Democratic candidates, forced to take a stand on gun control by activists, are speaking out forcefully

Cory Booker, Kamala Harris and Eric Swalwell. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Charlie Neibergall/AP, Elijah Nouvelage/Reuters, Jeff Chiu/AP)
Cory Booker, Kamala Harris and Eric Swalwell (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Charlie Neibergall/AP, Elijah Nouvelage/Reuters, Jeff Chiu/AP)

Presidential elections are decided by many things: media exposure, financial backing, personal chemistry, timing and luck. Policy positions often are just a way of signaling where a candidate stands on the political spectrum. But 2020 is shaping up to be different, the most ideas-driven election in recent American history. On the Democratic side, a robust debate about inequality has given rise to ambitious proposals to redress the imbalance in Americans’ economic situations. Candidates are churning out positions on banking regulation, antitrust law and the future effects of artificial intelligence. The Green New Deal is spurring debate on the crucial issue of climate change, which could also play a role in a possible Republican challenge to Donald Trump.

Yahoo News will be examining these and other policy questions in “The Ideas Election” — a series of articles on how candidates are defining and addressing the most important issues facing the United States as it prepares to enter a new decade.

Hundreds of mass shootings have taken place in America since 2012, when a gunman opened fire in an elementary school, killing 20 first-graders with an AR-15-style rifle. While there had been deadly mass shootings like Columbine and Virginia Tech before the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., that tragedy marked a turning point in the fight over gun reform.

“Sandy Hook was a defining moment for a lot of different reasons in the country,” said Kris Brown, co-president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, founded in 1974 as the National Council to Control Handguns. “We'd never seen that kind of carnage with these kids who are so little, at their own school, a place that was supposed to be safe.”

Then last year another mass shooting, also with an AR-15, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., killed 17 people, including 14 children.

Parents react after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School
Parents after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., Feb. 14, 2018. (Photo: Joel Auerbach/AP, digitally enhanced by Yahoo News)

Brown told Yahoo News that while once there was “a sense of resignation” in response to gun violence, “that shifted substantially with Parkland because you had kids who were older who are able to speak after the event and really lead an entire generation to become galvanized around this issue.”

The U.S. is one of the few countries in the world that have the right to own a gun written into their constitutions. It is also the place where over 11 million firearms were manufactured and nearly 4.5 million were imported in recent years, according to the 2018 Report on Firearms Commerce in the U.S. It is a country in which about a third of adults own a gun.

As mass shootings continue to occur, advocates for stricter gun regulation have gained momentum. But so have those rallying to protect themselves and their constitutional right to bear arms.

“It's really the modern political dispute of the last 30 or 40 years that says that this is all a zero-sum game,” said Robert Spitzer, a political scientist who teaches a gun policy course at the State University of New York, and argues that effective gun regulation is compatible with gun rights because it aims to keep the public safe. “That gun laws infringe on gun rights and fewer gun laws expand gun rights. But that’s not been our history.”

Before the Second Amendment to the Constitution was ratified in 1791, providing that "a well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed,” before there was a United States of America or a Constitution, some colonies had laws requiring "at least one adult man in every house to carry a gun to church or other public meetings" as protection against theft, slave revolts or attacks by Native Americans.

The first federal gun control legislation would not be passed until 1934. The National Firearms Act (NFA) was a response to gang violence during the Prohibition era — including the infamous 1929 Valentine’s Day Massacre in Chicago — and among other provisions taxed importing, manufacturing and selling shotguns, machine guns, rifles and other specified firearms.

FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover stands behind President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and watches him sign a bill to enforce the fight against crime in 1934. (Photo: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images, digitally enhanced by Yahoo News)
FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, standing second from left, looks on as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signs a 1934 bill to enforce the fight against crime. (Photo: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images, digitally enhanced by Yahoo News)

The Federal Firearms Act (FFA) of 1938 imposed a federal license requirement on gun manufacturers, importers and sellers to regulate commerce in firearms. Convicted felons were officially barred from buying guns, and firearms dealers were required to keep records of their customers.

A challenge to the NFA was decided in 1939, in United States v. Miller, in which the Supreme Court ruled the government could regulate access to weapons such as short-barrel shotguns. The decision maintained that there was no evidence that such a firearm “has some reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well regulated militia,” and therefore it “cannot say that the Second Amendment guarantees the right to keep and bear such an instrument.”

