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Is Dianne Feinstein's decades-long battle over assault weapons over?

U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) speaks next to a display of assault weapons during a January news conference on Capitol Hill. Feinstein's proposal to ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines will not be part of the Senate's gun control bill.
U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) speaks next to a display of assault weapons during a January news conference on Capitol Hill. Feinstein's proposal to ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines will not be part of the Senate's gun control bill.
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The Senate returns to work Tuesday and is expected to take up the most comprehensive gun legislation in two decades. Missing from the bill will be California Democrat Dianne Feinstein’s provision to ban assault weapons and large ammunition magazines. That measure will be offered as an amendment – and is expected to fall well short of passage.

Feinstein has battled for decades for an assault weapons ban – a fight that is personal for the nearly-80-year-old Senator.

Assassination at City Hall

It was November of 1978 when Dan White, a former San Francisco Supervisor, walked into City Hall with a gun and a grudge. As President of the Board of Supervisors, Feinstein announced to the media that both Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk had been shot and killed.

It wasn’t Feinstein’s first brush with violence. Last week at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club, Feinstein told the story of the unexploded bomb outside her home and the windows shot out at her beach house in 1976. That’s when she learned to shoot at the city’s police range and began carrying a revolver: "I decided if they were going to come after me, I was going to take a few with me."

San Francisco later sponsored a gun turn-in program. When she became mayor, Feinstein had some of the weapons turned into a cross, which she presented to the pope. "To me, that was very significant, that this was going to go in a different direction."

In the summer of 1992, there was another mass shooting in San Francisco. A man with an assault weapon mowed down eight people at a law firm. A few months later, Feinstein was elected to the U.S. Senate. She says when she came to Capitol Hill, she "became determined to try to do something about it."

Make it work

It’s unusual for a freshman senator to get any legislation passed, let alone a controversial measure to ban assault weapons. But Adam Eisgrau, Feinstein's then-legal advisor on the Senate Judicary Committee, says "freshman doesn’t really quite capture either the way Senator Feinstein approached the process or the way she was treated."

Eisgrau wrote the draft for the 1994 assault weapons ban. He says Feinstein asked the majority leader for advice on how to get it passed. He sent her to talk to Joe Biden, the then-head of the Judiciary Committee, who had her consult with Senate veterans who'd been floating their own gun bills around Capitol Hill.

Feinstein’s measure was tucked inside a larger crime bill. It had something for everybody: more prisons and enhanced carjacking penalties to satisfy conservatives, gun control and violence against women provisions for liberals.

In the midst of the floor debate, Senator Larry Craig suggested that Feinstein might need to learn a bit more about firearms. Eisgrau says Feinstein interrupted the Republican from Idaho, asking for a “point of personal privilege” and gave a graphic account of discovering Mayor Moscone and the effects of guns. Eisgrau says Craig “lost his composure at that point and quickly concluded his remarks.”

The Senate passed the measure. Eisgrau says the minute Feinstein walked off the floor after the Senate vote, she asked her staff to set up phone calls with any House member who might possibly support the bill. "She began by saying, 'Representative so-and-so, thanks very much for taking my call. Let me ask you a question. Do you know much about guns?'”

Feinstein’s Senate colleague, Democrat Barbara Boxer, says she has also watched Feinstein work the room for support on an assault weapons ban: "She talks to them, she reasons with them, she listens to their concerns, she responds to their concerns and I think it’s made her a better person."

The lobbying worked. The measure passed – but barely. Longtime Feinstein political advisor Bill Carrick says even though Democrats held the House, Senate and the White House, the National Rifle Association was just as strong in the early ‘90s as it is today. "Democrats only passed the assault weapons ban by 2 votes in the House." he says, "so it was tough then."

Eisgrau says there was a sense of “quiet satisfaction” from Feinstein, but no celebration. “This was a particular provision that was born of tragedy and violence,” he says. “There’s only really the determination to lessen people’s suffering.”

Political blowback

The backlash was immediate. 1994 was a bad year for Democrats for various reasons, but the assault weapons ban gave extra ammunition to the GOP, which took back the House and the Senate.

Because she was first elected to fill out Pete Wilson’s term, Feinstein had to run for re-election in ‘94. Former Feinstein press deputy Susan Kennedy remembers other fallout from the assault weapons fight during the ’94 campaign – “vitriol” over the issue and the need for extra security, being briefed on what to look for while walking through crowds, and a U.S. Marshal as Feinstein’s bodyguard.

"She had a sense of realism that only someone who has witnessed gun violence can have," Kennedy says. "There was no bravado about it. But I didn’t sense fear. I sensed an acute awareness that she takes any threats of crazies seriously."

In 2004, when the assault weapons ban expired, Feinstein introduced a ten-year extension. But there was little political will and the measure died as an amendment in the Senate. Kennedy says she was "very disappointed." And when Feinstein is disappointed, "she gets quiet." Kennedy says it took time for the senator to "recharge her batteries. But she just picked up the fight again, she never let it down."

The battle ahead

Feinstein will soon face another round of disappointment.

Last December, the shooting of 20 children and six adults in Newtown, Connecticut created another opportunity for gun violence legislation. Feinstein’s new assault weapons ban passed the Senate Judiciary Committee, but not before a verbal battle that echoed an earlier confrontation with Larry Craig two decades earlier.

Joshua Horwitz, executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, was in the room when GOP Senator Ted Cruz challenged Feinstein’s knowledge of the Second Amendment. Horwitz says her response was “classic Dianne Feinstein,” telling the junior Senator from Texas she was “reasonably well-educated” and had spent 20 years “up close and personal” with the Constitution. Horwitz relays that some people say Feinstein "has sharp elbows,” but he thinks “she just knows how to do her job.”

But Majority Leader Harry Reid — knowing the ban doesn’t have enough votes to pass the full Senate — will not include it in the gun violence bill. Instead, it will be an amendment that is expected to be voted down.

The legacy

Feinstein turns 80 this year. This may be her last opportunity to make an assault weapons ban her Senate legacy.  John Burton, who heads the California Democratic Party and has known Feinstein for decades, says there are no legacies.

"I don’t think Dianne wakes up saying, ‘And when I die, on my grave will be I have banned assault weapons.’ Dianne believes assault weapons are bad for our society and that’s why she’s doing it."

Kennedy had lunch with Feinstein last week. She describes the senator's mood ahead of the Senate vote as “somber,” but determined. Kennedy says Feinstein’s efforts won’t disappear. Even if a future senator gets an assault weapons ban passed, “her hand will be in it.”

Kennedy cites the example of the Desert Protection Act – a bill Feinstein’s predecessor Alan Cranston sought for decades. “Dianne would not have been able  to get that passed had Alan Cranston not done all that work,” says Kennedy, adding that Feinstein's work on assault weapons “is not going to go to waste.”

Feinstein says she isn’t throwing in the towel. "This is a lifetime pursuit for me," she told the Commonwealth Club. "If I can’t get it done this time, there will be another time."

And there may be another opportunity. A poll last week by Quinnipiac University shows Americans support an assault weapons ban by 59-to-36 percent. Feinstein was just re-elected. She has six years to persuade her Congressional colleagues to mirror the opinions of the rest of the country.

Related: Gun control: Where does your US congressman stand?