Ten of the Democratic presidential candidates during the first 2020 debate. | Drew Angerer/Getty Images
The candidates agree on universal background checks and an assault weapons ban. There’s less agreement on other proposals.
In response to recent mass shootings in El Paso, Texas; Dayton, Ohio; and now Odessa and Midland, Texas, and Mobile, Alabama, supporters of stricter gun laws have voiced a simple mantra: “Do something!”
So, after little federal action on guns for more than two decades, what would the 2020 presidential candidates actually do?
President Donald Trump, for his part, doesn’t seem interested in much. He has supported a federal red flag law, which would allow police to take away someone’s guns if there’s some proof of a risk of violence (a “red flag”). But on other measures, from universal background checks to an assault weapons ban, Trump and Republican lawmakers have resisted, instead talking up questionable connections between violence, mental illness, and violent media.
Democratic candidates, however, have taken more comprehensive stances on guns. For the most part, they’re sticking to common Democratic themes like universal background checks, an assault weapons ban (which is typically paired with a ban on high-capacity magazines), and federally funded research into gun violence. But the campaigns’ plans do include some new ideas here and there — including red flag laws, which campaigns ranging from Cory Booker’s to John Delaney’s back, and requiring a license to buy and own a gun, which Booker in particular brought to the presidential stage but others, like Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg, also support.
As I’ve argued before, even the most ambitious of the candidates’ gun control proposals don’t go far enough to seriously dent gun violence. America leads the developed world in gun violence, with gun death rates nearly four times that of Switzerland, five times that of Canada, 35 times that of the United Kingdom, and 53 times that of Japan. The core problem is the US simply has way too many guns and too much access to firearms, letting just about anyone obtain a weapon to carry out a mass shooting or more typical types of gun violence, whether suicides or homicides.
But none of the Democratic proposals do anything to swiftly address that core problem and significantly reduce the number of guns in the US.
Still, the research suggests that stricter gun laws, particularly licensing, would reduce gun deaths. So the Democratic proposals would make some progress, even if they wouldn’t be enough to bring down America’s rate of gun deaths to that of its developed peers.
Some proposals show a little movement
Most of the Democratic candidates at least mention gun violence on their campaign websites and other networks (like Medium), though just a few — Booker, Warren, Buttigieg, Andrew Yang, and Kamala Harris in particular stick out — go into a lot of detail.
The Democratic candidates are in general agreement on at least two proposals: universal background checks and an assault weapons ban. When it comes to other issues, there’s a bit less agreement, or at least less attention.
The big common proposal is universal background checks. Under federal law, licensed gun dealers have to run a background check, looking at factors like criminal record and mental health history, to sell someone a firearm. But unlicensed sellers — think a family member, or perhaps someone over the internet or at a gun show — don’t have to run a check. Universal background checks attempt to stamp out the unlicensed sellers by requiring a background check for all or nearly all gun transactions.
An assault weapons ban has also received more attention with the rise of extremely deadly mass shootings, as the shooters have used weapons like AR-15s and WASR-10s (a variant of an AK-47) to carry out the attacks. There are questions about how it would be implemented and enforced, but the idea is to ban military-style semiautomatic rifles. Some Democratic candidates frame this as bringing back a previous federal assault weapons ban, which was enacted in 1994 but expired in 2004, that kept existing weapons in circulation but tried to restrict future sales. Others want to go further, mandating that gun owners actually turn in the banned weapons.
Beyond those two proposals, candidates have also supported red flag laws, which could allow a family member, neighbor, close friend, teacher, or cop to report an “extreme risk” of violence to the courts. The court could then order the seizure of a person’s weapons.
The candidates also favor closing loopholes in existing gun laws. That includes the “boyfriend loophole,” which lets people get a gun even if they have a protective order against them due to a dating relationship, and the “Charleston loophole,” which allows a small number of people to obtain a gun without completing a background check if the check takes too long. (This is how the self-described white supremacist who killed nine people at a predominantly black church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015 got his gun.)
There’s also a lot of support for federally funded research into gun violence, as well as the repeal of special legal protections for gun companies.
Some candidates have moved to the left by calling for gun licensing, which would require a license to purchase and own a firearm. Typically, obtaining a license would involve a background check, but also a more extensive vetting process that can require submitting fingerprints and a photo, interviews with law enforcement, and a gun safety training course. Some would pair this proposal — as is done in, for example, Massachusetts — with mandatory registration of firearms. (This, in theory, allows police to pull up a database of weapons to seize if someone loses a license.)
Several candidates, including Booker, Warren, Buttigieg, and Yang, support gun licensing. But others, including Joe Biden and Michael Bennet, have been critical of it.
Otherwise, there’s been little significant movement from the typical Democratic mantras of universal background checks and an assault weapons ban.
