Although the massacre of 20 children and six adults in a Newtown, Conn., school seems to have added impetus for reconsideration of gun laws, many of the elements that Yassky says were essential for victory in the close House battle have been absent in recent years. One glaring difference between the political landscape today and some 18 years ago: Democrats no longer control the House.
In 1994, Rahm Emanuel, President Bill Clinton’s then-political director, played a key role in wrangling votes; a coalition of police and sheriff’s groups, some from gun country, who supported new gun regulation offered lawmakers political cover; and there was strong leadership in Congress.
Yassky recalled how Schumer organized an effort to find votes in each region of the country, especially among members in pro-gun districts with enough popularity to survive an erosion of support. Schumer carried a list of five colleagues to lobby every time members met on the floor. Staffers spent months in substantive talks about which guns would and wouldn’t be covered. Concessions also played a role in fashioning a deal: The agreement to require the gun control measure to be renewed — or lapse — after 10 years brought a score of votes along. The central requirement though, Yassky said, was political courage.
“Maybe it’s obvious,” he said, “but you need some heroes from tough districts.”
In 1994, House Speaker Tom Foley (D-Wash.) hailed from a pro-gun district, as did Jack Brooks, the Democrat from gun-friendly Texas and the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. Neither was interested in the issue, and rather than push stand-alone legislation, Schumer had to offer the ban as an amendment to then-Sen. Joe Biden’s (D-Del.) crime bill. Most Republicans opposed the measure, and those who might have been theoretically favorable were loathe to hand Democrats a legislative victory.
After months of work, Schumer felt comfortable enough that the moment was ripe for a vote. After 15 minutes of tallying, the board showed a tied vote — not enough to prevail. Then Andrew Jacobs, a Democrat from a pro-gun district to Indiana who had initially voted against the measure, approached the well and changed his vote.