Will 2020 Democrats pro­pose gun con­trol ideas that work?

Baltimore Sun - - MARYLAND VOICES -

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, who­has 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.

CHAR­LIE NEIBERGALL/AP

El­iz­a­beth War­ren, speak­ing at the Pres­i­den­tial Gun Sense Fo­rum in Des Moines, says her goal is to cut the num­ber of U.S. firearms deaths by 80%.

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