The Democratic debates have crystallized how far Democrats have moved to the left on all sorts of issues over the past few years. Candidates for the presidency advocated for single-payer health care, a Green New Deal, free college, 70 percent taxes on the ultrawealthy, decriminalizing crossing the border without papers, and upholding “reproductive justice.”
But there’s one issue, even as it’s gotten more attention, where major Democratic politicians haven’t moved much: guns. At the debates, most candidates raised the same ideas they’ve had for decades: universal background checks, an assault weapons ban, and keeping guns away from dangerous people. Only a few were active in calls to push further, such as Cory Booker’s support for requiring a license to buy and own a gun — which some candidates have joined in — and Beto O’Rourke’s promise that “hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47.”
If you want to make a serious dent in gun violence in the US, this should worry you. Just imagine a world where Democrats get everything leading candidates typically say they want on guns. Congress passes and President Elizabeth Warren signs a comprehensive bill that includes universal background checks, bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, and a red-flag law that lets law enforcement take away guns from dangerous people.
It would be, to be sure, a massive political and policy victory — the culmination of decades of work by gun control advocates. The media would characterize it as a sea change in gun politics. The National Rifle Association and its Republican allies would be livid.
Yet it almost certainly would not be enough. We would still likely see mass shootings, like the mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, on a regular basis, in addition to the incidents of suicides, urban violence, and domestic abuse that are tragically even more common.
That’s because America would still have the weakest gun laws among developed nations, and it would still have the most firearms out of any country in the world — and the research has consistently found that places with more guns have more gun deaths.
The problem is dire: The US, with its enormous civilian-owned arsenal of guns, leads the developed world in gun violence. A 2018 study in JAMA found that the US’s civilian gun death rate is nearly four times that of Switzerland, five times that of Canada, 35 times that of the United Kingdom, and 53 times that of Japan. There are, on average, more than 100 gun deaths in the US per day.
The typical proposals on guns pick at this problem but come nowhere close to solving it. Background checks can screen out some people from getting a gun, but recent studies suggest even universal background checks, on their own, don’t have a big impact on gun deaths. An assault weapons ban could make some mass shootings less deadly but wouldn’t address the 70-plus percent of firearm homicides that involve a handgun. A red flag law could help law enforcement take guns away from dangerous people but, by definition, these laws only work after red flags arise, which is often too late.
Gun control policies that don’t confront the core issue — that America simply has too many guns — are doomed to merely nibble around the edges. Everywhere in the world, people get into arguments. Every country has residents who are dangerous to themselves or others because of mental illness. Every country has bigots and extremists. But here, it’s uniquely easy for a person to obtain a gun, letting otherwise tense but nonlethal conflicts escalate into deadly violence.
To change the status quo, Democrats should go big. They need to focus on the abundance of guns in the US and develop a suite of policies that directly tackle that issue, from licensing to confiscation to more aggressive bans of certain kinds of firearms (including, perhaps, all semiautomatic weapons or at least some types of handguns).
I am not naive. I don’t think that this would lead to sweeping Australian- or UK-style gun control legislation passing in 2021. But this broader conversation has to start somewhere.
The time is now. The NRA is in chaos, as its leadership is caught in a civil war. The Parkland, Florida, activists have forced guns into the spotlight. Recent polls found Democratic voters put gun violence and policy at the top or near the top of issues they want to hear about in the debates.
Just like Bernie Sanders helped launch discussions about single-payer health care and free college in 2016, a push in 2020 could help get the party to where it needs to be on this issue if it really wants to address America’s gun problem.
Democrats have played it safe on guns for decades
The gun problem in the United States is twofold.
First, the US makes it incredibly easy for people to get guns. Other developed nations at least require one or more background checks but usually much more rigorous hurdles. In the US, even a background check isn’t an absolute requirement; the current federal law is riddled with loopholes and kneecapped by poor enforcement.
