Dianne Feinstein, who says she will introduce a renewal of the federal ban on assault weapons when the U.S. Senate reconvenes in 2013, has a long, personal and painful relationship with guns.
She became mayor of San Francisco in the wake of the November 1978 murders of George Moscone and Harvey Milk by Dan White. She was, as her most famous TV spot once proclaimed, “forged in tragedy.” In fact, as described in the (ahem) definitive biography of her, “Dianne Feinstein: Never Let Them See You Cry:”
Hearing the first shot, she thought that White had killed himself. But the firing didn’t stop and, besides, there was Dan, coming out of his office, “whipping by and out the door.”
Ninety seconds had passed since he shot the mayor.
Dianne rose as if in slow motion. She tried to force her mind and body to work together, her head thick with dread and confusion as she forced herself up from her desk and looked down the hall and saw all the doors along the narrow hallway closed.
She pushed open the door of White’s office, which was pinned shut by the body of Harvey Milk. She saw him splayed on his stomach, blood and brain matter splattered on the wall.
The daughter and widow of doctors, she instinctively reached to find a pulse. Her fingers slipped into a bullet hole.
A few years ago, in a speech on the Senate floor during debate over another weapons measure, Feinstein recalled another incident she experienced in San Francisco – one she often used to retell on the campaign trail:
I believe passionately about this. I will never forget, many years ago, before I was mayor, walking into the robbery of a corner grocery store. When people die of gunshot wounds, it is not the way it is on television or in the movies. I saw brain matter all over the walls. I saw the husband, a proprietor, the wife, a proprietor. This individual who came in even shot the dog. People are capable of terrible criminality. We should not encourage that criminality by making their access to weapons so very easy.
After a gunman, wielding an automatic weapon killed eight people and wounded six in an office building at 101 California St. in July 1993 in San Francisco, Feinstein led the charge for a federal ban on assault weapons – a ban that lasted 10 years and expired in 2004. (BTW, since the expiration of the gun ban in 2004, the number of shootings per year has doubled, and the number of victims per year has nearly tripled.)
“Are we helpless in the face of these horrible tragedies, doomed to witness these scenes of carnage again and again?” Feinstein asked at the time – a question echoed by President Obama at Sunday evening’s memorial service in Newtown, Conn., where he said:
In the coming weeks, I’ll use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens, from law enforcement, to mental health professionals, to parents and educators, in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this, because what choice do we have? We can’t accept events like this as routine. Are we really prepared to say that we’re powerless in the face of such carnage?
Now, Feinstein says, “As a first day bill, I’m going to introduce in the Senate and the same bill will be introduced in the House. A bill to ban on assault weapons.
“It will ban the sale, the transfer, the importation and the possession. Not retroactively but prospectively. And it will ban the same for big clips, drums or strips of more than 10 bullets. So there will be a bill,” Feinstein added. “We’ve been working on it now for a year. We’ve tried to take my bill from ’94 to 2004 and perfect it. We believe we have. We exempt over 900 specific weapons that will not fall under the bill. But the purpose of this bill is to get just what [NY] Mayor [Michael] Bloomberg said, weapons of war, off the streets of our cities.”
The only people who oppose banning military-style assault weapons like the AR-15 used in Newtown are either a) part of the gun-manufacturing lobby or b) nuts. Home self-defense, hunting and target shooting do not require battlefield weapons.
Of course, a federal ban on assault rifles and high-capacity magazines will not end mass murders. Of course, curing society of the kind of mental illness that leads a sociopath to slaughter a classroom full of innocent children is no quick fix. Of course, no single law is a panacea to an epidemic of gun violence.
But neither can these facts be allowed to become excuses for inaction to address the issue one step at a time, in ways that will reduce easy access to wartime weapons.
President Obama’s moving speech in Newtown – one of the finest of all time – will be remembered as hollow oratory unless he and Congress take steps toward limiting civilian access to assault weapons.
No matter the politics. And for this, Feinstein’s painful memories are a searing reminder of what must be done.