After Dayton and El Paso, sizing up the 2020 Democrats on guns

Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., speaks about gun control at Mother Emanuel AME Church Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2019, in Charleston, S.C. The church has become synonymous with hate-fueled attacks on people of faith, where nine black Bible study participants were slain in a 2015 racist attack. (AP Photo/Mic Smith)
Mic Smith/AP Photo
Democratic presidential candidate Senator Cory Booker spoke about gun control at Mother Emanuel AME Church Aug. 7, in Charleston, S.C. The church was the site where nine black Bible study participants were slain in a 2015 racist attack.

Democrats have always talked a good game on gun control, and after the horrific mass shootings in Dayton and El Paso last weekend, the party’s presidential candidates lost no time stepping up their criticisms of President Trump’s woeful record on firearms and touting their own plans for reducing gun violence in America.

But, wait. As welcoming as all that rhetoric is, the Democratic Party’s record of actually delivering on gun control has been underwhelming, to say the least. It can’t be forgotten that even when Democrats had a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, in 2009, they failed to restore the assault weapons ban, enact universal background checks, or pass any gun reforms
at all.

So Democratic primary voters sick of the violence ought to look for two things from the 2020 presidential candidates vying for the party’s nomination. The first, to be sure, is specific policy proposals — and there are some real differences that the candidates should air. The second, which falls more in the you-know-it-when-you-see-it-category, is commitment. If elected, who’d really spend their political capital on gun control, and who’d shove it to the back burner when a thousand other priorities crowd their agenda?


Here’s how we’d break down the pack:

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The major Democratic candidate who has leaned hardest into gun control issues is New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, the former Newark mayor who has worked in the trenches against gun violence far more than any of his competitors, and whose proposal to create a national gun-licensing system is a good deal bolder than anything from his competitors.

At the other extreme, the least reassuring candidate is Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, whose pro-gun record remains a serious concern.

Between those two ends of the spectrum, the other major Democratic candidates are largely aligned on specific gun issues and have a generally pro-safety voting record. They support reinstating the assault weapons ban and making background checks universal. Some, but not all, of the candidates also support repealing the law that immunizes the gun industry from liability for the negligent use of its products.

Those are all good ideas — and, let’s be clear, they put any and all of the Democrats well ahead of President Trump.


Still, even among candidates who appear quite similar based on candidate questionnaires, there are some telling differences in their past records and in the way they talk about the issue now.

The way the candidates have dealt with guns in the past is one indicator of how they’ll act in power. It’s on his record where former vice president Joe Biden looks best. As a Delaware senator, he helped pass the last significant piece of gun control legislation, the 1994 crime bill that banned assault weapons for 10 years.

Sanders, on the other hand, has been an ally of the gun lobby. He voted against the Brady Bill, and for NRA-backed legislation to protect firearm manufacturers from liability. Whatever Sanders may say now — and he’s pivoted on some gun-control issues — he, like Biden, has to be judged on his record.

Then there’s emphasis — the intangible hints that tell voters what really makes candidates tick, and where their priorities are.

In the speeches announcing their candidacies, Sanders and Mayor Pete Buttigieg, of South Bend, Ind., mentioned gun control in passing. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren mentioned “gun violence” once as a problem, without committing to any solutions. California Senator Kamala Harris didn’t mention gun control when she began her campaign, and neither did Biden.


In contrast, in Booker’s campaign kick-off speech in New Jersey, he listed some of the specific policies he’d pursue and pledged to “bring a fight to the NRA like they’ve never seen before.”

Presidential campaigns shouldn’t be decided on single issues, and this isn’t an endorsement of any candidate. But whoever sits in the White House in two years, the kind of fight that Booker is describing just can’t wait.