Major gun control legislation has been stalled in Washington for years, but advocates say a shift may be on the horizon as Democrats running for president try to outdo each other on new proposals restricting firearms.
All of the Democrats running for president back universal background checks as well as a ban on certain semi-automatic weapons. And almost all of the candidates have endorsed laws that allow the temporary removal of guns from people perceived to be a threat to themselves or others.
While those ideas have been around for years, some Democrats are testing new approaches that would place far more sweeping restrictions on gun owners.
At the most recent debate, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Sen. Kamala Harris of California and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas all expressed support for a controversial policy that would require owners of semi-automatic weapons to hand over those firearms to the government. Meanwhile, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts called for a steep increase in the tax on guns and ammunition and a federal gun licensing program, a proposal also backed by Booker.
Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat who has long championed universal background checks and limits on access to assault-style weapons, said he is pleased gun control has emerged as a defining issue of the 2020 campaign. Murphy hasn’t endorsed any of the candidates and didn’t express an opinion on Warren’s gun and ammunition tax idea or the mandatory gun buy-back program.
But, Murphy said, “I love the idea these candidates are thinking creatively about this issue … and trying to outdo one another on gun control.”
Stricter gun laws have long been a key component of the Democratic party’s platform. But in the past, the party’s tent was broad enough to include candidates such as Bernie Sanders, a rural-state senator who voted against a 1993 bill establishing national background checks and in favor of legislation that shields gun companies from lawsuits if their products are used to commit a crime.
Sanders was hit hard for those positions during the 2016 campaign. This time, he is emphasizing his support for strong gun control legislation, including a bill that would expand background check requirements to cover private sales, whether they are conducted online or at gun shows.
Sanders’ shift signifies the degree to which both political parties are demanding ideological orthodoxy on certain key issues, said Ronald C. Schurin, a professor of political science at the University of Connecticut.
“At the presidential level, you cannot run as an abortion-rights Republican and you cannot run as a Second Amendment Democrat,” Schurin said.
As the Democratic Party’s center has shifted left on a host of issues, from health insurance to tax policy to the environment, so, too, have some candidates adopted a more radical stance on guns.
O’Rourke, who moved gun control to the forefront of his campaign after a mass shooting this summer in his hometown of El Paso, Texas, has pledged to ban all assault-style weapons.
“Hell, yes, we’re gonna take your AR-15, your AK-47, and we’re not going to allow it to be used against your fellow Americans anymore,” O’Rourke declared in September.
During Tuesday’s Democratic debate, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg dismissed O’Rourke’s mandatory buy-back plan, saying it was short on details.
Jeremy Stein, executive director of CT Against Gun Violence, said he, too, wants to hear more specifics about how the buyback program would work.
But like Sen. Murphy, Stein said he’s encouraged that the Democratic candidates are pondering bold ideas to deal with what he described as “a public health crisis.”
“We’ve reached a tipping point in America where we cannot protect our loved ones from gun violence,” Stein said. “Our leaders recognize that something has to change.”
Stein noted that several ideas embraced by the candidates — licensing rules and so-called “red flag laws” meant to remove guns from those who could harm themselves or others — are similar to laws already on the books in Connecticut.
And last year, state Rep. Jillian Gilchrest, D-West Hartford, proposed a 50% tax on firearms ammunition. The measure drew strong condemnation from the NRA and did not pass.
Elizabeth Warren’s plan would increase the excise tax on ammunition from 11% to 50%.
Scott Wilson, president of the Connecticut Citizens Defense League, a gun-owners advocacy group, says the Democratic candidates are chasing radical policies that won’t enhance public safety.
Criminals won’t be deterred by licensing requirements, tax increases and mandatory buybacks, Wilson said.
“We have politicians running for office who are running on a false promise of a Utopian society where they will be able to protect everybody from wrongdoing,” Wilson said.
“They are supporting these ideas because they think that will help them with Democratic voters,” he added. “They’re going to find out really fast that in the general election, that is going to be a serious obstacle for them.”
Murphy strongly disagrees with that assessment. He says proposals to address gun violence poll well with voters.
“Gun safety is a dominant issue in the Democratic primary because it’s a dominant issue for voters,” Murphy said.
The Connecticut Democrat pointed to the success of a fundraising effort he launched during the 2018 election cycle to boost the fortunes of Democratic congressional challengers taking on NRA-supported candidates; all eight of the Democrats won.
Murphy said he will likely lead a similar effort in 2020.
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