The FFA was repealed and replaced when Congress passed the Gun Control Act in 1968, after the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr., Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and President John F. Kennedy, who was shot by a mail-order rifle purchased from an ad in the National Rifle Association’s American Rifleman magazine.

The 1968 law regulated interstate and foreign commerce in firearms and prohibited imports of guns and large-capacity ammunition magazines that are not “recognized as particularly suitable for or readily adaptable to sporting purposes.” It also imposed “stricter licensing and regulation on the firearms industry,” setting an age requirement of 21 for the purchase of a handgun, and, in incorporating sections of the FFA, prohibiting sales of guns to felons and the mentally ill.

Not all contemporary gun laws restricted gun ownership. The 1986 Firearm Owner's Protection Act, for example, which was drafted by the NRA and revised many of the provisions in the Gun Control Act, prohibited a national firearms registry of dealers’ records. The Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act of 2005 conferred immunity to firearms manufacturers and dealers from liability for crimes committed with guns they made or sold.

States and localities also passed regulations, including a 1976 law in Washington, D.C., that banned residents from owning handguns altogether. A few decades later, the law would be infamously challenged when an armed security guard, Dick Anthony Heller, sued the city after he was denied a permit to keep a handgun in his home.

Notably, before this challenge, Congress passed the Federal Assault Weapons Ban in 1994, outlawing certain models of assault rifles that make up a small fraction of gun crimes but were the weapon of choice in many mass shootings. The law was written to expire after 10 years and was not renewed. The Brady Handgun Violence Act, named after White House press secretary James Brady, who was shot in the head and permanently disabled in the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan, passed in 1993. It established the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), requiring federal background checks before a gun was purchased or sold. The so-called Brady Law also imposed a five-day waiting period for a licensed dealer to sell a handgun to an unlicensed person until a computerized NICS system was launched by the FBI in 1998, providing instant background checks.

Bill Clinton with James Brady
President Bill Clinton hands James Brady a pen after signing the Brady Bill, Nov. 30, 1993. (Photo: Marcy Nighswander/AP, digitally enhanced by Yahoo News)

As for the D.C. handgun ban, the Supreme Court in District of Columbia v. Heller struck down the ban as unconstitutional in 2008 on the grounds that it violated the Second Amendment.

While the court established citizens’ constitutional right to possess handguns for protection at home, it also made clear that other gun regulations remained. “The Court’s opinion should not be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms,” the ruling stated.

“Since 2008, after the Heller decision, we've had over a thousand legal challenges in the last 10 or 11 years to gun laws from the local to the national level,” said Spitzer, who has researched gun laws “of every imaginable variety from 1619 up until 1934.”

“And over 95 percent of those laws had been upheld,” he continued, “so the courts are saying, by and large, the vast majority of gun laws do not infringe gun rights.”

But that debate is coming to a boil in the 2020 presidential race.

Last month, Sen. Cory Booker announced a broad, 14-part gun control plan, the most aggressive proposal from a 2020 Democratic candidate.

“My plan to address gun violence is simple — we will make it harder for people who should not have a gun to get one,” Booker, a New Jersey Democrat and the former mayor of Newark, said in a statement announcing his proposals and pledging to take executive action on the first day of his presidency.

At the center of the plan is a national licensing program that would require a universal background check and license for all gun owners. Through the program, which Booker’s campaign compared to the process of getting a passport, an individual looking to buy a gun would need to submit fingerprints, sit for an interview, take a certified gun safety course and undergo a federal background check for a license that would be valid only for up to five years “with regular, automatic checks to flag noncompliance with license terms.”

Booker’s sweeping “common-sense” proposal would also repeal the liability exemption in the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, close the “boyfriend loophole” by prohibiting gun purchases by persons convicted of domestic violence or under a restraining order, and ban assault weapons, high-capacity magazines and bump stocks, which can turn a legal firearm into an automatic weapon. Those devices, which were used in the Las Vegas massacre in 2017, have been banned by executive order by President Trump.

Before Booker announced his ambitious plan, Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., called for “reasonable gun safety laws in this country” and pledged during a CNN town hall that, if elected, she would take executive action if Congress failed to pass gun control legislation during her first 100 days in office.