Second, America has far more guns than any other country. The number of civilian-owned firearms in the US was estimated for 2017 at 120.5 guns per 100 residents, meaning there were more firearms than people. Yemen, a quasi-failed state torn by civil war, ranked second, with 52.8 guns per 100 residents, according to an analysis from the Small Arms Survey.
Congress has tried to address the first problem. In 1993, it enacted federal background checks. A year later, it passed a 10-year assault weapons ban that expired in 2004.
In the quarter-century since, elected Democrats have continued advocating for expanded background checks and a renewed assault weapons ban. But a growing body of research has shown that these measures might not be enough — that the guns are the problem.
A breakthrough analysis by UC Berkeley’s Franklin Zimring and Gordon Hawkins in the 1990s found the US doesn’t actually have more crime than other developed nations, but instead has more lethal crime — and access to guns is one reason why. “A preference for crimes of personal force and the willingness and ability to use guns in robbery,” they wrote, “make similar levels of property crime 54 times as deadly in New York City as in London.”
Research compiled by the Harvard School of Public Health’s Injury Control Research Center backs this up: After controlling for variables such as socioeconomic factors and other crime, places with more guns have more gun deaths — not just homicides but also suicides, domestic violence, violence against police, and mass shootings.
Stronger gun laws can help. A 2016 review of 130 studies in 10 countries, published in Epidemiologic Reviews, found that new legal restrictions on owning and purchasing guns tended to be followed by a drop in gun violence — a strong indicator that restricting access to guns can save lives.
But the types of gun control laws matter. To that end, several studies from researchers at UC Davis, UC Berkeley, and Johns Hopkins have called into question whether universal background checks, compared to non-universal background checks, reduce gun deaths at all. Studies suggest the original assault weapons ban also had limited to no impact, in large part because the great majority of gun violence is carried out with handguns.
The problem is these approaches are just too narrow, failing to seriously address the core problem that the US simply has too many guns. Universal background checks only target a small number of people who have clear, bad histories, and an assault weapons ban targets a kind of weapon used in a small minority of shootings. To the extent that either approach works to reduce the number of gun owners and firearms, it would take generations to see results.
A better, more immediate goal, then, is to make it harder for literally anyone to buy a firearm and reduce the number of guns not just over time but right now. That’s the only reliable way to reduce incidents of gun violence through gun control quickly.
But gun policy has been an outlier in Democratic politicians’ shift leftward. There has been some movement at the margins — demonstrated by some candidates’ support for licensing and even fewer’s call for confiscating assault weapons, as well as centrist Democrats and those representing rural areas, including Bernie Sanders, shifting somewhat on this issue. But by and large, the party has remained in the same place it was in 25 years ago, focused on background checks and, to a lesser extent, an assault weapons ban.
There are some good reasons for that. Democratic perennials like universal background checks, targeting firearm prohibitions at people deemed dangerous, and even an assault weapons ban all poll fairly well, including among Republicans, based on Pew surveys.
Elected Democrats also a fear a political backlash if they push for more stringent measures. After the 1994 midterm elections, many Democrats blamed historic losses in the House and Senate on their approval of stricter gun laws.
Then there’s what experts call the “intensity gap.” In short, defenders of gun rights are, in general, more motivated than proponents of gun control. As Republican strategist Grover Norquist said in 2000, this helps explain why popular support for stricter gun laws doesn’t lead to action in Congress: “The question is intensity versus preference. You can always get a certain percentage to say they are in favor of some gun controls. But are they going to vote on their ‘control’ position?” Probably not, he suggested, “but for that 4-5 percent who care about guns, they will vote on this.”
All of this plays into the broader questions about whether certain gun policies could get through Congress or the Supreme Court. Until the public buys into these policies, chances are other institutions won’t either. So Democrats have by and large played it safe.
With Democratic voters now more liberal in general and paying more attention to gun violence as mass shootings regularly make the news and student activists march and protest for action, there’s less need to play it safe. Democrats, both elites and supporters, have a clear opportunity here to show that there are bolder, evidence-based policy ideas to seriously tackle the US’s gun problem. They can start that push with 2020.