Even the boldest proposals don’t go far enough
The Democratic proposals on guns show how stuck the debate over this issue has been for decades. In 1993 and 1994, a Democratic-controlled Congress passed federal background checks and a 10-year assault weapons ban. In the 25 years since, the debate has largely been relegated to … more background checks and an assault weapons ban. As the party has moved left on everything from single-payer health care to the Green New Deal to taxes on the wealthy, it hasn’t really moved on guns.
One reason is that Democrats’ philosophy on gun policy has remained largely the same: to prevent certain kinds of people from getting guns, and at most prohibit only a small fraction of firearms.
But America’s problem is much broader: It simply has too many guns, regardless of whether they’re in a “good” guy’s hands or a “bad” guy’s hands. The US has far more guns than any other country in the world — more guns than people, according to the Small Arms Survey. That makes it easy to get a firearm, legally or not, leading to more gun deaths.
Research compiled by the Harvard School of Public Health’s Injury Control Research Center backs this up: After controlling for variables such as socioeconomic factors and other crime, places with more guns have more gun deaths — not just homicides but also suicides, domestic violence, violence against police, and mass shootings.
Another way to look at this: Everywhere in the world, people get into arguments. Every country has residents who are dangerous to themselves or others because of mental illness. Every country has bigots and extremists. But in America, it’s uniquely easy for a person to obtain a gun, letting otherwise tense but nonlethal conflicts escalate into deadly violence.
Yes, stronger gun laws can help. A 2016 review of 130 studies in 10 countries, published in Epidemiologic Reviews, found that new legal restrictions on owning and purchasing guns tended to be followed by a drop in gun violence — a strong indicator that restricting access to guns can save lives.
But the types of gun control laws matter. Some of the recent research on universal background checks has been mixed, and studies on the last assault weapons ban found it ineffective for reducing overall levels of gun violence, in part because the great majority of gun deaths involves handguns, not assault weapons. But studies on licensing have been very consistent in significantly reducing gun deaths — in urban counties, Connecticut, and Missouri, including for suicides.
One reason licensing might work is that it addresses America’s core gun problem. On its face, licensing might seem like an extension of the background check model, since the idea is still to filter between qualified and unqualified people.
But a licensing process can go way further: While a background check is more often than not quick and hassle-free, gun licensing in, for example, Massachusetts is a weeks- or months-long process that requires submitting a photograph and fingerprints, passing a training course, and going through one or more interviews, all involving law enforcement. That adds significant barriers for even a would-be gun owner who has no ill intent or bad history.
“The end impact is you decrease gun ownership overall,” Cassandra Crifasi, a researcher (and gun owner) at the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, previously told me, discussing Massachusetts’s laws. “Lots of folks think, ‘Well, it’s probably not worth going through all these hoops to buy firearms, so I’m not going to buy one.’ And then you have fewer firearms around, and less exposure.”
This, however, could only be a start: the kind of thing that ensures fewer people get guns now and in the future. But in a country that already has so many firearms, something also needs to be done to take out a lot of guns more quickly.
That could require rethinking the Second Amendment, possibly by appointing judges who interpret it differently — an inversion of the NRA’s campaign to portray gun ownership as an individual right. It might even mean beginning an effort to repeal the amendment, a project that could admittedly take decades but has gotten less serious consideration and support than packing the Supreme Court or even abolishing the Senate.
Significant change could involve imposing bigger hurdles to owning a gun — requiring that people provide a stronger justification, besides self-defense or recreation, to obtain a license.
It could mean banning more types of guns — perhaps all semiautomatic weapons or all handguns — and coupling that with an Australian-style mandatory buyback program, which the research supports. If the key difference between America and other countries is how many more guns the US has, then something has to be done to quickly reduce the number of firearms here.
Democrats aren’t there yet. Until that changes, there will be little voice in the presidential stage to the kinds of policies that could get American gun violence down to the levels of the US’s developed peers.
Where the Democrats stand
Former Vice President Joe Biden: Biden does not yet have a dedicated gun policy platform on his website, though his campaign said one is coming soon. In other proposals, he’s stated his support for universal background checks and an assault weapons ban. He has also indicated that he’d be for prohibiting firearms that aren’t “smart guns,” which try to ensure the person pulling the trigger is the firearm’s owner by, for example, verifying a fingerprint. But Biden has also spoken unfavorably about licensing plans, saying “gun licensing will not change whether or not people buy what weapons — what kinds of weapons they can buy, where they can use them, how they can store them.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders: Sanders’s campaign website includes a gun safety platform, and he released a separate plan to combat white supremacist extremism. He promises to make background checks universal, ban assault weapons, and crack down on “straw purchases” of firearms. On licensing, his campaign also told the Trace that he “supports the right of states, localities and tribal governments to implement licensing programs.” Sanders has historically taken more moderate stances on gun control, but he’s shifted to the left in recent years; for example, he originally voted for special legal protections for gun companies in 2003 and 2005, but has since come out against them.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren: Warren’s campaign website includes a plan to fight gun violence. The plan aims to reduce gun deaths by 80 percent. Warren calls for executive actions to expand background checks, close loopholes in existing laws, and target gun traffickers and licensed gun dealers who break the law. She also proposes sweeping legislation that includes universal background checks and an assault weapons ban but also gun licensing as well as support for urban gun violence intervention programs. And with federally funded gun violence research, she promises to return to the issue of firearms annually, “adding new ideas and tweaking existing ones based on new data — to continually reduce the number of gun deaths in America.”
