WASHINGTON — Nearly 25 years ago, Colin Ferguson stalked through a Long Island Rail Road train as it pulled into the Merillon Avenue station, killing six and wounding 19 with a Ruger P89 9 mm pistol — an act that sent shock waves through New York and the nation.
That 1993 rampage occurred amid an extraordinary two-year period of soaring crime, spiking gun murders and mass public shootings that spurred Congress to pass the strictest gun laws in a generation: the Brady Act gun-buyer background checks and an assault weapon ban.
Since then, Congress has enacted few major gun control bills, shifting the struggle over guns to the states, where New York and some other legislatures toughened their firearms laws while many others loosened restrictions on carrying guns.
Yet this year, there are national echoes of 1993 and 1994.
After a gunman killed 17 people with an AR-15 rifle on Feb. 14 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, a student crusade and a decade’s worth of work by gun-safety groups has set the stage for what could be a showdown in the Nov. 6 election.
On Friday, the chances that gun policy will be a factor in the midterms grew after a reported nine students and a teacher were gunned down at Santa Fe High School near Houston, and authorities took into custody a student suspect and found explosives in the school.
The election will determine if Republicans retain control of the House and Senate or if Democrats will regain it and try to pass legislation to expand background checks and risk protection orders to keep guns out of dangerous hands — or even reinstate an assault weapon ban.
“We think this election can be a game-changer,” said Avery Gardiner, co-president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, a gun-control group that dates back to the 1970s and helped pass those landmark gun laws.
Chris Cox, the political director of the powerful National Rifle Association, took note.
“This is probably the biggest challenge we’ve had in 147 years,” Cox said in early May. “The other side is energized, they’re mobilizing, they have unlimited resources and they’re not nibbling around the edges anymore.”
The NRA did not respond to requests for an interview.
Political pundits and party strategists suggest that gun control likely will not be the overarching factor this fall; that other issues such as immigration, tax cuts and the leadership of President Donald Trump loom larger.
And recent history shows that the NRA, by marshaling its vast funds and devoted single-issue voters, has long held sway in most red state congressional elections and in the halls of Congress — and now in the White House with Trump.
But University of Virginia politics professor Larry Sabato gave credit to the young people at Parkland for keeping the issue alive. “They’re the only reason,” he said, “that we’re having this conversation at all.”
The LIRR shooting occurred on Dec. 7, 1993, seven days after President Bill Clinton signed the Brady Act into law — named after James Brady, who was shot in 1981 while he was press secretary to President Ronald Reagan — and nine months before he signed the assault weapon ban, which was the most sweeping gun-control laws passed since the 1968 Gun Control Act, 25 years earlier.
Congress acted just as crime and homicides hit the tail end of a two-decade peak, spurred in part by the crack epidemic, and a string of mass public shootings that jolted the public, already alarmed about the chance of falling victim to a violent criminal.
That fear led a high point of 67 percent of Americans to tell the Gallup Poll in 1993 that they favored stricter gun laws, a sentiment both parties in Congress heard loud and clear.
The bills passed with bipartisan majorities as Clinton and Democrats spent political capital on the tough fight to overcome opposition by the NRA and most Republican lawmakers.
Yet in the 1994 midterm elections, Democrats paid a price for those laws — they lost their majorities in the House and Senate, giving Republicans control of Congress for the first time in 40 years. Clinton blamed gun control.
Since then, Republicans have controlled the House for 20 years and the Senate for 15 years. Partisanship has grown and the NRA has aligned almost entirely with the GOP — its political arm contributed to 99 Democrats in 1992, but only four in 2016.
Congress blocked gun control bills but passed an NRA-backed ban on gun violence research and a limit on crime gun tracing. And it let the assault weapon ban expire.
The LIRR shooting launched the political career of gun control activist Carolyn McCarthy, whose husband was killed and son seriously wounded. But when she retired after nine terms in the House in 2014, she had passed one gun-control law, to improve background checks — which passed only with NRA approval.
Gun safety advocate Jim Kessler, a policy expert at the centrist Third Way think tank who was a legislative aide involved in the passage of the Brady Act, insisted that this year is closer to the extraordinary years of 1993 and 1994 than the other years, though in a different way.
The NRA now faces not only the Brady Campaign, he said, but newer and well-funded groups such as Everytown for Gun Safety, founded by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and those born of mass shootings: Giffords Law Center and PAC, and Sandy Hook Promise.
Those groups have had some success in recent campaigns, helping defeat a pro-gun incumbent, Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), while aiding the re-election of Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), a sponsor of a bipartisan bill to close the gun show and online sales loophole, he said.
The crime and gun murders that caused public outcry for action in the early 1990s steeply declined over the years. Now, Kessler said, the public is concerned about the prospect of being randomly shot in a mass public shooting.
