Gun Shows in America Section One: The History of McClure-Volkmer

In 1986, the National Journal summarized the situation after McClure-Volkmer passed the U.S. Senate by a vote of 79 to 15:

S. 49…had been germinating for a half-dozen years. Enactment of such a bill had been the top legislative priority of the NRA and other pro-gun lobbying organizations….

The thrust of the legislation, according to its sponsors and advocates, is to amend positions of the 1968 Gun Control Act that, they say, have caused widespread harassment of law-abiding gun owners and gun dealers while doing virtually nothing to combat crime….

The Senate Judiciary Committee held hearings on earlier versions of the bill that were sponsored by Sen. James A. McClure, R-Idaho. In 1985, McClure arranged, with the help of Judiciary Committee chairman Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., and Majority Leader Robert Dole, R-Kan., to put the bill on the Senate floor without a new round of hearings….

At one point in the debate, McClure warned his colleagues of the political danger of supporting an NRA-opposed amendment to require a 15-day waiting period on handgun purchases….The amendment was tabled, 71 to 23. The legislation then passed handily, with McClure telling the Senate it was endorsed by mainline law enforcement organizations such as the National Sheriffs’ Association and the Fraternal Order of Police. Those organizations had testified in the previous Congress in favor of McClure’s bill, but not in 1985, by which time the bill had been rewritten and they had changed their minds.7 Several police groups arranged a hasty press conference the day before the Senate vote to declare their opposition to the bill, but to no avail.8

When the Senate-passed bill arrived at the House, Judiciary Committee chairman Peter W. Rodino Jr., D-N.J., pronounced it `dead on arrival.’

Usually when a committee chairman refuses to schedule a bill for hearings or a committee vote, proponents have little chance of seeing the measure pass. The NRA, however, treated Chairman Rodino’s statement as a call to arms. The organization’s weapon of choice was a seldom-used and rarely successful procedural maneuver called a discharge petition. This mechanism allows a bill to bypass committee action and move directly to the House floor for a vote once 218 signatures are secured on the petition. The NRA moved quickly to have a discharge petition filed. Built into it was a rule designed to avoid differing House and Senate versions of the bill and the possibility of their being sent to a conference committee. According to the National Journal, “[T]he NRA wanted the rule written that way [because] in the event of a conference, House conferees would be named by Speaker Thomas P. O’Neill Jr., D-Mass., one of the NRA’s longtime adversaries.”

To stave off the discharge petition, pro-gun control members of the House Judiciary Committee—led by then-Chairman Peter Rodino (D-NJ) and former Representative William Hughes (D-NJ)—drafted a compromise bill that included a provision permitting the interstate sale of long guns, and requiring a background check, but no waiting period, for all firearm sales. The bill passed the House Judiciary Committee unanimously. According to the Associated Press, however, the NRA characterized it as “too restrictive for law-abiding gun owners and sportsmen” and continued to collect signatures for the discharge petition.

By March 1986, the discharge petition had garnered 197 signatures—only 21 short of the 218 needed. The signatories of the discharge petitions were kept secret, but one gun control organization was nevertheless able to identify 156 by name and found that 129—or 83 percent—had received contributions from the NRA since 1983.9

The 218th signature was secured on March 13, 1986, making it only the eighth successful discharge petition in more than 25 years.

The stage was set for a head-on collision on the floor of the House of Representatives between McClure-Volkmer and the Judiciary Committee compromise bill sponsored by Congressman Hughes.

Members of the House arriving on the floor the day of the vote in April 1986 were met by rows of police in dress uniform standing silently by the doors of the chamber in demonstration of their opposition to McClure-Volkmer. In spite of this, the NRA had no trouble finding the votes necessary to substitute McClure-Volkmer for the Hughes compromise and to pass it. Law enforcement and gun control organizations did have the votes, however, to pass amendments retaining the prohibition on the interstate sale of handguns and banning the manufacture and sale of new machine guns. This insured a second vote in the Senate on the slightly altered bill.

The next month the Senate took up the House-passed version with controversy erupting over continued police opposition to the bill. Senator Strom Thurmond (R-SC) ironed out a set of amendments designed to quell some of the concerns of law enforcement. According to the Washington Post, “After backstage negotiations that tied up the Senate for hours, it was agreed that McClure, Volkmer and the three-million-member NRA would not oppose the strengthening amendments….”

On May 19, 1986 President Reagan signed into law the “Firearms Owners’ Protection Act.” Prior to the signing, the Washington Post reported that “the outcome gave the National Rifle Association and bill’s main sponsors, Sen. James A. McClure (R-Idaho) and Rep. Harold L. Volkmer (D-Mo.), most of what they wanted in their 18-year effort to ease federal restrictions on gun owners and gun dealers.”10

  1. Former Senator and presumptive Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole (R-KS) made the same erroneous representations regarding the position of law enforcement organizations. In a statement on the floor of the Senate, Dole said, “These proposals have the endorsement of the Fraternal Order of Police and the National Sheriffs’ Association…I urge speedy adoption of S. 49 by the Senate.” Senator Dole had a long history of involvement in efforts to amend the 1968 Gun Control Act. At a 1980 hearing before the Subcommittee on the Constitution of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Dole described his own efforts to protect dealers and collectors he felt were victimized by “overzealous Federal agents.” He complained of “law-abiding citizens who have run into `technical’ difficulties under the Gun Control Act, only to find themselves subjected to Federal felony charges.” His remedy was authoring a provision in a predecessor to McClure-Volkmer which in his words would “have the effect of down-grading certain administrative and bookkeeping violations of the Gun Control Act from felonies to misdemeanors.”
  2. McClure-Volkmer was vociferously opposed by the major national law enforcement organizations including the Fraternal Order of Police, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, and the National Sheriffs’ Association. One letter to President Reagan from the Law Enforcement Steering Committee Against S. 49, an ad-hoc coalition of 10 major police organizations opposing the legislation, argued that the legislation would “pose an immediate and unwarranted threat to the law enforcement community and to the citizens we are sworn to protect” because the bill would weaken federal law regarding gun sales, reduce inspections of gun dealers, and make it more difficult to convict criminal violators.
  3. According to Federal Election Commission data, some of the biggest beneficiaries of NRA largesse between 1983 and 1986 were: Representative Jim Lightfoot (R-IA) at $21,657; Representative Robert Smith (R-NH) at $20,022; and, Representative John Kasich (R-OH) at $10,944. Lightfoot is now the chairman of the subcommittee overseeing appropriations for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Smith is now a senator and the leader of efforts to cut funding for the Centers for Disease Control’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control in order to halt the agency’s ongoing firearms violence and injury prevention research.
  4. Ten years later, at its 1996 annual meeting, the NRA presented former Senator McClure and Representative Volkmer with awards in honor of their work “to maintain and safeguard our rights.” Tanya Metaksa, executive director of the NRA Institute for Legislative Action, presented the award on behalf of the NRA board of directors, stating: “Resolved: That the board of directors of the National Rifle Association of America at its meeting in Arlington, Virginia on January 27th, 28th, 1996, hereby commends Senator James McClure and Congressman Harold L. Volkmer for their strong support of the right to keep and bear arms, other constitutional guarantees, and for their courage, leadership, deep personal convictions, and outstanding performance in shepherding the enactment of the Firearms Owners’ Protection Act 10 years ago.”

Go to Section Two: McClure-Volkmer’s Gun Show Legacy

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