My Turn: Price of Brady Bill was worth it

For the Monitor
Wednesday, January 13, 2016
When I ran for Congress as a Democrat in 1990, no one thought I would win in conservative-leaning New Hampshire – but I did. When I was elected – as the first Democrat since the sinking of the Titanic – no one thought I would have a real impact – but as it turns out I did.

One particular victory stands out for me: the passage of the 1994 Crime Bill, which contained the Brady Assault Weapon Ban. Named for James Brady, President Ronald Reagan’s press secretary who was shot in the head during a failed assassination attempt, it limited access to automatic and semi-automatic weapons. It is a piece of legislation that I believe saved lives during the 17 years it was in place.

Like so many of our greatest triumphs, the assault weapon ban came with a hefty price. It ended the political careers of many dedicated public servants, both Democrats and Republicans. After voting for the Crime Bill, I received death threats and the NRA targeted me heavily in the next election. It was not a fun experience, but I did not regret putting the lives of my fellow citizens ahead of my personal ambition, even though it ended my political career.

Across the Connecticut River in Vermont, Republican Congressman Peter Smith was the first to be targeted by the NRA. After saying he would support an assault weapons ban in 1990, he became the NRA’s only target that year. Their campaign against him was successful, and in Smith’s place, the then mayor of Burlington, a man by the name of Bernie Sanders, was elected to Congress. Sanders would go on to vote against Brady not once but five times.

Throughout the country similar stories played out, as Democrats and Republicans alike lost their seats to heavy spending and aggressive attacks from the NRA – all because they supported a responsible and necessary ban on assault weapons. The NRA used big money to defeat elected officials who dared to defy them, and replace them with people who would and did vote against common-sense proposals like Brady.

In my office today hangs a handwritten letter dated May 5, 1994, signed by former President Ronald Reagan.

“Dick,” he wrote, “I know that you are thinking very carefully about a pending assault weapons bill . . . I’m convinced that the limitations imposed in this bill are absolutely necessary. I know there is heavy pressure on you to go the other way, but I strongly urge you to join me in supporting this bill. It must be passed.”

President Reagan was right in 1994, and he is right today. Even Sen. Judd Gregg reversed his position in 2004 and voted to continue the assault weapons ban he initially opposed. New laws to prevent gun violence must be passed. New Hampshire voters through our first-in-the-nation primary have a unique opportunity to question the candidates on their records and what they would do – and most importantly to nominate someone with the courage to take on this fight, and win.

I’m often asked if I regret my choice – if looking back, knowing how it would end, would I have voted differently. And my answer is the same every time. I wouldn’t change a thing. When it comes to preventing gun violence, no personal sacrifice is too great. Because this is a fight that is worth winning.

President Obama agrees. Earlier this month, he outlined new executive action he would be taking to keep us safe. And he pledged not to campaign for individuals who didn’t back action to prevent gun violence – even members of his own party. In 2017, a new president will take office. There are a lot of choices but only Hillary Clinton has the leadership and the track record to make a difference for us on this vital issue.

(Richard N. Swett, a former ambassador to Denmark and member of Congress, is an architect, member of APCO Worldwide’s International Advisory Council and author of “Leadership by Design: Creating an Architecture of Trust.)