Part 5: The battle to pass McClure-Volkmer
by Tanya K. Metaksa
The ATF is not your friend
Two different men, one a Democrat Congressman from Missouri, Harold Volkmer, and the other a Republican US Senator from Idaho, James McClure, are bound together in legislative history as the co-sponsors of the law that safeguarded constitutional rights for law-abiding gunowners. It certainly is a strange coincidence that these two men born over a decade apart, from differing backgrounds and political parties, died this year only two months apart. For an informative article written by gun rights advocate Dave Kopel about Harold Volkmer visit http://volokh.com/2011/04/18/rep-harold-volkmer-r-i-p/; a good bio of McClure online is Jim Norell’s article at http://www.nrapublications.org/index.php/9222/passing-of-a-legend/.
The 1979-1980 hearings in the Senate were just the warm-up to the fight to stop the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) from trampling on the rights of gunowners. The real fight was to stop them by changing the law. In 1979 the political climate was hardly conducive to passing pro-gun legislation with both Houses of Congress held by Democrats and President Jimmy Carter in the White House.
In 1980 the presidential election was between incumbent Carter and former California Gov. Ronald Reagan. For gunowners the choice was clear: Reagan. In 1975 he had authored an article for Guns and Ammo in which he stated, “I believe that the right of the citizen to keep and bear arms must not be infringed if liberty in America is to survive.” During the 1980 campaign Reagan publicly stated that he was in favor of legislation to change gun laws so that the honest law-abiding citizens would not be harassed by the government.
After the Reagan victory, NRA-ILA Executive Director Neal Knox began what was to be a six-year struggle to change the 1968 Gun Control Act (GCA68). Although Reagan was President, passing a bill to change GCA68 needed congressional action and that was a daunting task. Although the Republicans took control of the Senate as a result of Reagan’s coat-tails, the new Senate Majority Leader, Howard H. Baker, who was ostensibly “pro-gun,” was in no hurry to support McClure-Volkmer or have a vote in the full Senate.
In the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives anti-gun fanatic Peter Rodino (D-NJ) chaired the House Judiciary Committee and declared that if the Senate passed McClure-Volkmer, it was “dead-on-arrival.”
Despite these political realities the Senate Judiciary Committee scheduled hearings on McClure’s bill, S-1030, and held them in late 1981 and early 1982. Following the hearings where more victims testified, the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution released a favorable report entitled “The Right to Keep and Bear Arms.” In June 1982 after Knox had been fired by the NRA, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved McClure-Volkmer but with an amendment by Sen. Robert Dole (R-KS) requiring a 7-day waiting period on the purchase of handguns. Dole, who professed to be “pro-gun,” was in this writer’s eyes a fair weather friend to gunowners. That was later proven in 1986 when Dole ran against Clinton and supported the so-called assault weapons ban legislation during his campaign. After all the work on S-1030, the 97th Congress ended without any progress, thereby killing the bill.
When the new Congress began in 1983 the opposition to McClure-Volkmer was not only from the Democrats, but from ATF and the Justice Department. McClure reintroduced his original bill, not the amended S-1030, as S-914. A hearing was held on Oct. 4, 1983 where ATF again proposed amendments. Knox at the hearing testified that those amendments would, “substantially modify or totally nullify virtually every one of the modest reforms incorporated in Senator McClure’s bill.” Yet, NRA, under the direction of then NRA-ILA Executive Director Warren Cassidy, supported the ATF amendments. With NRA backing Dole and Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-SC), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, also supported the amendments. The ATF version of S-914 passed in the Judiciary Committee but never came to the Senate floor for a vote.
In 1984 McClure, who was not willing to accept the ATF amendments, received support from the White House on removing or modifying ATF amendments and announced that the “bill appears to be back on track.” Thus McClure, in the final days of the legislative session, attached S-914, as an amendment to a continuing appropriations bill. His amendment passed by a two-to-one vote, but McClure withdrew it after being promised that his bill would get a floor vote early in the next session of Congress. In November 1984 Reagan was re-elected by a landslide with gunowner support.
