At the end of this week’s episode of Stay Tuned, Preet reflected on Maine Representative Jared Golden’s decision last week to reverse his long-held stance and advocate for the reinstatement of a federal ban on assault weapons. Golden’s pivot, in the immediate aftermath of the massacre that killed 18 people in his hometown of Lewiston, accompanied similar calls for a ban by President Biden. Thirty years ago, in the aftermath of another mass shooting made all the worse by the use of assault weapons, then-Senator Biden held a Senate Judiciary hearing as part of his long quest to (ultimately temporarily) ban the destructive weapons.
On July 1st, 1993, a disgruntled real estate speculator Gian Luigi Ferri entered a skyscraper at 101 California Street in downtown San Francisco. Seemingly harboring an obsessive grudge against lawyers, he ascended to the 34th-floor offices of the Pettit Martin firm and opened fire with two TEC-D9 assault weapons – made by the Miami-based Intratec firearm company and legally purchased in Nevada – and a .45-caliber semiautomatic. By the time Ferri fatally shot himself as police officers closed in, he had killed eight people.
At the time of the San Francisco mass shooting, Senator Biden had already been working, from his perch as Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, to ban assault weapons for four years. Biden and his pro-ban allies had come up against President George H.W. Bush and the House of Representatives, who were particularly unwilling to ban American-made weapons. The stand-off came despite the ban gaining support from some unexpected members of the GOP, including Arizona Senator and conservative standard-bearer Barry Goldwater, who said of the supposed value of the weapons for hunting, “If any SOB can’t hit a deer with one shot, he should quit shooting.”
Several mass shootings with assault weapons during Biden’s initial quest had shocked the country. In 1989, a drifter in Stockton, California killed five elementary school students and wounded 32 others with an AK-56 Chinese semi-automatic rifle (a variation on the infamous AK-47) in a racially-motivated hate crime against Southeast Asian refugees. In January 1993, a Pakistani national named Mir Aimal Kansi also used an AK-56 to kill two CIA employees outside of the Agency’s headquarters in Virginia. And the deadly February siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas partially concerned the Davidians’ assault weapons caches.
But the San Francisco killing – alongside the inauguration of a more liberal new president, Bill Clinton, – had helped garner further urgency from legislators.
On August 3rd, 1993, Biden convened a Judiciary Committee hearing entitled “A View from the Front Lines.” The often-heartbreaking hearing is available in full on C-SPAN.
Biden, standing over a table display of assault weapons, opened with a call to action. He highlighted the already-cyclical pattern of shock, mourning and recurrence of American mass shootings:
Recent events illustrate again, and with chilling vividness, the tragedy that results from the wide and easy availability of guns with fire power that overwhelm our police, of weapons that have no place in hunting or sport and whose only real function is to kill human beings at a ferocious pace.
In case after case of murderous rampages by disturbed and violent thugs, the ability of military-style assault weapons to kill and maim not just a few, but 8 or 10 or 14 or 35 people in just minutes has been proven beyond any reasonable doubt.
So I say to those who fight any change: the American people have lost too many sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, to wait any longer for serious action to be taken to control military-style assault weapons, many of which you see before us today.
New York Representative Chuck Schumer, a major proponent of a ban in the House, was also in attendance. Schumer offered a brief opening statement highlighting that assault weapons were the favorite choice for those looking to inflict the most possible suffering:
When David Koresh wanted to build a private army that could outgun law enforcement, he armed himself with assault weapons. When Patrick Purdy wanted to mow down children in elementary school, he used an assault weapon. When Gian Ferri wanted to take revenge on an entire law firm in San Francisco, he too turned to an assault weapon.
In addition to Schumer, Biden was joined by freshman California Senator Dianne Feinstein, who had served for ten years as San Francisco’s Mayor – and who had been elevated to the office by the fatal 1978 shootings of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk.
In an ad-lib before she submitted her prepared statement, Feinstein surveyed the table of weapons with disgust:
I am looking out at this table of weapons. I see nothing in this that is artistic, that is worth keeping, that is any kind of a contribution to society at all.
Over the course of the hearing, Democratic New Jersey Governor Jim Florio recounted his successes in taking on the NRA to get a wide-ranging state ban. Democratic Illinois Senator Paul Simon highlighted the direct financial link between assault weapon manufacturers and the NRA. Meanwhile, Republican Utah Senator Orrin Hatch threw cold water on the whole proceeding, countering that ”handguns, blunt objects and knives” were more often used to kill.
Amid the back-and-forth, the Committee heard wrenching testimony from Steve Sposato, the widower of one of the victims of Ferri’s attack. His wife, Jody, had been at 101 California for a deposition in a discrimination case she was bringing against an employer.
