WASHINGTON — President Bill Clinton had just been ambushed by his own party. It was August 1994 and a coalition of House Democrats wary of any new gun restrictions joined Republicans to unexpectedly sink the administration’s big crime bill on a procedural vote that was usually a test of party loyalty.
Afterward, Speaker Thomas S. Foley and his top lieutenants, all Democrats, trooped down to the White House with a message for a shocked president who was already struggling on his signature health care proposal: Drop a divisive ban on assault weapons or the crime bill won’t pass.
“To his credit, Clinton said, ‘No, we are not going to do that,’” recalled Rahm Emanuel, who was then a senior policy adviser to the president and was at the Green Room get-together with Mr. Clinton and House leaders. “That’s when we decided to go to the Republicans. At the time, it was novel to try to work with the Republicans.”
With Congress prepared to again clash over gun safety, in the aftermath of a murderous August, the circuitous route to passage taken by the assault weapons ban 25 years ago illustrates just how perfectly the legislative stars must align for contentious gun measures to become law. It also shows what such an effort entails — true bipartisanship, a committed White House, a readiness on all sides to compromise and a willingness by some lawmakers to take a significant political risk.
“When I voted for it, I actually had to have police protection for six months,” Representative Fred Upton, Republican of Michigan, said of the backlash to his vote for the assault weapons ban. “It was really nasty.”
The consequences of the vote were so severe — Democrats lost the House after four decades of control, with the assault weapons ban ranking high among the reasons — that Congress has been unable to advance major gun safety legislation since.
The epidemic of mass shootings and the rise of effective gun control advocacy groups have steadily shifted attitudes. Most Democrats are again willing to push ahead with universal background checks and other limits on gun ownership, though few are talking about trying to reinstitute the assault weapons ban. Congressional Republicans remain, for the most part, opposed to sweeping proposals, particularly without knowing where President Trump will land on the issue.
A quarter-century ago, it was House Democrats who were an impediment to imposing a ban on military-style weapons that had been used in mass shootings, notably a 1989 event in Stockton, Calif., where a gunman armed with an assault rifle killed five elementary school students and wounded more than 30 other people. That attack led to the introduction of a proposed ban that circulated in Congress for years but was never enacted.
Congress did, however, adopt in 1993 the so-called Brady Bill instituting background checks on those buying guns from dealers and manufacturers. It was named for James Brady, the White House press secretary gravely wounded in the 1981 assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan, and the bill’s approval showed increasing bipartisan sentiment in Congress for gun control measures.
The 1994 election year crime bill presented a new opportunity to pursue a ban on select assault-style weapons, and the cause was taken up by Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California. At a party retreat, she encouraged Mr. Clinton to pursue the legislation as part of the crime bill.
That prospect was unsettling to powerful Democrats from the South and rural areas who were in no rush to anger their gun-owning constituents or the National Rifle Association, the gun lobby that promised to punish lawmakers who backed the ban. Representative Jack Brooks, the pro-gun Texas Democrat who was chairman of the Judiciary Committee, led the effort to defeat the ban, and he scored a notable success in mid-August when he and nearly 60 other Democrats mutinied. They defeated the motion to bring the crime bill to the floor, sending the administration scrambling to rescue a major legislative initiative. The pro-gun lawmakers teamed up with liberals and members of the Congressional Black Caucus who opposed other elements of the crime bill.
Unable to win over many Democrats, Mr. Clinton and his team turned their attention to more moderate Republicans with suburban constituencies. The president worked through Representative Mike Castle, a former Republican governor of Delaware who had struck up a relationship with Mr. Clinton when he was governor of Arkansas. Another key ally was Representative John Kasich, Republican of Ohio. Instead of being frozen out as usual, Republicans suddenly found themselves winning concessions from the president himself to toughen the crime bill and cut some spending. Some Republicans said the assault weapons ban only seemed like common sense to them.
“I know people on the Second Amendment side go nuts when you say this, but what is the purpose of an assault weapon?” said Representative Peter T. King, Republican of New York, who backed the crime bill. “I was surprised by the reaction.”
A key moment came when Representative Henry J. Hyde, a conservative icon from Illinois, backed the ban as well, giving the more moderate Republicans some cover on the right. On Aug. 21, 1994, a Sunday, the House passed the overall measure on a 235-to-194 vote, with 46 Republicans joining in and 64 Democrats opposed.
Repercussions followed quickly. Democrats, many of whom were subjects of multiple ethics controversies, were crushed in the November midterm elections, with the losses including Mr. Foley and Mr. Brooks, despite his efforts to keep the ban from passing.
Gun control became a subject the party avoided for years. The assault weapons ban, limited to 10 years as one of the concessions to secure its passage, was allowed to expire in 2004.
After the school massacre in 2012 in Newtown, Conn., Democrats and a handful of Republicans took a run at expanding background checks but came up short while a proposal to reinstate an assault weapons ban badly failed. Congress has made some very modest improvements to the background check system since then, but the coming weeks will be the most serious gun control push in years.
The Democrat-led House has already passed its own measure expanding background checks, but only eight Republicans — including Representatives Upton and King — backed that bill. Both men said they found resistance to such checks baffling.
“We are talking about background checks for criminals and mentally ill people,” Mr. King said. “It shouldn’t affect more than 1 or 2 percent of the gun applicants.”
Most of their fellow Republicans disagree. The two parties are trying to find consensus on other potential gun restrictions, including a proposal that would allow law enforcement to seize guns from those considered a public safety risk. That idea has drawn fierce objections from conservatives who fear it will strip gun owners of due process.
Virtually every initiative has encountered obstacles from some quarter. At the same time, Mr. Trump has repeatedly shifted on background checks and other proposals, leaving his view very uncertain. And Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, has said he would put on the floor only a measure the president supports.
Despite a summer of mass shootings, it will be difficult for Congress and the White House to come together on major gun restrictions as they did for that moment in 1994.