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This is one in a series of 13 Yahoo News interviews with historians about defining moments in presidential leadership. The interviews were conducted by Andrew Romano, Lisa Belkin and Sam Matthews, and the videos were produced by Sam Matthews.
David Maraniss, author of “First in His Class: A Biography of Bill Clinton,” spoke to Yahoo News about Clinton’s defining moment of presidential leadership: getting an assault-rifle ban through Congress. The bill passed in 1994, but the provision banning those weapons expired after 10 years and has not been renewed.
There had been mass shootings throughout American history, but at the time Clinton was becoming president, the use of assault weapons’ rapid-fire ability to kill as many people as possible in a short amount of time was just becoming part of the public consciousness.
He was not ever in the vanguard of the gun-control movement, but he saw that there was public support for it — and he could do it in conjunction with a crime bill that would emphasize that he was not soft on crime and yet go after gun control. That was a way of co-opting the Republicans, who until that point had dominated the whole issue of crime and law and order.
The barriers to getting an assault-weapons ban done were the same as the barriers always are for any gun-control legislation, which is the fear of members of Congress that if they support any gun-control legislation, the NRA will raise and spend oodles of money to defeat them. So Clinton had to overcome some of those fears.
The point he would always try to make is that the NRA leadership did not reflect the constituency, most of whom he would say were good-ol’-boy hunters and fishers from places like where he grew up in Arkansas. He was pretty good at projecting himself as one of those good ol’ boys and that this was just common-sense gun control.
They added a sunset clause to diminish the power of the NRA in opposing it. In retrospect, that sunset clause was disastrous. In that sense it reflected a larger point about Bill Clinton’s leadership, which was more tactical than long-term strategic.
The assault-weapons ban, surprisingly, had some Republican support. And as limited as that ban was, in some respects it was the single strongest piece of gun-control legislation that’s passed in 25 years. How many pieces of legislation can you say saved lives?
There was always a sense among people who supported him that “If only Clinton hadn’t done these various things he could have been a great president.” But you can’t say “if only” with Bill Clinton, because the same drives that pushed him in positive ways, pushed him in negative ways as well. He had this larger appetite. So it was all Bill Clinton, whether he was doing something good or bad. That was Bill Clinton.
Click below to view the rest of the 13-part series.
Cover thumbnail photo: President Bill Clinton unveils anti-gun violence initiatives in 1999. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Joyce Naltchayan/AFP/Getty Images, Dennis Cook/AP)