(Bloomberg) -- As mass shootings pile up, several Democratic presidential candidates are embracing mandated “buybacks” of assault weapons, a proposal that sharpens the political divide on guns and raises the stakes for the 2020 election.
In New Hampshire on Friday, Senator Kamala Harris of California told reporters that requiring owners of assault weapons to sell them to the government is “a good idea” because “we have to take those guns off the streets.”
New Jersey Senator Cory Booker said he supports the proposal. He noted that other countries have been able to take military-style semiautomatic weapons “off the streets” and that the U.S. can’t let the National Rifle Association “tell us what’s possible.”
At the New Hampshire Democratic convention on Saturday, former Representative Beto O’Rourke, who’s made buybacks a signature issue in recent weeks, pressed the idea to a cheering crowd that reflected the growing enthusiasm in the party for controlling firearm ownership. He said measures like universal background checks and “red flag” laws, which his 2020 competitors unanimously support, aren’t enough.
“We must go the necessary steps further, as politically difficult as they may be -- a gun registry in this country, licensing for every firearm, and every single one of those AR-15 and AK-47s will be bought back so they’re not on our streets,” O’Rourke said.
The Democrats’ embrace of a forced assault-weapons buyback program shows that segments of the party are throwing caution to the wind on gun control, backing aggressive measures that seemed unthinkable in mainstream circles even a year ago. It comes as the mounting bloodshed from firearms-induced massacres has nudged Americans to favor stricter laws, propelled by a shift among suburban and college-educated voters.
Democrats’ shift toward gun control comes after its candidates have been largely wiped out in rural areas with a rich gun culture. The party retook the House majority in 2018 midterm elections, driven by gains in affluent and suburban districts. Its previous reliance on rural parts of the country is one reason Democrats didn’t pursue firearm restrictions when they last controlled the White House and Congress in 2009 and 2010.
O’Rourke took up the cause vigorously after a recent mass shooting that killed more than 20 people in his hometown of El Paso, Texas. Before him, U.S. Representative Eric Swalwell of California pushed the idea of mandatory assault weapon buybacks during his short-lived presidential campaign.
Implementing such a program would be a challenge. Swalwell floated jail time for Americans who refuse to sell their weapons, but O’Rourke wouldn’t go that far.
“I would expect Americans to comply with the law,” O’Rourke told reporters on Saturday, saying he has met with owners of AR-15-style weapons who say they would “gladly comply” with a requirement that they give up those guns if it’ll make Americans safer.
O’Rourke said it’s “a great sign” that some of his rivals are coming out for a mandatory buyback of certain guns.
A Quinnipiac poll released Aug. 29 found that 46% of Americans favored a “mandatory buyback of assault weapons, which would mean that people who own assault weapons would be required to turn them in and be compensated with money,” while 49% opposed the idea. In a sharp partisan divide, 71% of Democrats said they support the idea while just 18% of Republicans backed it.
The idea has sparked fierce pushback from conservatives who say it would amount to unconstitutional confiscation of firearms from Americans who obtained them lawfully. It stands no immediate chance of becoming law -- but nor do even modest restrictions, which face opposition from President Donald Trump and the Republican Party.
Several Democratic front-runners have also resisted the idea, including former Vice President Joe Biden and Senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who instead favor a voluntary buyback program. Former Housing Secretary Julian Castro said he “at least” supports a voluntary buyback program and is open to making it mandatory.
“I’m willing to hear the arguments on mandatory, but I at least support a voluntary buyback program,” Castro told reporters on Saturday.
‘Big Enough Lift’
Pete Buttigieg said his immediate focus is on assault weapons.
“I would focus on banning new sales. We’ve got a big enough lift there. Plus we’ve got to do background checks and red flag laws,” the South Bend, Indiana, mayor told reporters. “Then we’ll see what the next logical steps are for this country.”
Michael Bloomberg, owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News, founded and helps fund Everytown for Gun Safety, a nonprofit group that advocates for gun control measures like universal background checks and red flag laws. The group hasn’t called for mandatory buybacks.
Booker, from Newark, New Jersey, spoke of gun control in searingly personal terms and said the U.S. needs a president who’ll make it “a central purpose.”
“The majority of people being killed in this country are in communities like mine -- African American males are the majority of the homicide victims,” he said. “I live in a community where we see shrines to children who have been murdered on our sidewalks.”
Booker said firearm restrictions previously decried as radical have grown in popularity because “most Americans believe in common sense gun safety.”
(Updates with Booker quote in final paragraph.)
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