I voted for the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act in 1994, which contained the assault-weapons ban as well as other related crime and firearms legislation. It was a sweeping reform bill including increases in police forces and crucial funding for a number of important programs to help prevent and solve crime.
I would not hesitate to vote for it again. But that vote was one very significant reason that I lost my congressional seat in that year’s election.
Now, as the United States once again begins to question its gun regulations in the wake of a horrific tragedy of gun violence, I hope my story may offer instructive lessons on how to approach the issue.
During the months before the 1994 election, I authored, and President Clinton signed into law, legislation that provided product liability protection for small-airplane manufacturers. This legislation saved thousands of jobs in my district and across Kansas. Soon after the law was signed, Cessna Aircraft reopened its single-engine aircraft assembly line.
During the campaign, I was out in the district knocking on my constituents’ doors and I stopped by the home of a worker at one of those aircraft plants. He congratulated me on the bill and told me that I saved his job. You can imagine my amazement when the next thing he said to me was that he could not support me in the coming election.
Shocked, I asked him why, and his answer was simple. “Guns,” he said. He told me that using firearms was a key element of enjoying his life. And when I commented that I wasn’t interested in taking his guns away from him – and only wanted to stop the sale of assault weapons – he firmly told me that it was not my business to tell him what kinds of guns he should be able to purchase and use.
Over the next several weeks, that story was replicated many, many times in interactions with my constituents.
After the election was over, results showed that I did much worse than in previous elections in blue-collar and working-class neighborhoods in Wichita and in many farm and rural areas of my district.
Based on my experience, we need to recognize that large numbers of Americans view gun ownership as almost tantamount to their citizenship, and their views are deeply held and have strong cultural foundations. Political leaders should not be dissuaded from taking action on this issue, but we should not demonize the gun owner and we should recognize that the overwhelming majority are decent, law-abiding people.
Secondly, there must be recognition that this is a complicated problem, and it requires us to address not only certain types of gun manufacturing and ownership but also the mental health oversight and treatment infrastructure in the United States, as well as the culture of violence that seems to pervade the country.
Politicians, the media, law enforcement, military and veteran leaders, and the faith-based community need to form a partnership to lay the foundation for why reasonable regulations on weapons are not inconsistent with Second Amendment rights. Public education, particularly by credible authorities on gun issues, must be a key part of this effort.
However, the discussion on guns and violence should not minimize the threat that all Americans face from the improper and often indiscriminate use of the deadliest of these weapons when in the hands of severely mentally ill individuals. Just because there are many reasons for gun violence, that is no reason for inaction, and weapons themselves are indeed a major part of the problem as well as the solution.
We can make commonsense changes to our state and national gun laws while preserving the substance and precedent of the Second Amendment.