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The Clinton Files

The Clinton Files

Photo credit: Prince Williams/WireImage

In early October, Hillary Clinton completely came out of the gun control closet. She was recorded spewing an anti-gun, anti-NRA diatribe at a private fundraiser (held, curiously, at the home of a convicted felon). Supporters cheered as she announced she was “taking on the NRA,” adding that she was “proud when my husband took them out.” And she promised: “I’m going to speak out, I’m going to do everything I can to rally people against this pernicious, corrupting influence of the NRA, and we’re going to do whatever we can.”  

A few days later, she announced her gun control platform, including the usual list: no private sales, a so-called “assault weapons” ban, allowing gun purchases to be indefinitely delayed by the (not so) instant check system, and repealing the protection given lawful gun dealers and manufacturers against frivolous anti-gun lawsuits. 

She then hearkened back to the years during which her husband, Bill Clinton, battled the gun rights movement. “We took them on in the ’90s,” she said. “We’re going to take them on again.” This appeal to the good old days seemed a bit strange for a supposedly “progressive” candidate, but let that pass.

Hillary’s presentation defines her new role—her husband’s heir on the gun control issue. She clearly believes that she—and she alone—can return us to the glorious days when Bill Clinton sat in the White House and his administration put lawful gun owners in their place. 

Just what is the legacy she seeks to inherit? We know the public aspect of it—in other words, the parts that succeeded. They included the Brady Act, the “assault weapons ban,” skyrocketing license fees for FFLs, and so on. But these were actually just the tip of the Clinton gun-ban iceberg. To see the rest, I recently traveled to the William J. Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, Ark.

It was well worth the trip.

The first find was nothing less than staggering—a fax from Jody Powell, President Jimmy Carter’s press secretary, to George Stephanopoulos, Bill Clinton’s new press secretary, warning Clinton to back off from gun control because … it just doesn’t work.

“If there is an area that needs ‘new thinking,’ ‘rethinking,’ ‘a different kind of Democrat’ and all that, crime/gun control is it. From the outside this does not appear to be happening. What I hear and read sounds like the same old ideas being presented with the same worn-out rhetoric. She then hearkened back to the years during which her husband, Bill Clinton, battled the gun rights movement. “We took them on in the ’90s,” she said. “We’re going to take them on again.”

“We have yet to propose anything that people think will make any difference. The people who are generally for gun control don’t make it a voting issue because it has no real impact on their lives. On the other hand, the inconvenience and hassle of wading through another round with indifferent and incompetent bureaucrats and the fear that this is only the first step toward more radical measures are quite real to people who own guns.” 

Then came the real bombshell:

“Much as I hate to say it, the NRA is effective primarily because it is largely right when it claims that most gun control measures inconvenience and threaten the law-abiding while having little or no impact on violent crime and criminals.” 

Powell then accurately predicted what the future would hold: 

“I support registration in principle. But two questions need to be asked. Are the people causing the problem going to comply voluntarily? If not, do you have a way to effectively enforce compliance? If the answer is ‘no’ in both cases, consider whether the benefits are worth making Bob Dole majority leader.”

The cover sheet bore a handwritten note, showing that Stephanopoulos had sent the fax to President Clinton, with his own recommendation: “This makes a lot of sense. GS”

This was January 1994—before the “assault weapons ban” and the other Clinton-era gun restrictions. The president had been warned by a high-ranking Democratic operative that what the administration was pushing wouldn’t work, that NRA was right, and that such measures would burden honest gun owners while doing nothing to combat crime. The only likely effect would be to cost Democrats the U.S. Senate.

Yet the Clinton administration went ahead and pursued those restrictive gun control policies anyway. 

That discovery was just the beginning. Reviewing Clinton administration internal memos made it clear that gun control was a priority virtually from day one. But one thing was strangely absent. Not a single memo or document dealt with whether any of the proposed measures would affect crime. That was a non-issue in the Clinton White House. The real question to the administration was how each gun restriction could be portrayed—how it would function as a symbol. It was all smoke and mirrors. 

The “Assault Weapons Ban.”

Early in the administration, what became known as “The Crime Bill” was introduced. It contained the Clinton “assault weapons ban.” 

A Jan. 27, 1994, memo co-authored by Rahm Emanuel told Clinton that he had “the opportunity to make the crime issue ‘his,’” and thereby establish his (brace for this) moral image. “Instead the issue of crime and violence has been changed to punishment and values (learning the difference between right and wrong).” This would be a chance, Emanuel wrote, to “identify the president as a person of deeply held values, a moral leader for this country.” 

