Gun control: Campaigning vs. legislating
Much attention has been paid recently to the policy differences between moderate and progressive Democrats. But at least as big a difference separates the way Democrats campaign for office and the way they act once they get elected. That’s especially true on the issue of guns.
The House Democrats recently showed courage by passing a universal background check bill, which would close most of the loopholes that plague the gun laws on the books.
It took courage because many of the new Democratic House members were elected in red districts and face reelection in 2020. Even the weakened National Rifle Association may give them much grief for these votes.
While I cherish every life saved, truth to be told, even if Congress acts to close all the background check loopholes, it would curb few of the shootings. Most of the recent mass shooters passed background checks and obtained their guns legally.
Moreover, universal background checks would do little to address the fact that, as of 2017, there were an estimated 393 million civilian-owned guns in the United States, including numerous military-style assault guns. (Having been in combat for two and half years, I have some first-hand knowledge of how murderous these are.)
What we need, at a minimum, is a law akin to the one recently enacted and implemented by New Zealand. This law made all assault rifles and military-style semi-automatic weapons illegal and created a buyback program. After a grace period, possessing a banned weapon will be punishable by a fine or jail time. I write “implemented,” because, in the U.S., even when gun control laws are passed, the NRA typically prevents their proper implementation by adding riders to appropriations bills, denying funding needed to carry out the laws, and adding many other hurdles.
The gun lobby has thus prevented the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives from building a database of its records, from creating an electronic database of records of gun sales made by dealers who have gone out of business, from sharing data with the public and from mandating that firearms dealers inventory their supplies every year.
Former Vice President Joe Biden has come closest to calling for a New Zealand-like bill. After the shootings in El Paso and Dayton, he announced his support for a voluntary federal program to buy guns back from the public and a revival of the ban on assault weapons. (He was a major sponsor of a previous assault weapons ban, which lasted for ten years, from 1994 to 2004, outlawing the manufacture of 18 models of firearms and placing a limit on high-capacity magazines but not affecting the possession or sale of weapons that had already been manufactured.)
Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is vowing to prohibit people from selling or distributing assault weapons, as well as to ban high-capacity ammunition magazines. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) supports an assault weapons ban. Senator Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) promises to enact an assault weapons ban within the first 100 days of her prospective presidency, either by legislation or executive order.
Where do we go from here? Will whoever wins the Democratic nomination paddle back and embrace much more moderate measures, as Democrats already elected, do? Or will she or he stick to their guns (forgive the pun) during the general election — and after elected?
Meanwhile, about 100 Americans die each day from gunshots. More than 7,700 children and teens are shot every year. And more Americans are killed every week in Chicago alone than during all of last year in Afghanistan.
Amitai Etzioni is a professor of international affairs at George Washington University. He served in the Israeli Special Forces (Palmach). His latest book, “Reclaiming Patriotism,” was published by the University of Virginia Press on September 10.