On the night of August 25, 1994, a complicated package of legislation championed by then-Senator Joe Biden looked like it had gathered enough votes. Along with Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, Biden stood in front of television cameras and reporters in the Senate TV gallery and declared victory. “There are a lot of reasons, I think, for the American people to breathe a little sigh of relief today,” Biden said.
Since the late 1980s, Biden had been trying to pass legislation to address the spike in violent crime that began earlier that decade. By 1994, the package — later dubbed “the crime bill” — passed Congress and was signed by President Bill Clinton, with Biden sitting over his right shoulder at the White House.
Today, the 1994 crime bill is often criticized for its significant contributions to mass incarceration and more aggressive policing. Most Democrats, including Biden, have distanced themselves from it, particularly in the age of Black Lives Matter. Forged over more than six years of contentious debate in the Senate, the bill increased sentences for those convicted of nonviolent crimes and ramped up funding to build more prisons. It also boosted spending for community programs and drug rehab centers and enacted tougher domestic abuse rules, but those provisions are still broadly popular.
Back then, the part of the legislation that was most controversial — and that posed the biggest challenge for the 2020 Democratic presidential candidate — was a federal ban on assault weapons. The fight over that particular aspect of the crime bill, which forbid the sale of at least 19 types of firearms and high-capacity magazines, nearly killed the entire landmark legislative package.
“I hope that my Republican friends will not spend too much time with what has been the issue on this legislation since the beginning,” Biden said in 1994. “Six years ago, it was guns. Five years ago, it was guns. Four years ago, it was guns. Last night it was guns. This morning it was guns. And right now, it’s guns.
“It’s guns, guns, guns, guns, guns.”
Despite Republicans’ attempts to strip the assault weapons ban from the legislation, Biden was able to preserve it, and a number of other gun provisions, including increased penalties for illegal gun possession. “The one person most responsible for the passage of this bill is Senator Biden,” Mitchell said at the time.
Biden’s willingness to take on gun reform and by extension the National Rifle Association was new for him. In his early days in the Senate, he received positive ratings from the NRA and The Delaware Morning News reported that he told prospective staffers they should be prepared to avoid liberal devotion to issues like gun control.
As late as 1986, Biden’s voting record was still more pro-gun than pro-gun control — even he has described his stance on guns during the early part of his career as conservative. Yet today Biden is proposing the most expansive gun reform agenda of any presidential candidate in history, promising to reinstate the assault weapons ban, expand background checks, and launch a national gun buyback program. Gun violence received prime billing at the Democratic convention this summer, with several survivors of shootings, including former Congressperson Gabrielle Giffords and Parkland student Emma Gonzalez pleading for reform. The extent of Biden’s evolution on gun policy may say even more about his party’s realignment than it does about the presidential candidate.
In 1986, during the 99th Congress of the United States, a bipartisan majority in both chambers — a majority that included Biden — voted for legislation drafted by the National Rifle Association. The Firearm Owners’ Protection Act (FOPA) allowed mail order (and later Internet) sales of ammo and guns, reversed strict federal licensing rules for gun dealers, hampered the enforcement ability of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), and prohibited a national firearm registry.
FOPA gutted key provisions of the 1968 Gun Control Act, the most wide-ranging and restrictive gun law in American history, which President Lyndon Johnson signed in the wake of the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Proponents of FOPA sold it as a rolling back of extreme gun measures, removing restrictions on buying, selling, and transporting guns across state lines and limiting ATF inspections. The NRA later called it “the law that saved gun rights,” even though the group had supported portions of the 1968 Gun Control Act.
Any way you look at it, the passage of FOPA, with Biden’s support, went down as one of the first major gun rights victories for an NRA that was already on the path to becoming more partisan, more politicized, and less willing to compromise on gun legislation as it had in 1968.
“During my twelve-and-half years as a member of this body, I have never believed that additional gun control or federal registration of guns would reduce crime,” Biden said on the floor of the Senate in July 1985. “I am convinced that a criminal who wants a firearm can get one through illegal, untraceable, unregistered sources, with or without gun control.”
