ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
While Congress let its ban on the sale of semiautomatic, assault-style weapons lapse, we're going to hear now about one major gun ban that has stayed on the books. It's a measure Congress passed a quarter-century ago, making it illegal for civilians to buy or sell any fully automatic weapon made from that date forward. And as NPR's David Welna reports, the legislation passed with the blessing of none other than the National Rifle Association.
DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: It was April of 1986; and after months of efforts, the NRA had finally rallied enough support in the House to force a bill onto the floor in that Democratic-controlled chamber. The so-called Firearms Owners' Protection Act would undo many of the provisions in the 1968 Gun Control Act, passed shortly after Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were shot dead.
But just as the bill was about to come to a final vote in that tumultuous House session, New Jersey Democrat William Hughes introduced an amendment. It would forbid the sale to civilians of all machine guns made after the law took effect.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
REP. WILLIAM HUGHES: (Talking over crowd chatter) I ask my colleagues, in all fairness and rationality - we have only three minutes left - to give me an opportunity to explain why machine guns, you know, should be banned - as to what sporting value machine guns have...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Pounding gavel) I call order.
WELNA: There were enough Democrats to pass the amendment. So nobody objected when the presiding officer, New York Democrat Charles Rangel, called for a voice vote - rather than a roll call vote - on the machine gun ban.
REP. CHARLES RANGEL: ...the question is on the adoption of the Hughes amendment to the Volcker substitute. All in favor, indicate by saying aye.
UNIDENTIFIED REPRESENTATIVES: Aye!
RANGEL: All opposed, nay.
UNIDENTIFIED REPRESENTATIVES: Nay!
RANGEL: The ayes have it.
RANGEL: RANGEL: The ayes have it...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Let it go. Let it go.
WELNA: Those words - let it go, let it go - might also have been spoken by the NRA's own lobbyists. One of them was Richard Feldman, who has since parted ways with the NRA. In an interview with NPR, Feldman says Wayne LaPierre, who's currently the NRA's executive vice president, was willing to let the machine gun ban go forward, if it meant the larger bill it was attached to would pass.
RICHARD FELDMAN: I remember very well having dinner with Wayne LaPierre on the big victory, after it passed the House. And we weren't too concerned about the machine gun issue, but it came back to haunt Warren Cassidy.
WELNA: Warren Cassidy, at the time, headed the NRA's lobby, the Institute For Legislative Action. He confirms now that LaPierre, who did not respond to a request for comment, pushed hard to let the machine gun ban stand.
WARREN CASSIDY: He said, I want to do it; I think we have to do it. So I said yes, and that was the end of the story. It passed. And as we learned immediately, an element of NRA - a very vociferous element of NRA and - determined that it just couldn't be that way; we couldn't give an inch. I don't think they ever forgave me for it.
WELNA: Gun laws expert Robert Spitzer, of the State University of New York at Cortland, says the bill Ronald Reagan signed into law was more significant than it was perceived at the time.
ROBERT SPITZER: One can view the Congress' action in 1986, to ban civilian possession of fully automatic weapons, as something of a - kind of a precedent that would open the door for restricting civilian access to semiautomatic, assault-style weapons.
WELNA: Spitzer says a major reason the machine gun ban met so little resistance was a 1934 law, passed a month after outlaws Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were killed in a hail of machine gun bullets. It required machine gun owners to pay a hefty tax, be fingerprinted, and be listed on a national registry. As a result, he says, sales of machine guns plummeted.
SPITZER: It is a good example of something that is little known - which is, a gun control law that was pretty effective in keeping such weapons out of civilian hands. So by 1986, when the provision was added to the Firearm Owners Protection Act to bar any newly produced, fully automatic weapon from possession by civilians, it was really a fairly small step to make because so few of them were in circulation to begin with.
WELNA: Which is, clearly, not the case with the semiautomatic guns that polls show a majority want banned today.
David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.