On Wednesday, California senator Kamala Harris promised that as president, she would ban imports of AR-15-style assault weapons within her first 100 days in office. And if Congress won't pass such a law during that period, she says, she'll take executive action to fulfill her promise.
Harris would use existing federal law to ban AR-15-style firearms—the weapon of choice in gun attacks in Aurora, Sandy Hook, Newtown, Sutherland Springs, and Parkland, among many others—as not "suitable for or readily adaptable to sporting purposes." Under federal law, the attorney general can approve import applications only for firearms that pass the so-called "sporting purposes" test. In the past, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms has used this standard to ban, for example, shotguns equipped with bayonets and rifles mounted with grenade launchers—neither of which seem particularly appropriate to the task of, say, hunting deer.
The assault weapons ban is the latest piece of Harris's 2020 gun-safety agenda, which was already among the most comprehensive from the lineup of Democratic hopefuls. Last month, Harris pledged to respond to legislative inaction by using her executive authority to implement near-universal background checks; crack down on gun manufacturers and dealers who repeatedly violate federal law; and close the "boyfriend loophole" in gun sales, which prohibits those convicted of abusing their spouse from obtaining a gun but does not cover those convicted of abusing a dating partner.
Although 57 percent of Americans now support banning semiautomatic weapons, in Washington, pro-gun politicians and the gun lobby have long conspired to ensure that meaningful reform efforts come nowhere near the Oval Office. The unpleasant reality that Harris's proposal tacitly acknowledges is that if Democrats retain the House and she wins the presidency in 2020, the more ambitious elements of the party's legislative agenda will go nowhere without a Democratic Senate, too.
Frankly, that might not be enough, either. Thanks to the filibuster rule, which requires the support of three-fifths—not a simple majority—of the Senate in order for a bill to move forward, the upper chamber has historically been unkind to gun-safety legislation on a bipartisan basis. In 2012, just four months after 20 first-graders were murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary, 60 senators, including 15 Democrats, voted down a bill that would have prevented the killer from acquiring the gun he used. Even a more modest proposal that would have expanded background checks failed to earn a filibuster-proof majority.
The Senate's structure, which systematically favors the interests of sparely-populated conservative states over larger blue ones, is only going to make it harder for progressive legislation to survive it, both in 2020 and beyond. Should Donald Trump lose the White House, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell has already vowed to serve as the "grim reaper" for ideas like Medicare for All or a Green New Deal. It is a safe bet that McConnell would relish playing spoiler with respect to an assault weapons ban, too.
Any Democratic president, says Peter Ambler, executive director of the gun safety nonprofit Giffords, is likely to take some sort of executive action on guns while in office. But by making explicit her intent to ban assault weapons—something which, for example, President Obama didn't do, even after the 2013 legislation failed—Harris offers a preemptive ultimatum to lawmakers of both parties, forcing them to either do what voters hired them to do or else get out of the way. This approach, says Ambler, is equal parts good policy and good politics. "I think Americans want to see a president who's going to be bold and aggressive," Ambler told me. "The same old approach just won't do."
Harris's announcement reflects a shift in the role of guns in electoral politics: Although the gun lobby is working as diligently as ever to make firearms a lucrative business, voters are gravitating towards candidates who are willing to stand up to the National Rifle Association and its ilk. During the 2018 midterms, gun safety groups actually managed to outspend the NRA, which spent less than $10 million combined on House and Senate races—not even half its 2016 budget. "We've seen this go from third rail to kitchen-table issue," Ambler says. "Just checking the boxes on a smaller set of gun policy priorities isn't good enough." By making gun restrictions a centerpiece of the Democratic primary, Harris increases the odds that if the party's nominee—whether her or someone else—indeed takes the White House, they'll do so with a clear mandate to do something about gun violence in America after years of inaction.
Originally Appeared on GQ