US Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, gun control advocate, dead at 90

Feinstein’s political career was shaped by guns. She became San Francisco’s mayor in 1978 upon the assassinations of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk.

Senator Dianne Feinstein leaves a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in May. Photo: via TNS

Feinstein was president of the San Francisco County Board of Supervisors when Moscone and Milk were gunned down by a former supervisor, Dan White.

After hearing the gunshots, she rushed to Milk’s office. While searching for his pulse, her finger found a bullet hole.

Feinstein said the horror of that experience never left her and she went on to author the federal ban on military-style assault weapons that lasted from 1994 until its 2004 expiration.

“This is a gun-happy nation, and everybody can have their gun,” Feinstein said after a May 2021 mass shooting in her home state as she lamented years of congressional failure to pass new gun control laws to guard against “the killing of innocents”.

Gun control push

Feinstein led a renewed effort for tougher gun laws including a fresh ban on assault-style weapons after a 2012 massacre at a Connecticut primary school. The legislation encountered furious opposition from Republicans and gun rights advocates and failed in the Senate.

Health issues slowed Feinstein late in her career. She announced in February that she would not seek re-election next year and was sidelined from Congress for three months, having suffered from shingles and complications including encephalitis and Ramsay Hunt Syndrome.

US Democratic presidential candidate Senator Hillary Clinton (right) being introduced by Senator Dianne Feinstein at a campaign rally in California in 2008. Photo: Reuters

“The CIA’s actions are a stain on our values and our history,” Feinstein said, defending the release of a report that revealed CIA use of “coercive interrogation techniques in some cases amounting to torture” on at least 119 detainees.

“History will judge us,” Feinstein added, “by our commitment to a just society governed by law and the willingness to face an ugly truth and say, ‘Never again.’”

The report detailed interrogation practices such as the simulated drowning method called waterboarding, sleep deprivation, painful stress positions, “rectal feeding” and “rectal hydration”.

Trailblazing US Senator Dianne Feinstein, 89, will not seek re-election

Despite CIA claims that the practices had saved lives, the report concluded that such methods had played no role in disrupting any terrorism plots, capturing any militant leaders or finding al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden, who was killed by American forces in Pakistan in 2011.

Protecting America

Feinstein defended US surveillance programmes exposed in 2013 by a National Security Agency contractor named Edward Snowden, a leak she called “an act of treason”.

“It’s called protecting America,” Feinstein said of the NSA electronic surveillance of telephone data and internet communications that critics called a vast government overreach.


Snowden spy leaks shook the world, a decade later, what’s changed?

Snowden spy leaks shook the world, a decade later, what’s changed?

During Republican George W. Bush’s presidency, Feinstein backed the 2002 Iraq war resolution but later voiced regret. She supported Bush’s Patriot Act to help track terrorism suspects, but criticised him for authorising spying on US residents without court approval.

At times, critics on the left felt she was not liberal enough or insufficiently antagonistic toward Republicans. For example, some liberal activists called on her to resign in 2020 after she hugged Republican Senator Lindsey Graham following a Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing for Republican President Donald Trump’s conservative Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett.

She castigated Trump in 2001 after his supporters attacked the Capitol in a failed bid to overturn Democrat Joe Biden’s 2020 election victory. She said Trump was “responsible for this madness” for inciting people to violence with false claims of widespread election fraud.

Politician and gay rights pioneer Harvey Milk, who was assassinated in 1978, as was San Francisco Mayor George Moscone. Dianne Feinstein then became the city’s mayor. Photo: Handout

Born on June 22, 1933, Feinstein grew up in San Francisco and graduated from Stanford University. She was elected in 1969 to the San Francisco County Board of Supervisors and became its president in 1978, a position she held until Moscone’s killing. She became San Francisco’s first woman mayor and was elected to two full terms.

She ran for governor in 1990, winning the Democratic primary but losing to Republican Pete Wilson in the general election. Feinstein then ran in 1992 for the Senate seat that Wilson had previously held, easily defeating the Republican appointed to the seat. She became California’s longest-serving senator and its first woman elected to the chamber.

Feinstein’s first marriage ended in divorce. She then married Bertram Feinstein, a surgeon. After his death she married Richard Blum, an investment banker, in 1980. He died in 2022.

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