Democrats need to shift the conversation
Igor Volsky, the executive director of the advocacy group Guns Down America, pointed to the fight for marriage equality in his recent book, Guns Down: How to Defeat the NRA and Build a Safer Future With Fewer Guns, as one example of how this fight could go.
According to Volsky, the marriage equality movement didn’t ever give up on incremental gains, but it was always focused on its ultimate goal. So it was okay when some Democrats, for example, accepted “civil unions” over marriage as a step forward in the early 2000s, but the movement continued to push for marriage equality at the same time. By focusing on this goal and deploying different strategies fixated on the one acceptable outcome for the movement, it slowly built a shift in public opinion, even if the gains seemed small here and there.
By focusing on a goal of fewer guns, Volsky wrote, activists could push the country to the left on guns. That would involve accepting the incremental wins — including universal background checks and an assault weapons ban — but also staying focused on the goal of reducing the number of guns in the US overall.
And the 2020 campaign, he argued, is a good time to start that push.
“You have progressives who are running for president talking about single-payer, talking about the Green New Deal, talking about breaking up large tech companies, talking about a super surcharge on multi-multimillionaires,” Volsky told me. “On an issue that is so important to so many Americans — the issue of guns — it’s unconscionable to me that the solutions we’re hearing from the folks running for president are focused on incremental reforms that they’ve been selling for the last 20 years.”
Another potential parallel comes through what Matt Yglesias has described for Vox as the “Great Awokening.” Since 2014, he wrote, “white liberals have moved so far to the left on questions of race and racism that they are now, on these issues, to the left of even the typical black voter.” That happened in part because of the Black Lives Matter movement that took off after the 2014 Ferguson, Missouri, protests, but also because “Democratic elites were beginning to signal to the rank and file that they should take systemic racism concerns more seriously” — such as when President Barack Obama remarked that “if I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon [Martin].”
Similarly, American progressives are increasingly fed up with mass shooting after mass shooting — hence the rise of the March for Our Lives movement last year. If Democratic elites tap into that anger and signal that bolder gun policies are necessary, much of the public could follow along.
History shows that on gun policy, it’s possible to move positions that once seemed radical into the mainstream. Consider just how much the National Rifle Association has changed the conversation about guns in just a few decades: After the NRA went through an internal revolt in the late 1970s, the group began to push against all restrictions on firearms — under the logic that giving even a little on this issue could eventually lead to a sweeping confiscation of everyone’s guns. The organization hammered that message to the public, politicians, legal scholars, and everyone else it could reach.
One clear effect the NRA had was changing the way some politicians and legal experts looked at the Second Amendment. For most of US history, the amendment was viewed by courts and legal experts as only protecting a collective right to own guns, insofar as able-bodied men needed the weapons to help defend their state and country through, for example, a militia. Then the NRA began pushing a different interpretation that the Second Amendment actually protected an individual right — even getting scholars to publish work in law journals making the case.
Carl T. Bogus, a researcher at the Roger Williams University School of Law, noted in a 2000 law review article that the number of law review articles endorsing an individual rights view was for most of US history dwarfed by the number backing a collective rights framework — until the 1990s, when the great majority (58 of 87 relevant articles) supported an individual rights interpretation.
Republican elites, too, got in on the action. In 1982, the Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution, led by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), issued a report, “The Right to Keep and Bear Arms.” The report from the Republican-majority subcommittee argued, “What the Subcommittee on the Constitution uncovered was clear — and long lost — proof that the second amendment to our Constitution was intended as an individual right of the American citizen to keep and carry arms in a peaceful manner, for protection of himself, his family, and his freedoms.”
The results can be seen in the Supreme Court. In 1939’s United States v. Miller, Justice James McReynolds ruled that Congress can ban sawed-off shotguns because that weapon has no “reasonable relation to the preservation or efficiency of a well regulated militia.” In 2008’s District of Columbia v. Heller, Justice Antonin Scalia ruled, to the contrary, that “the Second Amendment conferred an individual right to keep and bear arms.”
