On November 27, 1978 Dianne Feinstein’s life changed forever. Her San Francisco Board of Supervisors colleague, Harvey Milk, and Mayor George Moscone, were gunned down
by fellow Supervisor Dan White. After succeeding Moscone as mayor, she was later elected to the US Senate in California in 1992, and has spent her political career fighting against the epidemic of gun violence.
“She’s been terrific,” Senator Bill Nelson (D-Fl), told VICE Impact. Nelson, himself a sponsor or co-sponsor of numerous gun control bills and a proponent of new gun control measures in the aftermath of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida,continued: “Remember, she passed the ban on assault rifles.” By a razor thin vote of 52-48 in the Senate, the Feinstein-sponsored“Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, passed the first ban of rifles in the United States since the 1930s.
But to pull together even this slim majority against fierce opposition, Feinstein, who wanted a permanent ban, could only get 10 years. The ban expired on September 13, 2004. Since then, Republican opposition in the House and Senate defeated Feinstein’s renewedattempts at gun violence prevention bills. Such bills are exceedingly difficult to pass. With support from the National Rifle Association, gun rights advocates, Americans who believe in a certain interpretation of the Second Amendment, vote in big numbers. More importantly, representatives in Congress are punished, and defeated, if they don’t vote with them.
“We’re finally building real momentum to enact common sense gun safety laws.”
Regardless of legislative success or failures, the recent student walkouts and March For Our Lives events around the world (led by young leaders like Parkland survivors Emma Gonzalez, David Hogg, and Delaney Tarr) are finally forcing the question that lies at the core of Feinstein’s latest gun control bill: Do we want military-style assault weapons on the streets of our country?
Following the outset of this youth-led movement and demonstrations around the world, VICE Impact asked Senator Feinstein about the students demanding change, and the path forward for gun control.
VICE Impact: You fought to ban assault weapons and for sensible gun violence prevention laws. How helpful is it to you to have high school students across the country raising awareness and promoting activism?
Dianne Feinstein: A generation of students has grown up with active shooter drills as the norm, and the fact that we’ve allowed that to happen in this country is shameful. Thanks to the incredible activism of students who are saying ‘enough is enough,’ I believe we’re finally building real momentum to enact common sense gun safety laws. The March for Our Lives was only the beginning of our efforts to stem the tide of gun violence.
I’ve fought for stronger gun laws for decades, and I’ve never seen so many Americans with so much passion and so much energy calling for change. The public has always been on our side, but the gun lobby has counted on the fact that their minority is more organized, more vocal. Not anymore. We know that we need to be just as organized, just as united, and just as loud.
“The president has proven to be a completely unreliable negotiator.”
You met with some of the Parkland students. What words of advice did you give them?
Their determination and resolve having experienced such an unspeakable tragedy was awe inspiring. I was also so impressed with how quickly they’d learned about the different legislative proposals that have been introduced. They asked me specific questions about my assault weapons ban bill.
As someone who’s been a target of gun lobby vitriol for decades, I told them to not let the personal attacks deter them.
How did your personal history with gun violence motivate you to take action on this issue?
I became the Mayor of San Francisco when Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk were assassinated at City Hall. I heard the shots and found Supervisor Milk’s body. I don’t often speak about it, but anyone who’s been personally touched by gun violence knows that it never leaves you and you have to do something about it.
How are we going to get gun control legislation passed in this Congress?
We’re going to get this done through relentless public pressure and making clear to lawmakers who oppose common sense gun reform that there will be electoral consequences.
Up until now, lawmakers believed that the political consequences of standing up to the gun lobby are greater than the political consequences of hiding behind the gun lobby. Thanks to these students and the grassroots movement they’ve ignited, I believe the calculation there is beginning to change.
“I’ve fought for stronger gun laws for decades, and I’ve never seen so many Americans with so much passion and so much energy calling for change.”
How important it is to mobilize and vote in the Midterms?
It’s incredibly important that young people make strengthening our gun laws a top priority and get out and vote. One of the reasons we have been unable to reinstate the assault weapons ban is that even though the public supports the ban, strengthening our guns laws hasn’t necessarily been voters’ top priority. It needs to be if we’re going to be successful.
The president has proven to be a completely unreliable negotiator. After professing his support for broad gun-safety reforms on live television, he backtracked after a private meeting with the NRA. It showed his true colors, and I think the American people have enough evidence to show that he is not a principled person.
What gun control reform details are we are not focusing on yet that we should?
A buyback program is critical. We have four percent of the world’s population and 42 percent of the world’s guns. We’re not proposing confiscating guns that are legally possessed so the only way to get weapons off the streets is through a buyback program. My assault weapons ban legislation authorizes the use of Justice Department grants to states to be used for buyback programs.
Voice your opinion and tell your elected officials if you support S. 2095, “The Assault Weapons Ban of 2017.”
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.