At 3 a.m. on July 2, 1993, Steve Sposato sat down in his darkened living room to write, by hand, a letter to the president of the United States. His life had just been shattered.
Hours earlier, in the afternoon, a deranged man armed with semiautomatic weapons had gone on a rampage, slaughtering eight people at an office building in downtown San Francisco. The gunman’s motive would remain forever a mystery. Among the slain: Steve’s wife, 30-year-old Jody Jones Sposato, the mother of his 10-month-old daughter, Meghan.
After a week of silence in the wake of the Newtown shootings, the National Rifle Association finally spoke out Friday defending guns and decrying violence. The NRA’s Wayne LaPierre called for schools to be protected with armed guards, as are sports stadiums, the President of the United States and government buildings.
Explore a breakdown of gun homicides and gun ownership
His anguished letter to the president asked how it was possible for someone to possess rapid-fire weapons with 30-round magazines, seemingly designed to kill as many people as possible as quickly as possible. “Now I’m left to raise my 10-month-old daughter on my own,” he told the president. “How do I find the strength to carry on?”
That letter reached President Bill Clinton. The next year, Sposato stood by Clinton’s side in the Rose Garden as the president demanded that Congress pass a ban on assault weapons, such as the TEC-9s used to kill Sposato’s wife. Sposato testified on the Hill wearing little Meghan on his back in a baby carrier.
With some moderate Republicans joining the Democratic majority, both houses of Congress passed a 10-year ban on the sale of assault weapons and large ammunition magazines. An attempt to extend the ban in 2004 died in Congress amid opposition from the gun lobby.
Now gun control has roared back into the national conversation as the country reels from the horror in Newtown, Conn. President Obama and his fellow Democrats are vowing to pass a new assault weapons ban, along with other new laws to strengthen background checks on gun purchasers and limit the size of ammunition magazines.
But although Newtown has supercharged the conversation on how to stop another massacre, the history of gun control is a cautionary tale for those who push for more regulations. If past is prologue, the legislative fights ahead will be protracted and brutal — and any resulting legislation may well be riddled with loopholes.
There is no uncontested ground here. Few issues in the country are as polarized as gun control.
The ideological chasm was on full display in Washington on Friday when the National Rifle Association’s executive vice president, Wayne LaPierre, held a take-no-prisoners news conference in which he called for a federal program to put armed guards in every school in the country, saying, “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”
He said laws making schools gun-free zones have backfired: “They tell every insane killer in America that schools are the safest place to inflict maximum mayhem with minimum risk.” LaPierre’s remarks were twice interrupted by protesters; one held a sign saying, “NRA Killing Our Kids.”
The news conference provided a reminder that gun policy is a central feature of what is loosely known as the culture wars. The gun-control and gun-rights camps don’t even speak the same language, with one side arguing that the Second Amendment can’t possibly mean the right to own an assault weapon, while the other side says “assault weapon” is a pejorative invented by an urban elite that wouldn’t know an AR-15 from an AK-47.