The memo recommended measures to reinforce this “spin,” one of which stood out: “CDC study on violence: The Centers for Disease Control will release a study on causes of death, which will show the toll of violence. The president could make a statement, followed by the head of CDC or Shalala.” Even back then, 21 years ago, anti-gun forces could see how the CDC could be used to promote their cause. (Even more astonishing, though, is that the president himself was receiving advanced word of CDC reports so he could schedule press events around them.) 

Second Term: Gun Permits And Gun Registration.

By his second term, Clinton’s proposals were expanding. His 2000 State of the Union speech specifically called for nationwide gun permit requirements: Reviewing Clinton administration internal memos made it clear that gun control was a priority virtually from day one. But one thing was strangely absent. Not a single memo or document dealt with whether any of the proposed measures would affect crime.

“Every state in this country already requires hunters and automobile drivers to have a license. I think they ought to do the same thing for handgun purchases. (Applause.) Now, specifically, I propose a plan to ensure that all new handgun buyers must first have a photo license from their state showing they passed the Brady background check and a gun safety course before they get the gun. I hope you’ll help me pass that in this Congress.”

Clinton’s internal documents actually show that the gun permit system was just the beginning. The speech was filed with sets of draft press releases and questions and answers. One of the “Q&A” documents provided a ready reply to anyone asking about gun registration: 

“The president has stated previously that he thinks gun registration is a good idea. But he also believes that the best next step to strengthen our gun laws is a state-based licensing system.” 

In other words: Don’t worry, we’ll get the permit requirement now, then get registration later.

The Drive Continues: Stamping Out Small FFLs, And “Smart Gun” Requirements With A Secret Twist.

A draft press release for the State of the Union added that it was “long past time” for Congress to “close the gun show loophole, ban the importation of high-capacity ammunition clips and require child gun safety locks.” 

The White House files also dropped a clue as to another anti-gun measure. The draft press release referred to “smart gun” technology that would (if ever perfected) limit a gun to being fired by certain persons. The technology was being promoted as limiting the firing of a gun to its owner and persons he chose. The press release, however, referred to technology that would “limit a gun’s use to its authorized owner.” 

Note the word “authorized.” The plan was to ensure that only the permit holder—the person whom the government had approved—could use a firearm in self-defense.  

The internal papers also shed light on the Clinton administration’s move to stamp out small gun dealers. The Gun Control Act of 1968 made it fairly simple to acquire a Federal Firearms License—FFLs had to keep records (and later do background checks), while private sellers did not, so why not encourage people to become FFLs? By Clinton’s time, around a quarter of a million Americans held FFLs.

In summer 1993, the Clinton administration declared an initiative in which the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) would cooperate with local law enforcement to stop the “senseless violence occurring throughout the country with numbing regularity.” It certainly sounded like a good—or at least harmless—idea. 

But the Clinton administration internal memorandums show a different picture: The real purpose of the “cooperation” was to drive small FFLs out of business (and, of course, to collect their records). A memo from the Treasury Department to White House staffer Dennis Burke (who would, years later, be the U.S. attorney at the heart of the “Fast and Furious” gunwalking scandal) outlined what was being done. ATF, together with local police and zoning inspectors, threatened small FFLs into resigning their licenses because they “did business” in their homes, which were not zoned for business. 

The memorandum boasted of the effect: “Boston, MA—119 FFLs in 1994 have been reduced to the current level of 36. Chicago, IL—total FFLs have declined from 256 to 11.” Nationwide, in three years, the number of FFLs was cut nearly in half, falling from 286,000 to 144,000. 

Driving small FFLs out of business had two effects. First, the shut-down dealers had to turn over their records to ATF. The memo added that ATF’s Tracing Center had expanded its capacity “to effectively utilize the firearms transaction records of out-of-business licensees.” Second, it set up a future attack on gun ownership—Hillary’s modern claim that private sales must be regulated because they aren’t going through the FFLs her husband had forced out of business! 

Lawsuits Against Gun Manufacturers: The REAL Agenda.

Then we found the real bombshell, and one that ties directly to Hillary’s current campaign. During her husband’s administration, the Brady Campaign—then named Handgun Control Inc.—had targeted gun manufacturers and dealers with frivolous lawsuits, claiming they should pay for damage done by criminals illegally using their products. Brady was soon backed by numerous anti-gun cities, which claimed the manufacturers should pay for all the gun-related crime in the entirety of their domains. 

A law professor summed up the effect: “By 2000, gun litigation was regularly front-page news, and manufacturers faced potentially bankrupting industrywide liability exposure as a result of suits by dozens of individual victims, over 30 cities, and the state of New York.” 

In response, the NRA pressed for the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which passed in 2005. The vote was overwhelming and bipartisan (65-31 Senate, 283-144 House). 

