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Politics & Government

Gun Control Advocate Recalls Motivation For 1994 Assault Weapons Ban

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

One of the weapons used by the shooter in Orlando was an assault-style rifle. This style of gun was also used in San Bernardino, Sandy Hook, Aurora. The assault-style rifle is designed to maximize death and injury at short- and medium-range. It was developed for the battlefield. Later, it was adapted for the civilian market. The last time Congress moved to regulate civilian use of assault rifles was 1994 with the passage of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban. Tom Diaz was a part of that effort as a House committee lawyer focused on guns. He is now a gun-control advocate, and he's with us here in the studio. Thanks for being here.

TOM DIAZ: Thank you for having me.

MCEVERS: So let's go back to the '90s, then. What was it that motivated Washington to regulate these kinds of guns?

DIAZ: Well, I think this new class of firearms that people just weren't that familiar started appearing in two environments - one, some of the early mass shootings and, two - and probably more importantly for this legislation - on the street in criminal activity. And that motivated law enforcement to say this is a bad development.

MCEVERS: And so those who were behind this effort - what did they want to accomplish? I mean, what did the original proposal seek to do?

DIAZ: Well, the earliest proposals - because people didn't really understand the design characteristics - the earliest proposal was let's go after guns with specific names. So things like the Israeli Uzi, the AK-47, the AR-15 - these were names of guns that people could understand and say, oh, yeah, that's definitely one.

MCEVERS: Right. So people could say, oh, we don't like that one.

DIAZ: We don't like the Uzi.

MCEVERS: But that - was that problematic because it didn't include all of the weapons that people wanted to have included?

DIAZ: Yes, it was a problem because what's most important about this class of firearms are the design features. The military wanted a class of firearm - a rifle - that would be useful in modern combat - short-to-medium-range - and put out a lot of firepower. So there are certain features - design features in the guns - that no matter what you call them - tactical rifles, assault rifles, modern sporting rifles - they have those features. People at that time didn't completely understand that.

MCEVERS: And so the Federal Assault Weapons Ban had a sunset provision. It would expire 10 years later in when 2004. And when that happened, there wasn't really a strong movement to renew it. People saw it as a failure.

DIAZ: Well, it's fair to say that it was a failure because it was poorly drafted. It didn't cover these design features. That wasn't the focus of it. The focus of the law was the names that I talked about earlier, which you could easily evade by changing the name. And the other problem was that the legislation did something called grandfathering. It said - OK, everything that exists as of the date this law goes into effect is still legal. So you still had a tremendous market in pre-existing weapons.

MCEVERS: So do you think this experience with the assault weapons ban is one of the reasons that legislators are afraid to take up the issue of gun control now?

DIAZ: Well, it certainly makes it more difficult for them to take it up because people can say - and I think with some justification - well, the last time we tried, it didn't work. It didn't make any difference.

MCEVERS: If you look back in history, is there an example you can find where Congress was more effective in regulating guns?

DIAZ: Yes, absolutely. There's a law that's still on the books called the National Firearms Act. And it's interesting that it was passed for similar reasons at a similar time. This was in the early 1930s when organized crime - you know, Bonnie and Clyde...

MCEVERS: Al Capone.

DIAZ: ...Were running around with fully automatic weapons of war - machine guns and other things. And the Congress said, look, we have to stop this. And the avenue that they took was - we can't ban these guns. They were aware even then of, you know, the implications of the Second Amendment. So they said, we'll just tax them so that it won't be reasonable for people to have these, and we'll have a registration provision.

So the National Firearms Act, passed in 1934, said if you want to own a machine gun or any of these other listed types of weapons of war, you have to register both the person who's selling it, the person who's buying it. You have to pay a special tax. And you go through an intense law enforcement check - provide photographs, fingerprints, approval of your local sheriff or police chief, who says, no, this person's not known to me to be bad.

Later on in the 1980s, the Congress amended that law and said now, as of this date, no more machine guns - new production machine guns - can be sold to civilians. So I think that provided a useful model to think about in these times.

MCEVERS: Did it work?

DIAZ: Well, it's worked quite well, which is not to say that there aren't people who use machine guns or sawed-off shotguns. But certainly the kind of wide-open violence with machine guns and other weapons of war that we saw in the early '30s - that was stopped.

MCEVERS: That was Tom Diaz. He worked on the 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban, and he has spent his career since advocating for better gun control. Tom Diaz, thank you.

DIAZ: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.