WASHINGTON -- Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s long pursuit of stricter gun laws began more than three decades ago on a day of bullets and bloodshed in San Francisco, when she was the president of the city’s Board of Supervisors.
On Nov. 27, 1978, former supervisor Dan White walked into City Hall with a grudge and a .38 revolver. He fatally shot Mayor George Moscone, walked past Feinstein’s office and then turned his weapon on Supervisor Harvey Milk, one of the country’s first openly gay elected officials and a rising political star.
A stunned Feinstein, who’d run for mayor twice and lost and who wasn’t planning to seek re-election, had to announce the deaths of her colleagues to a city in a state of utter shock, and that now looked to her to lead.
The shootings recast her political career, becoming its consequential moment and one that’s forever defined her in the public sphere. They also infused Feinstein with an unwavering advocacy for an issue that can come only when you’ve reached into the bloody wound of a colleague and frantically – but fruitlessly – searched for a pulse.
Through two terms as mayor of San Francisco, an unsuccessful run for governor and more than two decades in the U.S. Senate, no issue has motivated Feinstein more than stopping gun violence, according to current and former colleagues and members of her staff.
She led the campaign to pass the original assault-weapons ban in 1994, which expired in 2004 after it couldn’t attract enough support for renewal. The massacre of 20 elementary school children in Newtown, Conn., in December, however, so shocked and revolted the nation that the political climate has become as favorable as it’s been in years to try to enact tighter rules on gun sales.
A four-term Democrat, the 79-year-old Feinstein is playing a leading role once again in the effort to control who may acquire guns, which guns they may buy and how much firepower is too much.
She probably won’t get all she wants; her opponents, led by the National Rifle Association, wield considerable influence on Capitol Hill.
The Senate Judiciary Committee is considering her legislation, the Assault Weapons Ban of 2013. It must pass the committee before the full Senate has a chance to vote on it. Passage in either forum is far from guaranteed.
When she became mayor, the .38 revolver that White used to kill Milk and Moscone was a standard-issue weapon in police departments. When she became a senator, the police had increased their arsenal to match what they were up against on the street.
“I’ve watched police departments get outgunned,” she told the committee last week.
Her legislation would ban assault weapons, restrict sales of ammunition clips with more than 10 bullets and expand background checks to gun shows and private sales.
“These weapons, which are really designed to kill as many people in close combat as big clips will allow, become attractive to grievance killers, gangs and people who are not all there mentally,” Feinstein said in an interview.
Her opponents, particularly NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre, have accused her of a decades-old agenda against guns. During a hearing last month on Feinstein’s bill, the NRA used Twitter to ridicule her knowledge of firearms and question the credibility of the law enforcement witnesses called to testify in support of the measure’s restrictions.