Hillary Clinton’s recent announcement of her anti-gun platform singled out the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA) for special attention. She calls it a “dangerous law” and her written plan pledges: “It is past time to repeal this law and hold the gun industry accountable just like everyone else. Clinton voted against this law in 2005 and will lead the charge to repeal it as president.” 

At a town hall in New Hampshire in early October, she again attacked the PLCAA: “So far as I know, the gun industry and gun sellers are the only business in America that is totally free of liability for their behavior. Nobody else is given that immunity. And that just illustrates the extremism that has taken over this debate.”The real purpose of the “cooperation” was to drive small FFLs out of business (and, of course, to collect their records).

Why such an emphasis on a 10-year-old law that passed by 2-to-1 majorities? The papers found in her husband’s archives show why the lawsuits that the law stopped were so important to his plans—and now to hers.

Bill Clinton took a personal role in trying to settle the lawsuits. A January 2000 Q&A paper poses a question about the “status of your discussions with the gun industry and the cities that have filed lawsuits” and suggests the answer: 

As we’ve made clear before, the White House intends to engage the gun industry in negotiations. We’ve had some preliminary discussions, and want to engage as many members of the gun industry as we can to achieve meaningful reforms to the way the gun industry does business. … We want real reforms that will improve the public safety and save lives. 

But the internal White House papers show “real reforms” were not on the table. In December 1999, the “Office of the Deputy Secretary” (presumably of Treasury) had faxed the White House a proposed settlement of the lawsuits. 

Under the settlement:

  • The manufacturers must agree to stop producing firearms (of any type) that could accept magazines holding more than 10 rounds, and not produce guns with polymer frames or handguns that do not qualify for import (meaning long barrels, target sights, etc.).
  • In one year, all new handguns must include magazine safeties; within five years, all must be “smart guns” (described as “authorized user technology”—again, note that term, “authorized user”).
  • The manufacturers must agree to finance (dollar amount left blank) a public relations campaign to “inform the public of the risks of guns in the home and proper gun storage, as well as the need to reduce gun violence.”
  • Manufacturers and dealers must also not only agree to create a gun registration system, but to pay for it. The court would appoint, and the manufacturers finance, a “monitor,” who would create a “Sales Data Clearinghouse.” Manufacturers would report all sales data to the Clearinghouse, and require any FFLs and distributors to whom they do business with to provide their sales data to the Clearinghouse.
  • Most importantly—and here is the hook that brings in the ordinary FFL, who was not a party to the lawsuits—manufacturers must agree to sell only to distributors and dealers who agreed to comply with certain standards
 

Those standards for distributors and dealers included:

  • No sales at gun shows or over the Internet;
  • “One gun a month” restriction for all guns, rifles and shotguns included;
  • No sales of new or used magazines that hold more than 10 rounds; and
  • No sales of used guns that would fall within the “assault weapons ban.”

The settlement would have amounted to the most staggering victory yet scored in the history of the anti-gun movement—all achieved in court, rather than through Congress!

The FFLs’ compliance was to be monitored annually, and any ATF “trace” would create a presumption that the FFL is in violation and should be cut off. (For reference, in 2014 ATF traced more than 360,000 guns, which would mean a lot of dealers, probably a majority, would be cut off.) 

Remember, this was 1999: The PLCAA was still years away. Firearm manufacturers were defending against a mass of lawsuits funded by the Brady Campaign, by cities and by New York state. Their legal costs were staggering, and if they lost even one major suit the result would be complete ruin. 

The Clinton administration thought it was in a position to dictate terms to them, and those terms amounted to nothing less than unconditional surrender. National gun registration, paid for by the gun industry. No magazines holding over 10 rounds, or guns that can accept them. One gun a month. No dealers at gun shows. An anti-gun PR campaign financed not by the Brady Campaign, but by firearms makers (and through them, by gun owners). 

All of this was to be forced on gun manufacturers and FFLs as the settlement of lawsuits, without the messy necessity of trying to get Congress to enact laws. Any FFL that didn’t go along would be driven out of business, since manufacturers would be forced to cut them as customers. 

That’s the real reason Hillary Clinton has made repeal of that Act—and the return of the punitive anti-gun lawsuits against lawful firearm manufacturers and dealers—such an important part of her new platform. The PLCAA took the “wish list” settlement approach off the table, now and forever—and in order for Hillary to continue her husband’s “legacy” of punitive lawsuits, it would need to be permanently done away with. 

In short, the Clinton Presidential Archives are a breathtaking look into documents held secret during the Clinton years. These records reveal things that, until now, only Hillary Clinton and other insiders knew: things that put her latest “gun control platform” in a new—and profoundly threatening—light. 

See the full text of Jody Powell’s memo to George Stephanopolous, and other gun control documents from the Clinton Presidential Library, by clicking here.