Gun Rights Under President Bill Clinton

An Examination of the Clinton Administration's Impact on the Second Amendment

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The administration of President Bill Clinton represented a significant shift in Democratic presidential politics in the United States. Clinton, an Arkansas governor who defeated Republican George H.W. Bush in the 1992 election, became the first Democratic presidential candidate to campaign on promises of stricter gun laws. With the exception of Lyndon B. Johnson, who made gun control a focal point of his administration upon assuming the presidency after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, gun politics had not been a central part of any presidential administration.

In what might have been gun control advocates’ brightest hour on the federal stage, Clinton lobbied for two major pieces of gun control legislation and used his executive authority to usher in additional gun control measures in what was viewed as a major setback for gun rights.

The Brady Bill

The Brady Bill, which made it more difficult to purchase a handgun, was a hallmark of the Clinton presidency. First introduced in 1987, the Brady Bill was named for President Ronald Reagan’s press secretary, John Brady, who was wounded in an attempt to assassinate Reagan in 1981.

Brady’s wife, Sarah Brady, became a major proponent of gun control legislation following the assassination attempt, which left her husband partially but permanently paralyzed. Despite the backing of Reagan, various versions of the Brady Bill did not come seriously close to passing until the Bush administration, when Bush vetoed a version of the legislation passed by Congress.

After defeating Bush in 1992, Clinton lobbied the House and Senate to send the bill back to the White House again. Congress obliged, and Clinton signed the Brady Bill into law on Nov. 30, 1993, less than one year into his presidency. The bill created a mandatory five-day waiting period after handgun purchases and required local law enforcement to run background checks on purchasers.

Assault Weapons Ban

Emboldened by the success of the Brady Bill, Clinton next turned his sights on an assault weapons ban, another gun control battle that had been simmering since the mid-1980s. By late summer in 1994, legislation enacting such a ban was making serious headway in Congress. On Sept. 13, 1994, Clinton signed the Assault Weapons Ban into law as part of the 1994 Crime Bill.

Targeting semi-automatic weapons bearing characteristics of military guns, the AWB banned a wide range of weapons, such as the AK-47 and the AR series of rifles. Among guns outlawed by the AWB were any that included two or more of a list of characteristics ranging from telescoping stocks to bayonet mounts.

Executive Measures

While a Republican takeover of the House of Representatives in the 1994 midterm election hampered efforts by the Clinton White House to usher in more gun control measures, Clinton turned to his executive powers several times during his second term to tighten down on gun ownership.

One such measure was an order banning the importation of more than four dozen makes of assault weapons, such as variations of the AK-47. The order, signed in 1998, targeted the importation of guns that were not subjected to the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban.

Another measure was an order in the eleventh hour of Clinton’s presidency banning the importation of certain makes of so-called “assault pistols,” such as Uzis, and requiring firearms dealers to submit to fingerprinting and background checks.

Finally, the White House reached a deal with firearms giant Smith & Wesson in which Clinton promised an end to civil lawsuits against the gun manufacturer in exchange for Smith & Wesson outfitting its guns with trigger locks and agreeing to implement “smart gun” technology within two years.

Gun Crackdowns Rendered Toothless

While the National Rifle Association and most American gun owners lamented the gun policies of the Clinton administration, time and the courts have rendered most of those stricter gun measures ineffective.

Parts of the Brady Bill were struck down as unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2007 (although the five-day wait would have been rendered a moot point with the establishment of a national instant background check system, which soon followed). The Assault Weapons Ban was allowed to expire in 2004 when Congress failed to take up legislation that would have extended the ban or made it permanent, and Clinton’s predecessor, George W. Bush, did not lobby for the extension. And a combination of new ownership at Smith & Wesson and a Bush administration crackdown on lawsuits aimed at gun manufacturers ultimately crippled the Clinton administration’s agreement with Smith & Wesson, as the gun-maker backed out of most of the agreement’s provisions, including a pledge to invest in smart gun technology.

The Clinton administration’s only lasting impact on gun rights are the lack of certain imports of foreign semiautomatic rifles and background checks for handgun purchases. Ironically, it was those early victories that had lost much of their effectiveness within 10 years that prevented Clinton from pushing through what might have been longer-lasting gun control measures during his second term. The Brady Bill and Assault Weapons Ban were blamed for the defeat of several Democrats who voted for them as Republicans took control of the House in 1994. As a result, Clinton’s gun control priorities in the latter years of his presidency were never able to meet the muster of Republican opposition. Among them were requirements for child trigger locks, a three-day waiting period for gun show purchases and high capacity magazine bans.