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Biden voted with the NRA when the Senate, and the nation, were very different

NBC News logo NBC News 4/24/2019 Alex Seitz-Wald
Joe Biden, Barack Obama are posing for a picture: Image: Vice President Joe Biden speaks before President Barack Obama signs an executive order to reduce gun violence in Washington on Jan. 16, 2013. © Leigh Vogel Image: Vice President Joe Biden speaks before President Barack Obama signs an executive order to reduce gun violence in Washington on Jan. 16, 2013.

WASHINGTON — After the Sandy Hook school massacre in 2012, President Barack Obama turned to his vice president, Joe Biden, to lead a push for new gun laws.

It was a natural choice since Biden wrote and passed the assault weapons ban, had long supported expanding background checks and earned "F" ratings from the National Rifle Association while in the Senate.

"As the president knows, I've worked in this field a long time in the United States Senate," Biden said at the time.

As Biden prepares to launch his 2020 presidential run on Thursday, guns are an area of his decades-long record in public life in which the former vice president has been consistently in line with the values of today's Democratic Party.

But still, potential political dangers lurk, even on his signature issue — and that's a vote in favor of a 1986 bill that the NRA has called "the law that saved gun rights" in America.

The Firearm Owners Protection Act, which passed Congress overwhelmingly, overturned six Supreme Court rulings and numerous regulations, leaving a lasting legacy as both one of the most consequential gun laws of the past century and as a key political boost for the burgeoning gun rights movement.

The measure allowed dealers to sell rifles, shotguns and ammunition through the mail, and, eventually, the Internet. It limited federal inspections of firearms dealers while allowing them to sell guns at gun shows, which helped them grow in size and popularity. And it made it easier for private collectors to sell guns without obtaining a federal dealers' license, which would play a role in what later became known as the "gun show loophole." (It also banned machine guns, thanks to an amendment slipped in by House Democrats at the last minute.)

But it was a different era decades ago, when compromise was common in the Senate and guns were less of a partisan and emotional issue than they are today. Things look very different in 2019, when Democrats vie with each other to take the toughest line on firearms.

"I'm one of the last of the generation of gun lobbyists who used to work with a lot of Democrats," said Richard Feldman, a former NRA lobbyist who worked on the bill and later broke with the group. "I actually think Biden's more sensible than any other of the major candidates because he's been around long enough."

Joe Biden wearing a suit and tie talking on a cell phone: Image: Sen. Joe Biden, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, holds a TEC-9 semi-automatic weapon during a hearing on assault weapons at the Capitol on Aug. 3, 1993. © Barry Thumma Image: Sen. Joe Biden, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, holds a TEC-9 semi-automatic weapon during a hearing on assault weapons at the Capitol on Aug. 3, 1993.

At the time, Congress had not done anything big on firearms since the Gun Control Act of 1968, passed in response to the assassinations of Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy, which as the name suggests was not a win for gun rights advocates.

The NRA desperately wanted a victory and got one when President Ronald Reagan signed into law the Firearm Owners Protection Act, which had finally passed Congress seven years after its introduction.

"In 1986, the gun rights movement really came into its own when it established its power to win on the offensive," David Hardy, a conservative lawyer and author wrote in a 2011 article for the NRA.

Gun rights advocates argued existing law needed to be changed because it was turning well-meaning gun owners into felons for minor record-keeping errors and innocent ignorance of complicated state laws.

But as long as the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., chaired the Judiciary Committee, they knew reform had no chance.

Then, in 1982, Republicans won control of the Senate and Sen. Strom Thurmond, the South Carolina conservative, took the gavel on Judiciary, and Biden became the ranking Democrat on the panel.

While some liberals fought the legislation, Biden and other Democrats — including initially Kennedy, though he later opposed the bill — helped find a compromise that maintained rules on handguns while eliminating all exemptions on interstate sales or transportation of "long guns," including rifles and shotguns.

"I believe the compromises that are now a part of this bill have resulted in a balanced piece of legislation that protects the rights of private gun owners while not infringing on law enforcement's ability to deal with those who misuse guns or violate laws," Biden said at the time.

"During my 12 1/2 years as a member of this body, I have never believed that additional gun control or Federal registration of guns would reduce crime. I am convinced that a criminal who wants a firearm can get one through illegal, nontraceable, unregistered sources, with or without gun control," he continued.

With support from the top members of each party on the Judiciary Committee, the panel voted unanimously to send the bill to the full Senate.

"We commend Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, committee chairman, and Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, ranking minority member, for reaching agreement on this principle," said John Snyder, the chief lobbyist of the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear in a press release, noting they had just "vote(d) to eliminate a good 75 percent of the onerous and burdensome Gun Control Act."

Joe Biden et al. sitting at a table: Image: Vice President Joe Biden speaks at a meeting with gun violence survivors and gun safety advocacy groups in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on Jan. 9, 2013. © Chip Somodevilla Image: Vice President Joe Biden speaks at a meeting with gun violence survivors and gun safety advocacy groups in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on Jan. 9, 2013.

On the Senate floor, the bill passed by a lopsided 79-15, with a roll call that would be difficult to imagine today.

The "nay" column included liberal Democrats like Kennedy, John Kerry, Gary Hart, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and Chris Dodd, but also moderate Republicans John Chafee of Rhode Island and Charles Mathias of Maryland.

Meanwhile, Biden had plenty of company from other well-known Democrats among the "yeas," including Al Gore, George Mitchell, John Glenn and Pat Leahy. Harry Reid, then a congressman, voted for the bill in the House, where the main fight actually took place.

Critics say the law has created backdoors for shady gun sales while tying the hands of the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms. It's had some unforeseeable consequences as well, especially by creating the thriving online marketplace for guns and ammo, which has at times been exploited for nefarious purposes, including by at least one mass shooter.

Bill Russo, a spokesperson for Biden, dismissed the 1986 vote as "one quote cherry-picked from a record that is consistent and actually features (Biden) defeating the NRA on the most significant gun control legislation."

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