Of course, Biden was operating in a Democratic Party that looked very different from the one he leads today. Thirty Democrats joined 49 Republicans in voting to pass the bill in the Senate. Thirteen Democrats even co-sponsored the legislation. Many of them represented Southern states and almost all were from rural states now considered solidly Republican. “I underscore the cooperation we have had,” Senator Bob Dole, a Republican from Kansas, said after the bill passed the Senate for the first time on July 9, 1985, and then headed to a Democratic-controlled House. “The 79-to-15 vote will indicate that there is a significant majority on each side of the aisle in support of this legislation.”
In April 1986, the House of Representatives passed the bill. President Ronald Reagan, the first presidential candidate to be endorsed by the NRA, soon signed it into law, beginning an era of relaxed federal gun laws that continues to this day.
Back then, the NRA supported Democrats nearly as often as it donated to Republicans. And support of the NRA had not yet split along partisan lines.
The NRA’s political donations did not become so partisan until the mid-1990s. (This year, the group gave an A rating to only one Democratic candidate.)
Only a few years after siding with the NRA on FOPA, Biden was drafting the crime bill and guiding the 1993 Brady background check law through Congress. With that, Biden began transforming himself from one of the Senate’s many conservative, pro-gun Democrats into a leading proponent of federal gun laws.
Robert Spitzer, a historian and professor at the State University of New York, Cortland, said the rising tide of violent crime in the late ‘80s involving assault weapons, the shooting of President Reagan and his aide James Brady, and a 1989 school shooting in Stockton, California, involving an assault-style weapon, renewed efforts to address gun laws on the federal level. “That really catalyzed the movement to try and enact a nationwide ban on assault weapons that of course came to be enacted,” Spitzer said. “We come into the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, and sentiments begin to shift.”
Biden entered the Senate in 1973 with early promises to address crime and public safety but gun control laws hadn’t been seen as key to that focus.
In the 1980s and early 1990s, there was a dramatic increase in crime across the nation, especially violent crime. “You’re also seeing criminals, the rise of drug trafficking and similar criminal activities, where the criminals are increasingly well armed. Instead of using cheap Saturday night special handguns or revolvers, they now have semiautomatic weapons, they have Glock-type handguns, which can hold a lot of rounds,” Spitzer said. “So the idea of including gun control in part of the ‘get tough on crime’ effort was sort of a logical step. That’s what came together in the early 1990s, and, again, Biden was very much part of that effort.”
“There’d been a shift in his position on gun control over the years, like many within the caucus,” said Jim Manley, a former Senate staffer to then-Majority Leader George Mitchell of Maine and Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts. Manley said media coverage and the fear of crime among the general public had an effect on Democrats in the Senate.
Biden is known today as a centrist, establishment Democrat, and he wasn’t much different in the 1990s. His evolution on gun laws tracked with Americans’ views on crime and guns. In the early 1990s, when violent crime rates peaked, support for stricter gun laws did too, with 78 percent of Americans supporting tighter regulation.
“You see Joe Biden, and also [Senator Chuck] Schumer and other Democrats who decide that the time is right for that kind of action, so they come to support those measures,” Spitzer said. A large part of their motivation, made clear in speeches on the floors of Congress, was pushing back on the idea that Democrats were not “tough on crime.”
Today, Biden is selective in the way he talks about the omnibus crime bill, and he recently characterized it as “a mistake” during an ABC Town Hall. Biden — whose campaign did not respond to requests for an interview — doesn’t hesitate to boast about his involvement in passing still-popular elements of the omnibus bill, like the Violence Against Women Act, which was wrapped into it, or the bans on assault-style weapons and high-capacity magazines.
Those policies, along with the Brady background check bill, are highlighted at the top of the gun policy page on his campaign website — even though all those ’90s-era gun measures were inseparable from the broader “tough on crime” policies like increased spending on police and the “three strikes” provision.
“They were one and the same,” Manley said. “Albeit coming at it from different perspectives, they were all designed to cut down on crime but by dealing with different issues. It was a response to concerns about rising crime in this country.”
“Biden and others were smart enough to realize that the best way to get something done, as is oftentimes the case in the Senate, is to marry multiple different issues together including the Violence Against Women’s Act,” Manley added. “His goal was to build the broadest coalition possible, to build some sweetener to bring Democrats on board who didn’t want to take on the NRA.”
On the floor of the Senate in 1993, Biden painted a picture of an America beset by rising violent crime. “This is to bring some relief, immediate relief, to people under siege in America,” Biden said. “And it is one of only four parts of a Democratic crime strategy which we will be unfolding over this Congress.”
