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Another View -- David H. Lee: Dick Swett was right about the assault weapons ban

January 03. 2013 9:07PM

The horrible tragedy in Newtown, Conn., stunned the American people. We saw in the faces of the victims our spouses, our friends and, most of all, our children. We thought of them. We mourned them. And we promised - as we did after Virginia Tech, Aurora, Tucson, Columbine, and so many other senseless tragedies - that we would take action so that history would not repeat itself. Again.

We asked: Why does our society continue to allow the arming of criminals and the insane with weapons designed for the sole purpose of killing large numbers of people? Why are we on a perpetual treadmill of tragedy, mourning, forgetfulness and inaction, followed by more tragedy?

When I asked these questions of myself, I thought about my former boss, Dick Swett. Dick served New Hampshire in Congress for four years until his defeat in November 1994, six months after his tie-breaking vote to pass a federal assault weapons ban. The ban made illegal the sale of the weaponry and high-capacity ammunition magazines that were used by the killers in Newtown and other atrocities. Dick's vote wrought a hail of vitriolic attacks and negative advertising from the National Rifle Association (NRA). He expected this. It did not stop him from doing what needed to be done.

Dick had repeatedly affirmed his support for the Second Amendment and the rights of law-abiding gun owners. But, as the legislation evolved, he saw that it explicitly excluded guns used by hunters and other New Hampshire citizens, most of whom have little cause to shoot 50 bullets without reloading, or use a pistol grip that facilitates spray fire.

As he told his colleagues: "The growing violence, murders of our law enforcement officers and innocent children cannot be ignored. ... The fact is that true sportsmen and sportswomen do not use sophisticated war machines to mow down animals. Average citizens, protecting their property and family, do not use Uzis and street sweepers to defend their homes. These weapons are used by criminals to overcome the innocent and to overcome our police officers in the line of their duty."

Dick paid a price for his vote. As President Clinton said in the following year's State of the Union address, Dick and others who voted for the ban "laid down their seats in Congress so that police officers and kids wouldn't have to lay down their lives under a hail of assault weapon attack." Dick was right then. And he's right today, eight years after the assault weapons ban was allowed to lapse by President Bush and NRA allies in the Congress.

The assault weapons ban was not only morally right; it worked. According to a Department of Justice study, law enforcement requests for Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms assault weapons traces declined 20 percent in the first calendar year after the ban took effect, and they remained low throughout the 10-year life of the ban. A separate Washington Post analysis showed that the number of guns with high-capacity magazines seized in crimes by Virginia police dropped from 1995 to 2005, but has more than doubled since the expiration of the assault weapons ban.

Perhaps that is why former Sen. Judd Gregg switched from his previous position and supported renewing the ban in 2004. Or why every major law enforcement organization in the country is encouraging even stronger legislation that closes loopholes and reinforces background checks for gun ownership.

Politicians often talk of legacies. They wonder how they will be remembered when they are gone. Dick Swett wrote landmark legislation to reform Congress, and he was an early leader in supporting green technology in the House. But Dick's lasting legacy will be the people who are walking the streets today who would be dead had he never entered public life. They are parents and children and first responders and ordinary people. They are the Newtowns that did not happen because violent perpetrators could fire only nine bullets without reloading, not 30 or 40.

We should demand that our political leaders exhibit the courage of Dick Swett. The safety of our families merits no less.

David H. Lee was research director for the Dick Swett for U.S. Senate campaign in 1996. A former resident of Concord and Pembroke, he lives in Rockville, Md.

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