Kamala Harris
Democratic presidential contender Sen. Kamala Harris (Photo: Mike Blake/Reuters, digitally enhanced by Yahoo News)

“There are people in Washington, D.C., supposed leaders who have failed to have the courage to reject a false choice which suggests you’re either in favor of the Second Amendment or you want to take everyone’s guns away,” she said in the town hall.

The former California prosecutor said she’d ban the import of AR-15-style assault rifles, mandate “near-universal background checks by requiring anyone who sells five or more guns per year to run a background check on all gun sales” and revoke licenses of gun makers and sellers who break the law.

Harris would also close the boyfriend loophole and reverse a move by the Trump administration that narrowed the definition of “fugitive from justice,” a buyer who under the Brady Law cannot possess or purchase a gun because of an outstanding arrest warrant. She has also pledged to renew the assault-weapons ban by executive order.

Another candidate and former prosecutor, Rep. Eric Swalwell, has made gun control a signature issue, and contends that renewing the federal assault-weapons ban doesn’t go far enough.

The ban, he argued, “would prohibit manufacture and sales, but it would not affect weapons already possessed. This would leave millions of assault weapons in our communities for decades to come.”

A majority of Democrats, 81 percent, and half of Republicans support an assault-weapons ban, according to a 2018 Pew Research Center survey.

Swalwell’s proposal for a ban on most private ownership of "military-style semiautomatic assault weapons" comes with a buy-back program. He proposed in a USA Today op-ed that the government offer up to $1,000 for every weapon covered by the ban, estimating that “there could be 15 million assault weapons out there.”

“If we offer $200 to buy back each weapon — as many local governments have — then it would cost about $3 billion; at $1,000 each, the cost would be about $15 billion,” he wrote, arguing that government could afford to do this.

Those who chose not to part with their assault weapons would be subject to prosecution, unless they agreed to store the guns safely at a hunting club or shooting range.

Swalwell emphasized that he wants to ban “weapons of war,” not hunting rifles, shotguns or handguns. “I am the son and brother of hunters and gun owners. I know that guns can be used responsibly and the Second Amendment provides individuals certain rights to own firearms.”

Eric Swalwell
Rep. Eric Swalwell meets with 94-year-old community activist Edwina Knight in Chicago. (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images, digitally enhanced by Yahoo News)

Candidates John Hickenlooper and Pete Buttigieg have come out in favor of a ban on military-style assault weapons, universal background checks for all gun sales and national gun licenses. Beyond these measures, Hickenlooper, a former governor of Colorado, also proposed raising the minimum age to own or buy a gun from 18 to 21, and expand access to mental health services in schools. And Buttigieg, who is also a member of the bipartisan group Mayors Against Illegal Guns, plans to “disrupt easy access to firearms” through gun violence restraining orders and “invest in evidence-based urban gun violence intervention programs proven to work.”

Meanwhile, Democratic frontrunner Joe Biden, focusing on school shootings, made gun control part of his education proposal, vowing to “defeat the National Rifle Association” by “championing legislation” to renew the expired assault-weapons ban.

Since the 2000 presidential campaign, when Al Gore and George W. Bush clashed over gun control during a debate, Democratic candidates have been mostly gun-control-shy. But in a notable shift this year, many have embraced the once fringe topic on the campaign trail in ways their predecessors would not.

When Bill Clinton signed the assault-weapons ban during his presidency, it was cited as one of the reasons Democrats lost congressional seats in the 1994 midterm elections.

John Kerry was accused of sending mixed messages when he, a supporter of the assault-weapons ban, was photographed with a shotgun while hunting pheasant. Gun control wasn’t part of the platform for his 2004 presidential campaign. Barack Obama, a supporter of gun control as a senator, generally avoided the topic during his 2008 presidential campaign but staked out a position supporting the Supreme Court decision ending the D.C. handgun ban.

John Kerry, second from left
Then-Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, second from left, in 2004. (Photo: Hector Mata/AFP/Getty Images, digitally enhanced by Yahoo News)

And Hillary Clinton, during her Democratic primary battle against Obama in 2008, defended Second Amendment rights (“It’s part of culture. It’s part of a way of life”). Most gun control groups endorsed her in the 2016 primary race against Sen. Bernie Sanders, who had a mixed record on gun control in deference to his mostly rural constituency in Vermont. This year, he has come out in favor of universal background checks and an assault-weapons ban.

