Bill Clinton signed into law two of the most significant gun control laws in American history: the Brady Bill of 1993, which required background checks for most gun sales; and the assault weapons ban, included in the 1994 crime bill. Hillary Clinton did not make gun control one of her signature causes, the way she did health care reform, but she was an enthusiastic advocate of the measures all the same.
In her 1996 book It Takes a Village, she quotes a letter a 9-year-old boy in New Orleans sent to President Clinton in 1994, pleading, "I want you to stop the killing in the city. People is dead and I think that somebody might kill me. So would you please stop the people from deading. I'm asking you nicely to stop it. I know you can do it. Do it. I know you could." The boy was shot dead nine days later.
This is the context in which Clinton issues her defense of the Brady Bill and assault weapons ban:
The first step is to take weapons off the streets and to put more police on them. The Brady Bill, which my husband signed into law in 1993, imposes a five-day waiting period for gun purchases, time enough for authorities to check out the buyer's record and for the buyer to cool down about any conflict he might have intended the gun to resolve. Since it was enacted, more than forty thousand people with criminal records have been prevented from buying guns.
The 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act banned nineteen types of military-style assault weapons whose only purpose is to kill people and it stopped the revolving door for career criminals with its "three strikes and you're out" provision. As part of a "zero tolerance" policy for weapons, drugs, and other threats to the safety of teachers and students, the President signed an executive order decreeing that any student who comes to school with a gun will be expelled and punished as a condition of federal aid.
In 1993, while Clinton was testifying in the Senate as part of her health reform efforts, then-Sen. Bill Bradley (D-NJ) asked her about his plan for a 25 percent tax on handguns and a $2,500 licensing fee for gun dealers. "I'm all for that," she replied. "I just don't know what else we're going to do to try to figure out how to get some handle on this violence. … I'm speaking personally but I feel very strongly about that."
In April 1999, she recorded a robocall opposing a Missouri ballot initiative that would have required issuance of concealed carry permits to eligible persons, saying in the message, "It's just too dangerous for Missouri families."
She got more active on guns following the Columbine shooting a few weeks later, usually in the context of calling for children to have less access to weapons. In a speech to the National Education Association, she declared, "It does not make sense for us at this point in our history to turn our backs on the reality that there are too many guns and too many children have access to those guns — and we have to act to prevent that," expressing support for a Senate-passed measure that would have required background checks for all gun show sales.
"If you own a gun or you know people who do, make sure it's locked up and stored without the ammunition," Clinton said in a Good Morning America interview, in response to a teenage girl asking what she could do to promote gun control. "We've made some progress in the last several years with the Brady Bill and some of the bans on assault weapons, but we have a lot of work to do."
Around this time, Clinton was gearing up to run for the Senate in New York. In her 2003 memoir Living History, she writes that her run was inspired, at least in part, by Congress's failure to require child safety locks on guns and to close the gun show loophole after Columbine: "This Congressional lack of will to buck the all-powerful gun lobby and pass sensible gun safety measure made me think about what I might be able to do, as a Senator, to pass common sense legislation."
Clinton took even more restrictionist stands during the campaign than she had previously. She endorsed licensing all new gun owners and registering all new guns, pledging to work with Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) on her bill on the issue, and embraced a plan from then-Gov. George Pataki (R-NY) to set up a "ballistic fingerprint" database, to make it easier for police to solve gun crimes.
Under Clinton's plan, the New York Times's Adam Nagourney wrote, "prospective gun buyers would have to obtain a photo license, which would be issued only after they had undergone a criminal record check and passed a gun safety examination. Also, all sales of new guns, or transfers of guns, would be recorded in a national registry."
Clinton endorsed a bill proposed by Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) requiring gun purchasers to get a photo ID and take safety lessons first. She also proposed requiring trigger locks for handguns, making adults liable for how their children use guns, raising the handgun age minimum from 18 to 21, limiting gun sales to one a month, and having the Consumer Products Safety Commission regulate guns.
She signed on to the Democratic Leadership Council's "Hyde Park Declaration," which among other things included a call to "develop and require 'smart gun' technology to prevent use of firearms by unauthorized persons and implement sensible gun control measures."
By the 2000 race, then, Clinton had put together a very consistent and strong pro–gun control record. She didn't call for anything out of the political mainstream, like a handgun ban. But universal licensing and registration and mandatory smart guns were about the outer limit of what Democrats could propose on guns in the late '90s and early '00s.
And they made sense as proposals for a New York candidate; New York City is very pro–gun control and was still shaken by the high murder rates of the '80s and early '90s, and Clinton's likely Senate rival, Rudy Giuliani, was also an enthusiastic gun control supporter.