California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein made an impassioned call for gun control during a Capitol Hill hearing Thursday, recalling putting her fingers into bullet wounds on the body of slain gay activist Harvey Milk. But the gun that did the killing — a .38 special — doesn’t appear on the list of firearms she wants the federal government to ban. And Feinstein carried the same model revolver in her purse for nearly four years after the attack.
“When you come from where I’ve come from and what you’ve seen, when you found a dead body and put your finger in bullet holes, you really realize the impact of weapons,” the California Democrat told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Thursday, after a pointed exchange with Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz about the Second Amendment. (RELATED VIDEO: Ann Coulter blasts Feinstein for exchange with Cruz)
Feinstein was referring to Milk’s death in 1978. Then president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, she came upon his dead body after fellow San Francisco pol Dan White killed him and Mayor George Moscone with a .38 special — the same model gun Feinstein herself owned.
“I was the one that found Supervisor Milk’s body, and I was the one to put a finger in a bullet hole, trying to get a pulse,” Feinstein, who served with Milk on the Board of Supervisors and succeeded Moscone as mayor, told reporters in January 2013. “Once you have been through one of these episodes, once you see what the crime scene is like, it isn’t like the movies — it changes your view of weapons.”
Feinstein mentioned the shooting in 2008 during an emotional on-camera interview with the San Francicso Chronicle.
“I remember it, actually, as if it was yesterday,” she said then. “And it was one of the hardest moments, if not the hardest moment, of my life. It was a devastating moment. For San Francisco, it was a day of infamy.”
Despite her emotional reaction to Milk’s murder — press reports in 1978 said Feinstein was so shaken she needed police support — she did not turn in her own gun until four years later.
William Strawn, a spokesman for Feinstein when she was mayor, told The Washington Post in 1982 that she planned to hand over her Smith & Wesson .38 caliber Chief’s Special to police. Strawn said she had purchased the gun while serving as a city-county supervisor in the 1970s, after a local terrorist group shot out some windows of her home.
Feinstein eventually gave up her gun in July 1982, more than four years after the assassinations of Milk and Moscone.
Milk’s shooting “crystallized the issue for me,” Feinstein told Newsweek four months before she parted with her firearm.
“Even Feinstein concedes that patchwork gun-control legislation is ‘not a perfect vehicle,’ Newsweek reported. “What’s needed, she says, is a federal ban.”
Feinstein pushed a city-wide ban on handguns that went into effect in June 1982. “All we’re asking is for an opportunity to try it,” she said at the time. “Nothing will be lost, and it’s bound to save lives.”
But many liberals argued against that ban, including San Francisco Supervisor Carol Ruth Silver, who argued that it made women and small merchants vulnerable to assault. “Many of us, including myself,” Silver told Newsweek, “believe that the only defense we have is that little stash of metal.”
Silver and the other supervisors challenged the ban in court and won.
“The whole idea is to reduce the availability of handguns and try to reduce the pool of handguns that is created through burglaries,” Strawn, Feinstein’s spokesman, explained.
The 1982 law, which passed by a 6-to-5 vote of the board of supervisors, exempted gun stores, security guards, gun clubs, gun collectors and other citizens who could demonstrate a need to own a gun.
Residents had 90 days to dispose of their pistols. After that, ownership became be a misdemeanor, with a maximum penalty of 30 days in jail and a $500 fine.