Gun control is often touted as an integral part of the Democratic Party’s platform. It’s become common and accepted for members of the party to support “common sense” gun reform like universal background checks and, to a somewhat lesser extent, further restrictions on assault weapons.
But based on a recent survey of the 2020 Democrats by the New York Times, the vast majority of the party’s candidates (Biden didn’t respond) are still serving up bland political dreck that pays lip service to the epidemic of gun violence while refusing to engage with one of its largest causes. The question the Times posed was simple: “In an ideal world, would anyone own handguns?” The easy, just, and scientifically supported answer to this question is no. But of 21 candidates, only Julián Castro and John Hickenlooper got close to offering it.
Here’s Sen. Bernie Sanders, for example:
I think if used in a sportsman-type way—yeah, I think that would be acceptable. But having said that, right now, we’re looking at an epidemic of gun violence in this country. Some 40,000 people, many of them suicides, 40,000 deaths took place last year from guns, clearly we need to deal with the epidemic of gun violence. I very strongly believe that we have to go forward into what we call common sense gun safety legislation—that is extended background checks, that means doing away with the gun show loophole, basically making sure that people who should not own guns do not own guns.
I’m choosing this answer not to pick on Bernie—although he’s always been solidly centrist on guns—but because it’s a pretty good representation of the general Democratic Party line is. His answer was also similar to many others in the Times’ interview series, which went something like: Handguns are fine, we just need background checks etc. to keep guns out of the hands of criminals.
The problem is handguns are not fine. A good answer to the Times’ question includes some nuance, sure: The realities of policing violent crime mean that some law enforcement officers and others will still have a use for handguns. But in the hands of the general public, pistols are by far and away the most deadly factor in the gun violence epidemic plaguing the country—they’re used in 80 percent of all gun homicides and up to 69 percent of firearm suicides (per a 1988 survey, though I doubt that number has changed much). The vast majority of the candidates did not acknowledge these facts, which might’ve forced their answers beyond the boilerplate and politically safe.
Here are two good answers, one from Castro, and one, shockingly, from Hickenlooper, who were both some of the only candidates to actually address the question about handguns instead of pivoting to tangential answers about gun control in general. Here was Castro’s response to the Times:
In an ideal world, people would not own handguns, and there are a number of countries around the world where people do not own handguns where they’re not permitted, and we see that those countries have greater safety, less violent deaths, and so forth. However, we also recognize that the United States and the Supreme Court in the Heller decision has ruled that people do have a right to bear arms, and so for the time being, what we need to do is make sure that we make the possession of firearms as reasonable as possible.
Castro went on to voice support for “common sense” gun laws, emphasizing gun buybacks programs, and giving more detail than many other candidates, but his initial answer shows a far clearer perspective on the issue than many of his peers.
In an ideal world, you could philosophize that no one wants handguns. I think that the notion that so many people have [is] that a handgun makes them safer, it’s a little bit like people’s healthcare insurance through their business, its something that they accept and believe in. That being said, study after study after study shows that having a handgun in most cases makes you less safe, not more.
These are good answers. The worst, perhaps, were the ones that repeatedly focused on assault weapons, which sometimes came from candidates like California Rep. Eric Swalwell, who has made gun control one of his central campaign issues. Swalwell and Seth Moulton both used the term “weapons of war” to describe guns on the streets, an attempt to address the flashiest and most emotional aspects of gun violence—mass shootings—while failing to address the majority of the problem. Restrictions on semi-automatic firearms, especially those designed for combat (as all civilian and military variants of the AR-15, AK platform and other assault rifles are, select fire switches be damned), are important, yes. They could greatly affect the volume and deadliness of mass shooting in America. But will they stop the mass of shootings? Absolutely not—because most shootings still involve a handgun.
The term “mass shooting” is also defined in different ways—some argue that there must be four deaths in one place at one time, others that there just must be four people shot. When the death toll spills into double digits or the perpetrator has explicit political motives, these incidents usually make the national news: Sandy Hook, Las Vegas, the Pulse nightclub, Parkland. Often these high-casualty events involve assault weapons or long guns (though they often involve handguns as well). But day after day, smaller-scale shootings that still fit the definition take place all over the country, and many of them are carried out with nothing larger than a pistol. Statistically speaking, mass shootings in general, even the ones that don’t make national news, represent a tiny portion of gun deaths in America, compared to the grinding, constant toll of general firearm deaths from suicides, homicides, and accidental shootings. Structuring legislation solely around mass shootings and assault weapons is like building a Medicare for All plan that only covers people with lupus. That would be great, and would help plenty of people, but would still wildly miss the scope of the problem.
The solutions that “common sense” gun reform centrists love to spout are absolutely vital: universal background checks and closing of gun show and private sale loopholes would go a long way to curtailing the proliferation and spread of guns once they’re purchased, as would buybacks and more stringent restrictions on semi-automatic rifles. Those rules are easy, and at least in the case of background checks, have overwhelming public support. But they will not stop the mass death, and it’s a consistent disappointment that the vast majority of Democrats running for president are comfortable with an answer to gun-violence that is, at best, half cocked.