A federal assault weapons ban passed with bipartisan support in...

A federal assault weapons ban passed with bipartisan support in 1994, but expired in 2004. Credit: AP / Rich Pedroncelli

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden praised the proposed bipartisan gun control legislation that emerged Sunday from a group of Senate negotiators as a “significant” step after decades of impasses on the issue, but the president also acknowledged the proposal ignored some of his key demands.

The Senate deal announced Sunday did not include a key push made by Biden in the days and weeks following mass shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde, Texas — the reinstatement of a federal assault weapons ban.

“Obviously, it does not do everything that I think is needed, but it reflects important steps in the right direction, and would be the most significant gun safety legislation to pass Congress in decades,” Biden said in a statement after the bipartisan framework was announced.

The Senate proposal calls for increased funding for school security and mental health programs, as well as expanding state red-flag laws aimed at deterring at-risk individuals from obtaining guns. The measure also allows gun vendors to access juvenile records for those purchasing guns under the age of 21.

Biden’s demand for a reinstatement of the ban on semiautomatic guns that passed with bipartisan support in 1994, but expired in 2004, was seen as a politically thorny issue among the negotiators that would derail attempts at garnering the necessary GOP votes for any gun reform deal.

Polls have long shown a majority of Americans support a ban — for example, 63% of those polled by the nonpartisan think tank Pew Research in April 2021. But the issue has long been a non-starter for most Republican lawmakers and some Democrats from conservative swing districts, where polls largely show Republican voters in those districts strongly oppose limits and restrictions on gun purchases.

Former Long Island Rep. Peter King, a Republican from Seaford, who voted in favor of the assault weapons ban in 1994, said in a phone interview that passing a ban in today's political climate is improbable because the 1994 midterm election proved a turning point for both parties on the issue of gun control. Democrats lost control of Congress that year, in part because of opposition to the ban in conservative leaning districts.

“It started with the 1994 election, where Democrats realized how lethal of an issue it was, Republicans saw how they could gain votes in those districts,” King said of the ban. “That was the start of it, and since then, with cable TV, social media, and people being locked into their positions, it’s just become harder and harder … it's one of those issues that's almost intractable.”

King, who said he received a lot of pushback from Republican leaders on Capitol Hill and Republican constituents for his vote, said even those Republican lawmakers who support an assault weapons ban recognize the political consequences of publicly expressing such support.

Last week, Rep. Chris Jacobs, a first-term Republican representing a suburban Buffalo district, abandoned his reelection bid amid mounting backlash from GOP leaders over his recently announced support for an assault weapons ban.

“I can’t in good conscience sit back and say I didn’t try to do something,” Jacobs said of his support for the ban just days after the May 14 Buffalo shooting just 10 miles from his district.

Michael Dawidziak, a Republican political strategist and pollster based in Suffolk County, said moderate GOP candidates across the country recognize that supporting an assault weapons ban or stricter gun control measures could set them up for a primary.

“It goes back to the primary process, everybody's afraid that they're going to get an extremist against them in a primary,” said Dawidziak. “The moderates have become an endangered species in Washington.”

Republican lawmakers who have opposed calls to reinstate the ban have argued that the semiautomatic guns are used by some gun owners for hunting and killing vermin.

“We’re not talking about banning a category of weapons across the board, a ban for certain high-capacity magazines or changing the background check system by adding additional disqualifying items,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tx.), a member of the bipartisan Senate panel, said during a floor speech last week.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a leader of the bipartisan Senate negotiations, said a week before the deal was announced on Sunday that he recognized it would not include “everything” Biden and Democrats want.

“We're not going to put a piece of legislation on the table that's going to ban assault weapons, or we're not going to pass comprehensive background checks, but, right now, people in this country want us to make progress,” Murphy told CNN last Sunday. “They just don't want the status quo to continue for another 30 years.”

Former Long Island Rep. Steve Israel, a Democrat from Huntington who wrote the satirical novel “Big Guns” about the influence of the gun lobby, said there is hope that after decades of stalemate on new federal gun control laws, “some incremental change will lead to bigger, bolder, more common-sense change.”

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