McClure reintroduced his bill, as S-49, on the first legislative day in 1985. As promised, the bill was scheduled for Senate floor action on June 24, 1985. On that date votes were taken on amendments to S-49 but no final action. On July 9 it was considered with amendments offered by both sides. Most of the anti-gun amendments were defeated, while those offered by pro-gun senators passed. At the end of the day, S-49 passed the US Senate on a recorded vote of 79-15.
The first half of the battle was won, but now the bill had to overcome Chairman Rodino’s anti-gun Judiciary Committee. Although Congressman Volkmer was not a member of the Judiciary Committee, he was the driving force behind his bill. The passage of McClure-Volkmer would ultimately be his crowning legislative triumph.
The action in Rodino’s Judiciary Committee was predictable. Subcommittee on Crime Chairman William J. Hughes (D-NJ), a rabid anti-gun politician, held hearings with testimony from every conceivable opposing viewpoint. Two hearings were held in October, one in November and then two more in February 1986. And, as predicted, the committee never voted on any bill at that time.
Yet Volkmer had a plan. He would use the parliamentary maneuver of a discharge petition. The discharge petition is a rarely used procedure as it runs against the House of Representatives leadership and its structured and tenured committee system. With the help of NRA-ILA lobbyists he was on a mission to convince 218 of his colleagues in the House to sign a discharge petition.
Without waiting for the Judiciary Committee to act on S-49/HR-945, Volkmer on Oct. 22, 1985 filed his petition to discharge the Committee on Rules from consideration of the rule allowing floor action on HR-945. In less than two months he had obtained 158 signatures. When the Congress recessed for the Christmas-New Year break the number had not changed, but those district vacations led to a renewed interest in the petition process, and the count by March 1986 was over 200 with eight alleged commitments. Volkmer, a highly skilled legislator, persuaded his colleagues because he understood all the nuances of his bill and was able to explain it to other representatives in a way that countered the ATF and anti-gun lobby’s arguments.
Chairman Rodino actively opposed Volkmer’s discharge petition, twisting arms and threatening congressmen to get them to remove their names from the signature list, but to no avail. When it appeared that Volkmer was about to win a discharge vote, Rodino and Hughes reported out a very weak version of S-49 in an effort to stop Volkmer. But they underestimated Volkmer’s tenacity, his legislative prowess and the support of American gunowners.
On the floor during the two-day debate, April 9-10, Volkmer managed to get a motion to strike everything in the Rodino-Hughes bill below the enacting clause and substitute his bill, HR-4332 by a vote of 286-136 while all the time defending against Hughes’ attacks and amendments. The vote on final passage was an astounding 292-130. Those 130 votes represented the most stubborn advocates of gun control.
Unfortunately the only onerous amendment that was added was the passage of the Hughes amendment banning the sale of machineguns manufactured after the date of the enactment of the law. It was the last amendment offered when all time for discussion was over, thus no rebuttal to the ban was allowed before the vote. The final outcome of the McClure-Volkmer legislative battle demonstrates the difficulty of passing pro-gun legislation: good legislation is harder to pass unscathed than it is to defeat bad legislation. In passing McClure-Volkmer gunowners were left with a gun ban on an entire class of firearms in order to protect all gunowners from a bad law. The choice at the time was a hard one, but in retrospect it was necessary.
The Senate concurred with the House amendments and the Firearms Owners Protection Act (FOPA) was signed into law by President Reagan on May 19, 1986.
FOPA was intended to stop the well documented enforcement excesses of ATF. But, would ATF finally respect the rights of gunowners and begin to regulate federally licensed firearms dealers respectfully or would they maintain their entrapment and fear-mongering techniques? Our next installment details ATF reaction to the passage of FOPA and a resulting tragedy.
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