As of today, “at least five or six pretty serious candidates are annunciating plans around the issue,” said Brown, adding that a number of 2020 Democratic hopefuls have been consulting about their positions with the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

“It's not just that they answer a question at a debate,” she said. “They’re putting out affirmative proposals for what they would do if elected, and that is a big shift from when we were really happy as a movement to get a single question asked in a presidential debate — that was considered victory.”

Brown said she expects this “continued momentum going into 2020, certainly among these candidates with a crowded field.”

Alan Gottlieb, founder of the Second Amendment Foundation and chairman of the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, said the fight over gun laws is “definitely the same fight that it’s always been” — a tragedy involving guns followed by an antigun outcry from politicians.

“But it’s intensified by the fact that each of the Democratic candidates for president are trying to outdo, on the gun control issue, their opponents to cater to their base,” he told Yahoo News. “At this juncture, it’s having a great effect on gun owners in the country who are now getting more energized and more engaged to defend their rights, because every day, with roughly 22 candidates or so running for president, somebody’s calling for gun control, or more gun prohibition is in the news.”

Candidates are also eyeing the 2018 midterm results, in which congressional candidates prevailed after campaigning on gun violence — like freshman Rep. Lucy McBath, D-Ga., who made it the centerpiece of her campaign. Her teenage son, Jordan Davis, was fatally shot during an argument in 2012.

Lucy McBath
Rep. Lucy McBath speaks at the unveiling of legislation to expand background checks for sales of firearms, January 2019. (Photo: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images, digitally enhanced by Yahoo News)

“Democrats earning F ratings from the NRA for their views on gun laws prevailed not only in increasingly bluish swing states such as Virginia, Nevada, Wisconsin and Colorado, but also in conservative strongholds like South Carolina and Kansas,” the Trace reported.

Nearly 80 percent of the newly elected Democrats in 2018 held a pro-gun-control stance, a Reuters analysis found. House Democrats, in the biggest gun control push in years, went on to pass a bill mandating universal background checks for all gun purchases. The bill has not been taken up by the Republican-controlled Senate, and Trump has vowed to veto it.

A large majority of American voters support background checks for gun buyers, according to a recent Quinnipiac University National Poll. Ninety-four percent of voters are “in favor of laws that would require background checks for all gun purchases, including 90 percent of gun owners.” Meanwhile, 63 percent support a nationwide ban on selling assault weapons, and according to a Reuters-Ipsos poll in February, 55 percent of Americans said they wanted “policies that make it tougher to own guns.”

But for gun owners, “protection tops the list of reasons” of why they have a gun, according to the Pew Research Center.

“Everybody wants to see guns in the right hands, so to speak,” said Gottlieb. But he doesn't think that's how presidential candidates are approaching the issue. “When you’re talking about outright bans of magazines or certain semiautomatic firearms, you’re not saying guns in the right hands. You’re saying guns in nobody’s hands.”

Gun owners, he said, are on high alert, and “this is going to be really great for the next election cycle.”

“In key states, where there’s a lot of gun owners, like Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, the battleground states, for the 2020 elections, I think they're cutting their own throats,” Gottlieb said about pro-gun-control Democratic candidates.

“There is no one solution,” said Brown about preventing gun violence in America. “There are solutions entirely consistent with the Second Amendment, and the vast majority of Americans support them.”

Donald Trump
President Trump speaks at the National Rifle Association Institute for Legislative Action Leadership Forum in Indianapolis earlier this year. (Photo: Michael Conroy/AP, digitally enhanced by Yahoo News)

In past elections, though, gun rights advocates might have been outnumbered, but they were better organized and more passionate about the cause than the gun control forces. Donald Trump, who had a rare concealed-carry permit as a New York City resident, won strong backing from the NRA in 2016 — and from a shadowy Russian gun owners’ group that is suspected of surreptitiously funneling money to the Republican campaign. The association has become almost completely aligned with the Republican Party in recent years, and there is virtually no chance it will endorse any of the Democrats currently running.

What remains to be seen is whether the strong positions the Democratic candidates have staked out to appeal to primary voters will be maintained in the general election, going head to head with a Republican in swing states where gun control is less popular than in California, New York or Washington, D.C.

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