How Congress Screwed Up And Let The Assault Weapons Ban Expire

sandy hook elementary shooting
People embrace at a firehouse staging area for family around near the scene of a shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., about 60 miles (96 kilometers) northeast of New York City, Friday, Dec. 14, 2012. An official with knowledge of Friday’s shooting said 27 people were dead, including 18 children. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

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20-year-old Adam Lanza reportedly used a Bushmaster .223 rifle, a type of AR-15 semiautomatic rifle, to gun down 20 children in their first-grade classrooms on Friday.AR-15s were one of 18 semiautomatic weapons banned under a 1994 law that expired in 2004 despite broad public support and a drop in gun fatalities, USA Today reported at the time.

Since then, killers have used semiautomatics to target victims en masse at Virginia Tech; the Fort Hood military base; an Aurora, Colo. movie theatre; a Sikh temple in Wisconsin; and now an elementary school in Newtown, Conn..

So, why did Congress decide to let that assault weapons ban expire?

Well, it was 2004. Democrats had lost control of the House, so they were starting to feel shy about pushing for the assault weapons ban in an election year even though polls showed two-thirds of Americans supported it, The New York Times reported at the time.

One of those Americans supporting the ban had been George W. Bush, but he seemed disinclined to pressure Congress to renew the law.

“The president doesn’t set the Congressional timetable. Congress sets the timetable,” then-White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters, who asked what Bush was going to do to get the ban renewed.

Led by Tom DeLay, who called the ban “feel-good” legislation, the House failed to bring the legislation to the floor for debate or a vote, PBS reported at the time.

Gil Kerlikowske, who was at the time chief of police in Seattle, told PBS that Congress’ inaction sent a horrible message to the nation.

“The last thing we need are more military-style assault weapons on the streets of this country,” he said.