By then, instead of praising the NRA for compromising, Biden was blasting the group for its opposition to measures supported by the Democrats and most law enforcement groups and its unwillingness to find common ground.
“They know the American people don’t agree with them on guns,” Biden said of the NRA during a floor debate. “They know the American people think we should have a right to own weapons. They know the American people think the Second Amendment means something. But they know the American people think they’re kind of crazy — and some of their stands, like the one on assault weapons. So they don’t argue about guns anymore. They argue about pork or liberalism or socialism.”
Biden, and partisan gun politics, were beginning to look a lot more how they do today, though he was still able to get support from enough Republicans to build a coalition to support the bill. “Many Republicans, including the NRA, were smart to realize that something needed to be done, but they worked like hell to weaken the law,” Manley said.
In the late 1990s, beginning with the Columbine school shooting, gun laws began to be seen as relevant beyond violent crime in American cities, which had begun a dramatic decline. Efforts to pass any federal gun legislation essentially stalled. Gun laws lost support among Americans through the 1990s, bottoming out in 2011, according to Gallup. Between the passage of the crime bill in 1994 and today, only one meaningful federal gun law has passed — and it was the 2005 Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which protects gun manufacturers from liability when their guns are used in crimes (Biden’s 2020 platform would repeal it).
“Democrats lost their majority in Congress in the ’94 elections,” Spitzer said. “Democrats backed away from the gun issue after the 2000 elections because of the belief that it cost [Al] Gore the election, but it almost certainly did not. There was this belief among Democrats, and so they just decided to back burner that issue. That really left an open field for the NRA and for Bush.”
After the midterm elections in 1994, Democrats basically stopped talking about strengthening gun laws. “It became hardwired into the DNA of just about every elected Democratic member that the reason why we lost the ‘94 election was because of the assault weapons ban,” Manley said. “Despite the sea change in attitudes and despite a series of truly horrific mass shootings, they’ve never been able to forget it.”
Spitzer said that mass shootings provided “the starting point for a new generation of gun safety groups to organize, and they have registered increasing successes — incrementally I would say, but steadily — from 2013 up to the present.” Those successes have included more stringent state-level assault weapons regulations in the aftermath of the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting and the widespread adoption of red flag laws and restrictions on bump stocks after the 2018 Parkland shooting.
Biden was also heavily involved in the unsuccessful Obama administration effort after Sandy Hook to pass sweeping gun reform. “In 2013, President Obama and I had the support of the majority of Americans — including the vast majority of gun owners — to do something to reduce gun violence. We traveled the country. We brought together victims’ families, law enforcement, health professionals and faith leaders,” Biden wrote in a 2017 op-ed in TIME. But the Senate had changed since Biden’s years shepherding through the Brady Bill and the assault weapons ban.
“He tried to build a coalition to enact modest reforms, and after a period of thoughts and prayers by everyone, the NRA went about [killing] a series of very modest reforms,” Manley said. “The crime bill was a perfect example of how the Senate used to work with Biden racing across the aisles to try and fashion bipartisan compromise.” Toward the latter part of that decade, the Senate became a more polarized body and compromise more elusive, Manley said.
A bill to reinstate an assault weapons ban and a proposal to expand background check both died in the Senate. Obama signed more than two dozen executive actions to address gun violence by improving enforcement of existing laws and strengthening background check databases. But the executive orders, which Obama said were “in no way a substitute” for legislation, were narrow in scope and did little to curb access to guns.
“That’s why there’s a question mark on where we go from here,” Manley said. “There’s a pent-up demand among Democrats for action on a whole host of issues. This is clearly somewhere near the top of the agenda, but where it exactly fits, I can’t tell right now.”
During the first presidential debate, Biden said: “I am the Democratic Party,” a phrase that could be interpreted one of two ways. Either Biden controls the party or he is a reflection of it. If gun politics is any indication, the latter may be more accurate. Biden’s specific positions may change, but he is nearly always aligned with the average Democratic voter. And the Democratic Party of 2020 — unlike the party of the 1980’s — is more supportive of tight gun restrictions.
Biden’s 2020 gun proposals are a far cry from his early career position that gun control is ineffective. As Spitzer said, “The closest any other candidate has come was probably Al Gore in 2000, but that was not as extensive.”