Since 2007, the rate of those shootings rose to nearly the peak level of the late 1980s and early 1990s, with an unprecedented severity, said criminologist Grant Duwe, research director for the Minnesota Department of Corrections and author of “Mass Murder in the United States: A History.” Since 1993, eight of the 10 most lethal shootings have occurred since 2007 — including three since September.
In March, after the Parkland shootings, the Gallup Poll found that 67 percent of those surveyed supported stricter gun laws — for the first time since 1993.
“What’s happened in the last few years, so many of the mass shootings which pulled on people’s heartstrings, particularly Sandy Hook and Parkland, we may be getting back to the level that we were in ’93 and ’94,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), sponsor of the Brady Act and now Senate minority leader.
Unless Congress passes additional gun bills with the help of “thoughtful Republicans” before the midterms, Schumer said, “I think it will be a major issue in 2018, the way it hasn’t been in years.”
Driving public attention to gun policy are the Parkland shootings and the student campaign it spurred, propelling David Hogg, Emma Gonzales and other students to prominence with school walkouts, the March for Our Lives rallies and social media — aimed at their peers.
“For this generation, Parkland and Sandy Hook, that’s their 9/11. And it’s their moment, this is where they woke up to something,” Kessler said. The gun issue, he said, could be like environmentalism was for earlier generations as an entree into political participation.
Already, the school shootings and the failure of authorities in the Parkland attack to stop the accused 19-year-old from acting despite his family’s and friends’ warnings he was dangerous and armed has led to the passage of more gun-control laws in Congress and Florida than in the past decade.
The students have taken aim at the NRA and have made their campaign about getting registered to vote and then voting to oust candidates aligned with it.
“It is absolutely critical that the morning after Election Day the stories say these members lost their seats because they opposed gun control, and these candidates were elected because they supported gun control,” said Richard Aborn, president of the Citizens Crime Commission of New York City, who led Handgun Control Inc., now the Brady Campaign, in the early 1990s.
In response to the Parkland students’ media presence, the NRA recently announced a new high-profile president: Fox News contributor Oliver North, the former Marine who became a conservative icon for his involvement in the Iran-Contra affair in the 1980s.
“There are people running in fear from what happened down in Parkland thinking that the NRA is on its heels. It’s not,” North told the Washington Times. “What we have to do is assure them that being associated with the NRA is a good thing for their re-election chances.”
The election will determine if the NRA again will prevail, or if Parkland, Santa Fe and the gun issue will draw more young people, and adults, to vote.
David Meyer, a University of California, Irvine, sociologist specializing in social movements, said young people don’t usually vote the first time they can. And historically they don’t show up for midterm elections. But he said he could see a higher turnout this year.
“I would not expect to see this massive shift where opinion moves like 15 points one direction or another,” Meyer said, but it could affect some key suburban districts. That tracks the assessment of the Democratic and Republican House campaigns, and some political pundits.
Even if there is a blue wave in the midterm elections that gives Democrats majorities in the House and Senate, their promise to act on the gun control agenda still would face resistance and filibusters by Senate Republicans and a president with veto power.
Trump may have flirted with gun safety proposals after Parkland, but he sought to reassure the NRA when he addressed its annual convention earlier this month.
“Your Second Amendment rights are under siege,” Trump told the cheering audience, “but they will never, ever be under siege as long as I’m your president.”
Gardiner acknowledged those hurdles but promised gun control groups would match the NRA’s persistence: “We’re in it for the long run.”
Seven key trends
WASHINGTON — The national debate on gun policy over the past 25 years has been shaped by seven key trends, a review of data shows.
- Firearm homicides and the homicide rate have dropped sharply nationally, with a slight uptick recently, and plummeted in New York State, FBI and New York data show.
- Mass public shootings have continued sporadically, but since 2007 have become more frequent and lethal nationally. Eight of the 10 most deadly incidents have happened since 2007, including three since September, according to a Washington Post list contributed to by criminologist Grant Duwe.
- Gun availability in the United States has grown, especially in the last decade, through manufacture and import of handguns, rifles and other firearms, according to federal data.
- An increasing number of people have bought guns nationally and in New York, as indicated by reporting by the FBI National Instant Background Check System since 1998, peaking in 2016 with 27 million checks for guns and permits but dropping by 2 million the next year. Since 1998, the system has OK’d 98 percent of the applications for guns and permits, and rejected more than 3 million. The National Sports Shooting Foundation, the gun manufacturers lobby, says its analysis indicates the system conducted about 187 million background checks nationally and 3.8 million in New York just for gun transfers since 2000.
- After the Brady Act and an assault weapon ban passed in 1993 and 1994, gun control bills have stagnated in Congress, pushing the struggle over gun policy to the states — where New York and some other states have tightened firearms restrictions while other states have loosened them.
- More well-funded gun control groups work at the national and state levels now than 25 years ago, but they still haven’t matched the power of the purse and at the voting booth of the National Rifle Association and other gun rights groups.
- Polls show a majority of Americans favor stricter gun laws, but they don’t have the fervor of gun rights believers.