There was also an accompanying shift in public opinion. In 1959, when Gallup asked if the law should ban handguns except for the police and other authorized persons, 60 percent of Americans said yes. By 1980, that dropped to 38 percent. As of the latest survey, in 2018, it was 28 percent.
The NRA and Republicans helped shift public opinion and even the Supreme Court over decades. A similar political movement could reverse that.
Like the NRA’s efforts, a new movement could require a generations-long project. That should only make the issue more urgent, though — because the longer America waits, the longer it will be before real measures are in to properly reduce gun violence.
What a bold gun policy would actually look like
It’s not that there’s a lack of ideas to confront gun violence. With the right goal — reducing the number of guns in the US — and a serious commitment to it, there are plenty of evidence-based policies, tried in cities, states, and other countries, that could work.
One way to start addressing the issue would be requiring a license to buy and own a gun. On its face, this might seem like an extension of the background check model, since the idea is still to filter between qualified and unqualified people.
But a licensing process can go way further: While a background check is more often than not quick and hassle-free, gun licensing in, for example, Massachusetts is a weeks- or months-long process that requires submitting a photograph and fingerprints, passing a training course, and going through one or more interviews, all involving law enforcement. That adds significant barriers for even a would-be gun owner who has no ill intent or bad history.
“The end impact is you decrease gun ownership overall,” Cassandra Crifasi, a researcher (and gun owner) at the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, previously told me, discussing Massachusetts’s laws. “Lots of folks think, ‘Well, it’s probably not worth going through all these hoops to buy firearms, so I’m not going to buy one.’ And then you have fewer firearms around, and less exposure.”
Licensing works. It’s one reason, experts say, Massachusetts has the lowest rate of gun deaths in the US. A Johns Hopkins study on several gun control approaches, including universal background checks, found that licensing systems were the one policy associated with fewer firearm homicides. Other studies have linked licensing to significantly fewer gun homicides and suicides in Connecticut and Missouri.
This, however, could only be a start — the kind of thing that ensures fewer people get guns now and in the future. But in a country that already has so many firearms, something also needs to be done to take out a lot of guns more quickly.
That could require rethinking the Second Amendment, whether by appointing judges who interpret it differently in a reverse version of the NRA’s campaign to portray gun ownership as an individual right. It might even mean beginning an effort to repeal it — a project that could admittedly take decades but has gotten less serious consideration and support than packing the Supreme Court or even abolishing the Senate.
Significant change could involve imposing bigger hurdles to owning a gun: requiring that people provide a stronger justification, besides self-defense or recreation, to get a license.
It could mean banning more types of guns — perhaps all semiautomatic weapons or all handguns — and coupling that with an Australian-style mandatory buyback program, which the research supports. If the key difference between America and other countries is how many more guns the US has, then something has to be done to quickly reduce the number of firearms here.
Here, an assault weapons ban is simply far too little. Shootings with rifles, including assault rifles, make up less than 3 percent of gun homicides in the US. More than 70 percent of gun homicides are instead carried out with handguns, which would be largely neglected by a plan to ban and confiscate only assault weapons. So perhaps bans on other guns, besides assault weapons, should be considered.
There has been some movement in the Democratic field. Booker was early in his call for a gun licensing requirement, and he’s since been joined by candidates like Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg. A few candidates have called for the confiscation of assault weapons as well.
But the field has shied away from significantly stronger proposals, and the candidates have strayed from saying that the ultimate goal should be to reduce the number of guns in the US. To the contrary, Eric Swalwell, while still a candidate for president, said on CNN in April, as he called for a mandatory buyback for assault weapons: “Keep your pistols, keep your long rifles, keep your shotguns. I want the most dangerous weapons — these weapons of war — out of the hands of the most dangerous people.”
So the majority of the Democratic conversation remains focused on universal background checks and an assault weapons ban. Based on the research, this milquetoast approach just won’t be enough. If nothing else, the 2020 primary should force Democrats to explain why they should merely continue as they have for decades with little to show for it.
Listen to this
Vox’s German Lopez explains why Democrats need a bold new plan for gun control:
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