The twin mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton have brought gun control to the forefront of the Democratic presidential race in a way it hasn’t been for at least a generation, but not all of them are pushing hard enough to make a real difference.
The candidates’ views cover a range of policy proposals, but examining the views of two leading Democrats who wrote about the issue this weekend provides a sense of the terms of the debate. At the most conservative end of the spectrum is former Vice President Joe Biden, who wrote a New York Times oped touting his leadership in passing the now expired 1994 assault weapons ban and promising to revive it. And representing a much more aggressive effort to reduce violence (and gun suicides and accidental deaths) is Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who wrote a Medium post on Saturday outlining steps she would take toward achieving a goal of reducing gun deaths by 80%. (Vox.com has a detailed rundown of the 22 other Democratic candidates’ policy proposals, but they generally fall between Mr. Biden’s and Ms. Warren’s, with New Jersey Sen. Corey Booker also notable for the extent of his proposals.)
Mr. Biden correctly points out the frequent use of military-style assault rifles and high-capacity ammunition magazines in mass shootings and the degree to which they multiply the carnage. In Dayton, he notes, the shooter was killed by police less than a minute after he opened fire, yet that was still enough time for him to kill nine people and injure dozens more. He wants to write the new law more carefully than the old one to make sure gun manufacturers can’t skirt it by making minor modifications to their products, and he wants to institute a buyback program for the millions of assault weapons currently in circulation. (He has not gone so far as to suggest that buybacks be mandatory, as some, including former presidential candidate Rep. Eric Swalwell, have done.) Like all the other Democratic candidates (and sometimes even President Donald Trump), Mr. Biden would expand background checks to cover private sales of weapons, not just those by federally licensed gun dealers. He also talks quite a bit about encouraging the adoption of “smart guns,” which are designed to prevent their use by anyone other than their registered owner.
Compared to what we’ve accomplished on gun control in the last 25 years, that would be monumental. Compared to the problem at hand, it’s woefully inadequate.
Banning assault weapons matters. They are, in fact, more deadly than handguns, as they fire bullets at a far greater velocity, which causes more damage and increases lethality. They are accurate at a far greater range than handguns, and they have features designed to allow a shooter to fire longer, sustained bursts of shots while maintaining their aim. Maryland banned assault weapons after the Sandy Hook mass shooting, and we can’t help but wonder whether that is why the alleged shooter in the Capital-Gazette killings did not have one. If he had, that terrible tragedy might have been even worse.
But we also come at the guns issue through the lens of the street violence in Baltimore and cities like it. Here, illegal handguns, often from out of state and obtained on the black market, are the driving force behind the killings. Stopping them requires different policies, and Mr. Biden has explicitly questioned one of the most effective possible measures to address so-called straw purchases: gun buyer licensing and registration. Several other Democrats have been pushing the idea — notably, Mr. Booker, who has led the debate on this issue — and, not surprisingly, it shows up in Senator Warren’s proposal.
But what’s notable about her plan is not just the specific ideas she proposes — and there are many — but the philosophical framework behind it. She treats gun violence, including accidental deaths and suicides, as a public health/consumer products safety issue. If she could shift the terms of debate in that direction, it could lead to a new focus on gun violence research, which has been hampered by federal restrictions and lack of funding for decades, and new kinds of legal liability for gun manufacturers. Mr. Biden may support smart guns, but it’s only by treating firearms as a dangerous product that can be made safer through regulations and the threat of litigation that we might force gun manufacturers to actually develop and produce them, and firearms dealers to sell them. Ms. Warren also connects her gun proposals to political reforms, including an end to the filibuster and new ethics and lobbying standards, saying the former isn’t possible without the latter.
Don’t let the slight openness to expanded background checks from President Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell fool you — enacting any kind of gun control, even after El Paso and Dayton, is going to be extremely difficult politically. We should at least support candidates like Ms. Warren and Mr. Booker who are proposing to do what research says we need to keep our communities safe.