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What the Democratic Candidates Have to Say About Gun Control

Not much, surprisingly.
August 7, 2019
What the Democratic Candidates Have to Say About Gun Control

Just days after the shootings in El Paso and Dayton, partisans are reciting from the same scripts they always do in the aftermath of these tragedies. The mourning period continues to get shorter, to the point it hardly seems to exist, as the left demands that we ignore or undo the Second Amendment while the right suggests the best way to protect gun rights is to… create a police state

One thing is different this time: There are two dozen Democrats running for the 2020 nomination with official positions on what to do about mass shootings. Taking them in aggregate, it’s apparent that the Democratic candidates have realized there’s not much the government can do.

USA Today has a helpful summary of each Democrat’s gun policies. Of the 20 Democrats who have participated in debates so far, 15 support an assault weapons ban and 18 support universal background checks. Other provisions receive much less support: Only seven candidates support banning high-capacity magazines, four support licensing regimes, five support buyback programs (mandatory or voluntary), three support banning semi-automatic weapons, and just two support raising the legal age of gun ownership to 21.

What separates an assault weapons ban and universal background checks from the other policies? They’re relatively easier to implement, and they would have very little impact on guns in the United States.

The assault weapons ban in place from 1994-2004 was a hodge-podge policy that couldn’t decide exactly what it wanted to do. It banned semi-automatic weapons that accepted or could accept detachable magazines and had had two or more of certain cosmetic characteristics like a folding stock or barrel shroud. But some guns that didn’t meet those requirements were banned by name.

The bill was written that way because it was creating the definition of an assault weapon – no other meaningful definition exists. Defining the category meant balancing two competing impulses: too narrow a definition, and the bill becomes an empty letter; too broad, and it becomes impossible. There was no way, for example, the federal government was going to outright ban semi-automatic weapons in 1994, a year in which an estimated 275,000 semiautomatic rifles entered the U.S. market. There’s not enough manpower to enforce such a law.

Advocating for a reinstitution of the assault weapons ban is easy: It was done once, and it can be done again. Unfortunately, the evidence indicates that reinstituting the ban wouldn’t have much of an effect.

Universal background checks achieve a similar consensus with similar results. The National Instant Criminal Background Check System has been up and running since 1998. It certainly has some flaws: Both the Charleston church shooter and the Sutherland Springs church shooter should have been blocked from purchasing firearms if the system had worked correctly. But the Sandy Hook shooter wouldn’t have; he stole his guns. The Orlando nightclub shooter bought his legally, and no background check system can protect against crimes that haven’t been committed.

The other options — including licensing regimes, buyback programs, and retroactive bans on hundreds of millions of now-legal guns — have more potential to reduce the incidence of mass shootings. But they would have tosurvive constitutional challenges and be implemented thoroughly – both tall orders.

There are other, marginal reforms that might actually make good policy. Montana Governor Steve Bullock and Senator Bernie Sanders both advocate cracking down on straw buyers, who buy guns legally for resale illegally. That is, in other words, actually enforcing existing law. The ban on domestic abusers owning guns applies only to those married to their victims, but Beto O’Rourke and Mayor Pete Buttigieg both advocate expanding the rule to non-married abusers, closing the “boyfriend loophole.”

In the most recent Democratic debate, Marianne Williamson mocked her fellow Democrats: “I almost wonder why you’re Democrats. You seem to think there’s something wrong about using the instruments of government to help people.” But in a country where overall crime is declining, yet mass shootings dominate national attention, it’s not clear what options they have.

It’s almost as if most of the Democratic candidates have tacitly admitted that not every problem can be solved with legislation. But they’ll never say that out loud.

Benjamin Parker

Benjamin Parker is a senior editor at The Bulwark.