During his testimony, Sposato carried on his back his 10-month-old daughter, Meghan. He began with a description of his bond with his late wife:
Our marriage was very strong, our love was limitless, and creating the life of this little girl on my back was the highlight of both Jody’s life and my life. At the time of my wife’s tragic death, we were working on our second kid. We both loved life, the outdoors, and life in America. Our worlds revolved around each other, and together we revolved around Meghan. Today, you are looking at what is left of my family.
And he recounted the moments of his wife’s death:
My wife’s last words were, ‘I’m having trouble breathing,’ and then she died on the floor of a conference room alone. The sight of our 10-month-old daughter placing dirt on her mother’s grave is a sight and a pain I pray no other person has to experience in their life.
Sposato then directly questioned the members of the Committee, castigating the gun manufacturing industry in the process:
Can any of you advise me how to tell a 10-month-old that mommy is dead? Perhaps the manufacturer of the intraTEC DC-9 assault weapon should publish this information with the instruction manual for its murderous weapon.
Sposato highlighted the fact that he was not viewing the potential ban of assault weapons through a partisan lens – his wife had been a Democrat, while he was a registered Republican:
I am a registered Republican, but this is not about political parties. It is about life, and in her mother’s case it is about death. There is a new President because America sensed the need for change. My wife’s violent death has made it painfully clear to me what one of those changes must be. A ban on the sale and possession of semi-automatic assault weapons is one of the changes that America, along with my wife, Jody, was voting for in November 1992.
And Sposato focused in on Meghan and on the world she would inhabit:
I am not here to plead for your compassion. I am here to try to regain my faith in this country, which will ultimately be determined when Congress passes laws to protect Meghan Marie and her right to life…
I must find the inner strength to carry on and raise my 10- month-old daughter to the best of my ability. I am asking you to please help in making this country a safer place for Meghan and for all Americans by prohibiting the sale, use and possession of semi-automatic assault weapons like the ones in front of us. These are weapons of death. This isn’t a debate about assault weapons and semi-automatic weapons. This is a debate about life and death.
When Sposato finished his statement, Biden offered a personal link, hearkening back to his own experience of losing his wife in a 1972 car accident and having to comfort his own two sons:
You didn’t ask for our compassion, but you have our thanks and you also have our compassion. I can tell you from personal experience you will make it and your daughter will be better for it because of what you have done today, and the answer is tell her she is her mom. I had to tell it twice. It can be done.
Further testimony followed. Judy Darling, the widow of CIA Field Engineer Frank Darling, one of the Agency employees killed by Kansi in the January attack, recounted her harrowing near-death experience. The Darlings were newlyweds and co-workers, and the couple had been in their car on the way to work when Kansi opened fire. Frank had saved his wife’s life by alerting her to duck and shielding her as the shots rained down. Darling, like Sposato, reflected on the feelings of helplessness that accompanied her mourning and on her desire for real legislative change:
I am an expert on anger. I am angry that weapons capable of destruction I witnessed are sold every day in this country. I am angry that anyone would defend the right of an individual to own these weapons of war, and I am angry that my right to a happy life with my husband was taken from me in the time it took a deranged gunman to squeeze off a few rounds from a legally purchased AK-47.
Following the testimonies from Sposato and Darling, an emotional Feinstein offered some fighting words to the NRA, encouraging American to speak out against the powerful gun lobby:
I am really very overwhelmed by the testimony, and particularly by the stories that each of you brings to this table. I guess what I want to say to you is this: that it isn’t going to happen until the people of this nation care more…Only when they begin to write and pour in letters and phone calls into both of these Houses will things change, because what I suspect is that the NRA has a lock-hold on this Congress.
Feinstein’s work was just beginning. With help from Biden and other gun safety advocates in both Houses, she sponsored the assault weapons ban that emerged out of the hearing.
The assault weapons ban was somewhat watered down by its final passage in May 1994 – many types of weapons were exempted, and most assault weapons already on the street would remain legal. But the revised proposal nonetheless became a major component of the larger, now-quite-controversial Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. President Clinton signed the Crime Bill in September 1994.
Ten years later, in 2004, the GOP-controlled Congress declined to renew the ban. Since then, hundreds of mass shootings with assault weapons have devastated the nation while pro-gun forces have blocked reinstatement of the prohibition. Perhaps Golden’s touching reversal – and the continued determination of Biden and many of his long-time allies in fighting for gun safety – can finally re-address the scourge that Sposato and Darling so brutally illustrated.
For more on the history of mass shootings in America, read Mother Jones’ indispensable guide and database.
And head to my Twitter account for supplemental archival threads on each Time Machine piece: @DavidKurlander.
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Catch up on some recent Time Machine deep dives into history:
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- ‘A Nearing, Shining Light’: Clinton and Arafat’s Moment of Idealism in Gaza
- ‘Bordering on Cannibalism’: The 1997 GOP Responds to a Near-Ousting of Speaker Newt Gingrich
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