Today in 1994: The U.S. House passes largest crime bill in history

August 21, 2015

Today in Legal HistoryBecause of an ever-increasing partisan divide, it’s not often nowadays that Congress can actually agree on passing a major piece of legislation.  But 21 years ago today, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a major bipartisan bill – the largest crime bill in U.S. history – when it voted 235 to 195 to pass the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act (VCCLEA) on August 21, 1994.

The VCCLEA contained numerous major provisions that continue to be relevant today, such as the Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act (commonly referred to as the Federal Assault Weapons Ban (AWB)), the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), the Federal Death Penalty Act (FDPA), and the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act (DPPA).

The AWB banned the manufacture of certain firearms which appeared and functioned similarly to military-style weapons (these firearms may have included features such as semi-automatic firing and grenade launchers).  Despite calls for its extension, the ban expired on September 13, 2004, during the contentious 2004 presidential election season.  Although the increase in the number of mass shootings in recent years – many of which are carried out with the use of weapons such as those originally banned by this law – occasionally creates renewed interest in a fresh ban, support in Congress has yet to reach critical mass.

VAWA provided federal funding to prevent and investigate violence against women.  It did so by increasing law enforcement training on sexual and domestic violence, strengthening federal penalties for repeat sex offenders, and created the Office on Violence Against Women.  Although one of the original provisions of VAWA which created a civil cause of action that allowed victims of sexual or domestic violence to sue their attackers in federal civil court was struck down in the 2000 Supreme Court case U.S. v. Morrison, the 2013 extension of the law expanded coverage of services to include LGBT individuals, Native Americans, and immigrants.

The FDPA made 60 federal offenses punishable by death.  Such offenses predominantly included crimes relating to terrorism, murder, and other crimes resulting in death.  The 1995 Oklahoma City bombing occurred several months after this law was enacted, and Timothy McVeigh was executed because of changes adopted by the this legislation.

Finally, the DPPA governs the protection and disclosure of state Department of Motor Vehicles records.  Specifically, the law bars the disclosure of personal information without that person’s consent, subject to certain exceptions.  The constitutionality of the law was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2000’s Reno v. Condon; in 2013, the Court held in Maracich v. Spears that attorneys attempting to use one of the act’s exceptions to locate potential clients for a class action against a car dealership were actually not entitled to use said exception and were thus in violation of the act in collecting the DMV records.

The DPPA isn’t the last of VCCLEA’s numerous provisions, many of which continue to make their mark on federal, state, and local laws today.  However, VCCLEA’s legacies aren’t only tied to its direct impact on the legal criminal landscape of the nation, but also to it remaining one of the largest bipartisan pieces of legislation to pass Congress in recent history.