Congressional Votes on the Federal Assault Weapons Ban

Below we use DW-NOMINATE scores to plot two congressional votes on a federal assault weapons ban. The first was President Clinton’s omnibus crime bill (the Violence Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act), which passed the House in a 235-195 vote and the Senate in a 61-38 vote, and was enacted in September 1994. The assault weapons ban included in the Violence Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act had a 10-year sunset provision, and expired in 2004. The second vote is on an amendment sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) to extend the ban by another 10 years. The amendment passed in a 52-47 vote on March 2, 2004, but the legislation it was attached to (the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act) died. It later passed in 2005 without the assault weapons ban clause.

The second dimension, which in this period internally divided the parties over regional and social issues, is important in explaining voting patterns on the 1994 assault weapons ban in the House. In all, 64 House Democrats voted “Nay” on the omnibus crime bill, and most were Southern “Blue Dog” Democrats with high second dimension scores. Conversely, 46 House Republicans voted “Yea,” and many of them were moderate “Gypsy Moth” Republicans like Rep. Mike Castle (R-DE). The Senate vote is more one-dimensional, but there were only two Democratic defections (Sen. Richard Shelby (D-AL) who later switched parties and Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI), who adamantly opposed the federal death penalty provision of the omnibus bill.

Some have argued that the Clinton omnibus crime bill contributed to the Democratic Party’s disastrous performance in the 1994 midterm elections, but analysis by Gary Jacobson indicates that support for the crime bill had no effect on incumbents’ vote shares that year.

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The March 2004 Senate vote on the Feinstein amendment to enact a 10-year extension of the federal assault weapons ban was mostly one-dimensional with some party defections. Eight Senate Republicans supported the ban: Sens. Lincoln Chafee (R-RI), Susan Collins (R-ME), Mike DeWine (R-OH), Judd Gregg (R-NH), Richard Lugar (R-IN), Olympia Snowe (R-ME), George Voinovich (R-OH), and John Warner (R-VA). Most of these Senators are ideologically moderate, as seen by their first-dimension positions in the plot below. Six Senate Democrats voted “Nay”: Sens. Max Baucus (D-MT), Russ Feingold (D-WI), Mary Landrieu (D-LA), Zell Miller (D-GA), Ben Nelson (D-NE), and Harry Reid (D-NV). Likewise, most of the Senators are in the moderate-conservative wing of their party. However, on this vote, Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) opposed the amendment due to concerns about the arbitrariness of which guns would be banned.

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