug czar that spring, Bennett and the Treasury Department ordered a ban on importing 29 types of assault rifles. That blocked 80 percent of this style of gun coming in from overseas (although most in Americans’ hands were made domestically). Within days, the gunmaker Colt said it would stop making the AR-15, the civilian version of its M-16 rifle used in Vietnam. The Bush administration later expanded its import ban to 43 models. First Lady Barbara Bush said the assault weapons “absolutely” should be banned.

While this was unfolding, Dennis DeConcini, a Democratic Arizona senator who was a former prosecutor and had a top NRA rating, was asked by police organizations to co-sponsor a bill that would ban and confiscate the assault-style guns from current owners. DeConcini, whose father was a state Supreme Court judge, declined, but as Davidson writes, he was forced to decide who to back: the police or the NRA. In April 1989, he sponsored a bill banning future sales of several semi-automatic guns, domestic and imported, but allowed current owners to keep their guns. (Sen. Feinstein's bill introduced Thursday follows this template.)