RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
In proposing to renew a ban on assault-style weapons, President Obama is expected to base his legislation on a law approved by Congress in 1994 - a law that expired 10 years later.
As NPR's Brian Naylor reports, getting that ban approved capped a summer of deliberation and drama on Capitol Hill.
BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: When the first assault weapons ban was approved, it was a much different time, and Congress was a much different place. Democrats controlled both the House and the Senate, and the nation's crime rate was a major concern. The assault weapons ban was part of an extensive crime bill. Included was money to hire additional police and build new prisons, and to fund crime prevention programs. President Bill Clinton made the bill a top priority of his first term.
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PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: The American people have waited long enough. We don't need to waste their time with frivolous or political amendments and delay. We don't need to take months on a task that can be done in a couple of weeks.
NAYLOR: Then as now, Joe Biden played a central role in the debate. In 1994, the vice president, then a Senator from Delaware, strongly argued in favor of banning assault-style weapons.
VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: 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 eight or 10, 14, 35 people in just minutes, has been proven beyond any reasonable doubt.
NAYLOR: In 1994, former Senator Ted Kaufman was Biden's chief of staff, and as such a key player in negotiations that led to passage of the crime bill. He says he's not sure much that happened then applies nearly 20 years later.
TED KAUFMAN: I think it was a very different time in 1994. I don't think there's very many lessons to be learned from that it was a time when people - this was a very small part of a much bigger bill and people were really interested in doing something about crime. I think right now this bill is going to have to be, you know, stand alone, it's going to be much more difficult than in 1994.
NAYLOR: Not that it was easy in 1994. As Paul McNulty remembers it, that August, a time when lawmakers would normally have been on their summer recess, was filled with meetings and late night bargaining. McNulty. who went on to become deputy attorney general and is now in private practice, was then working as a House Republican staffer. He says the crime bill nearly died on a procedural vote.
PAUL MCNULTY: The gun control issue was the top issue that had stirred up a lot of controversy at that point.
NAYLOR: Lawmakers argued over how to define the ban, which specific weapons and features it would apply to. They eventually settled on a list of just 19 guns, and agreed to sunset the law entirely in 10 years. Those concessions were necessary to win support for the ban.
Perhaps the biggest difference between then and now, in 1994, there were House Republicans who backed the crime bill. Paul McNulty...
MCNULTY: There were a group of Republicans, approximately 40 or so, who represented more moderate districts, districts in the North, Midwest where they weren't in complete opposition to an assault weapon ban.
NAYLOR: In fact, 46 House Republicans voted for the 1994 assault weapons ban, a total unimaginable now. In the November election later that year, Republicans won control of Congress, which some have attributed to Democratic support for the crime bill.
While that's a matter of debate, it's clear that Congress has had very little appetite for gun control measures since then, a dynamic President Obama hopes will have been changed by the Newtown school shootings.
Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.
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