Clinton needed all the help he could get it. He got it from Reagan, who still carried great weight in the Republican Party, as well as Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. Their letter, in part, read:
This is a matter of vital importance to the public safety. While we 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. We urge you to listen to the American public and to the law enforcement community and support a ban on the further manufacture of these weapons.
The letter bearing their signatures made news. The Los Angeles Times reprinted the entire document, with the headline: “Plea From 3 Ex-Presidents.” (Noticeably absent: former president George H.W. Bush.)
In their appeal, the men pointed to a 1993 CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll that found that 77 percent of Americans endorsed a ban on the manufacture, sale and possession of semiautomatic assault weapons, including the AK-47.
Their letter cited the fact that over the previous five years, more than 40 law enforcement officers had been killed or injured in the line of duty by someone using an assault weapon.
Finally, they reminded lawmakers of a 1993 mass shooting in San Francisco, when a real estate speculator stepped into the offices of a law firm he had hired years earlier and fatally shot eight people and wounded six others using semiautomatic pistols.
For Reagan, the letter marked his continued evolution away from NRA orthodoxy.
Even after he was nearly assassinated in March 1981 by John W. Hinckley Jr. outside the Washington Hilton, Reagan opposed handgun restrictions. He even wanted to abolish the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the agency charged with enforcing gun laws.
But over the years, Reagan began shifting, particularly in the early 1990s when he pushed the so-called Brady bill, named after James S. Brady, his press secretary, who was also shot that day outside the Hilton and wound up partially paralyzed. The legislation required background checks for gun purchases from licensed dealers. In March 1991, Reagan wrote an op-ed in the New York Times, titled: “Why I’m for the Brady Bill.”
The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act was eventually passed in 1993, about a year before the fight over the assault weapons ban.
Even with the support of four presidents, the assault weapons vote in the House was a cliffhanger, passing 216-214 after one Indiana Democrat changed his “no” to a “yes.” Thirty-eight Republicans voted for the bill, including retiring House Minority Leader Robert Michel of Illinois.
For the next ten years, until the Republican-controlled House allowed the law to expire in 2004, the AK-47 and 18 other types of semiautomatic weapons could not be sold. During that decade, a researcher from the University of Massachusetts found that mass shootings totaling six or more deaths dropped. But once the ban was gone, they soared.
Now, two bills banning assault weapons are before Congress. They are co-sponsored by 195 Democrats and zero Republicans.