Sen. Kamala Harris: Harris’s campaign website promises “action on gun violence.” As president, she plans to give Congress 100 days to pass stronger gun laws, including universal background checks, an assault weapons ban, and the repeal of special legal protections for gun companies. But if Congress doesn’t act, she promises to sign executive orders to expand background checks, crack down on bad gun companies and dealers, make it more difficult for some people with criminal records (including domestic violence) to buy firearms, and ban the importation of some assault weapons into the US. She also said, on gun licensing, “I like the idea.”
South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg: Buttigieg’s campaign website includes a section on gun laws, and he also released a separate plan to “combat the national threat posed by hate and the gun lobby.” In the plans, Buttigieg says he supports universal background checks, an assault weapons ban, gun licensing, closing the “Charleston loophole,” closing loopholes in gun laws related to domestic violence and hate crimes, red flag laws, federally funded research on gun violence, and investing money into urban gun violence intervention programs.
Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke: O’Rourke’s campaign website includes a section on gun safety. He supports universal background checks, an assault weapons ban, red flag laws, closing loopholes in gun laws like the “Charleston loophole” and those linked to domestic violence, and funding for trauma support and community programs related to firearm education and disrupting gun violence. He also told the Trace he supports gun licensing.
Sen. Cory Booker: Booker’s campaign website includes two proposals to combat gun violence and gun suicides. He emphasizes gun licensing and registration as his main proposal, but his plans also include the typical mainstays of Democratic gun policy: universal background checks, an assault weapons ban, closing loopholes in existing laws and regulations, red flag laws, safe storage requirements, and more funding for gun violence research. He also vows to take executive action to tighten gun laws as much as possible if Congress doesn’t act.
Andrew Yang: Yang’s campaign website includes a gun safety plan. He supports universal background checks, an assault weapons ban, gun licensing, closing loopholes in existing laws, repealing special legal protections for gun companies, federally funded research on gun violence, and creating financial incentives for firearm owners to obtain smart guns.
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard: Gabbard’s campaign website includes a section on gun safety legislation. She supports universal background checks, closing loopholes in laws regarding domestic violence and suspected terrorism, and an assault weapons ban.
Former HUD Secretary Julián Castro: Castro’s campaign website does not include a gun policy platform, and his campaign did not return requests for comment. He has voiced support for universal background checks, an assault weapons ban, and red flag laws.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar: Klobuchar’s campaign released a plan on gun violence. She backs universal background checks, an assault weapons ban, closing loopholes in existing laws, repealing special legal protections for gun companies, and federally funded research on gun violence.
Tom Steyer: Steyer’s campaign website does not include a gun policy platform, and his campaign did not return requests for comment.
Marianne Williamson: Williamson’s campaign website includes a section on gun policy. She supports universal background checks, an assault weapons ban, gun licensing, mandatory waiting periods, stricter laws regarding children’s use of guns, child safety locks for all guns, red flag laws, and federally funded research into gun violence.
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock: Bullock’s campaign website does not include a gun policy platform, and his campaign did not return requests for comment. He has voiced support for universal background checks, an assault weapons ban, and red flag laws.
Former Rep. John Delaney: Delaney’s campaign website includes a gun safety platform. He supports universal background checks, an assault weapons ban, closing loopholes in existing laws, red flag laws, and federally funded research on gun violence.
Rep. Tim Ryan: Ryan’s campaign website does not include a gun policy platform, and his campaign did not return requests for comment. He has voiced support for universal background checks and an assault weapons ban.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio: De Blasio’s campaign website does not include a gun policy platform, and his campaign did not return requests for comment. He’s voiced support for universal background checks, an assault weapons ban, and urban gun violence intervention programs (some of which he implemented as mayor of New York City).
Former Rep. Joe Sestak: Sestak’s website includes a section on violence prevention. He supports an assault weapons ban, closing loopholes in existing background check laws, and federally funded research on gun violence.
Sen. Michael Bennet: Bennet’s campaign website does not include a gun policy platform, and his campaign did not return requests for comment. He told the Trace he supports universal background checks, an assault weapons ban, red flag laws, repealing special legal protections for gun companies, and federally funded research on gun violence. But he opposes gun licensing.
Miramar, Florida, Mayor Wayne Messam: Messam’s campaign website includes a section on gun reform. He backs expanded background checks.