Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders knows his extraordinarily ambitious proposal to supplant the private health insurance industry with a single government plan won’t become law anytime soon. Yet, as he told HBO’s Vice News, he proposed it anyway, “because that’s the way change always happens … Things don’t happen overnight. And especially when you’re taking on the entire political establishment, you have to begin someplace.”
So if that’s the way change always happens, where’s the big, bold, politically unrealistic but conservation-changing proposal to stop the epidemic of gun deaths?
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The hard truth is the public mass shootings that periodically inflict national trauma account for a tiny silver of the gun epidemic—only 98 deaths in 2016. Out of the approximately 34,000 gun deaths America suffers each year, nearly two-thirds come from suicides, not homicides. Of those homicides by firearm, about two-thirds come from handguns, versus fewer than three percent from rifles of any sort.
Any serious attempt to address gun violence at the source has to address the accessibility of handguns. But what you mostly hear from gun control proponents— even from the farthest left edge of the Democratic Party—are the more politically palatable but narrower policies for a stronger background check system and an assault weapons ban. This is not going to solve the problem of gun violence. Not even close.
There’s an opening for a Democrat willing to ignore the polling data, dismiss the fretting about gun-happy white working-class voters, suffer the wrath of the NRA and stake a claim as the champion for sweeping gun control. But there’s no guarantee anyone will take it.
We can be fairly confident Sanders won’t apply his political logic on health care to gun control. Hailing from a rural state supportive of broad Second Amendment rights, the democratic socialist has long positioned himself as a gun centrist.
After the Sandy Hook massacre, he argued, “If you passed the strongest gun control legislation tomorrow, I don’t think it will have a profound effect on the tragedies we have seen.” And during the presidential primary, amid an onslaught of criticism from Hillary Clinton, he offered himself as someone who could meet gun rights supporters halfway. “You can sit there and say, ‘I think we should do this and do that,’” Sanders told one interviewer, “But you got a whole lot of states in this country where people want virtually no gun control at all. And if we are going to have some success, we are going to have to start talking to each other.”
If Bernie Sanders won’t be the Bernie Sanders of gun control, who will? The person trying the hardest so far is potential presidential candidate Sen. Chris Murphy.
Murphy, who was profoundly moved by Sandy Hook and has little to fear from pro-gun voters in deep-blue Connecticut, has been a vociferous critic of the NRA. He regularly excoriates his colleagues to prioritize gun control. He has sponsored legislation that would give states financial incentive to adopt handgun license programs, pointing to research that his own state’s program slashed gun homicides by 40 percent. In a Washington Post op-ed following the Vegas massacre, Murphy made a case for an expansive gun control agenda:
“Large majorities of Americans support universal background checks, permit requirements for gun ownership and bans on the most dangerous kinds of weapons and ammunition. The gun lobby, and the loud vocal minority it echoes, make the issue seem like more of a hot button than it is … America’s reputation is based on its ability to deliver the world big, Earth-changing solutions.”
And yet, the bill he’s planning to introduce in the Senate is yet another background check bill—hardly the political equivalent of Bernie’s Medicare for All. The other top gun control voice in the Senate, longtime assault weapons ban advocate Sen. Dianne Feinstein, quickly proposed an even narrower bill, banning the “bump stock” that police believe Stephen Paddock may have used in Las Vegas to effectively convert his semi-automatic rifle to a faster-firing automatic.
These incrementalist moves leave space for a Democrat to go truly big: mandate registration, licensing and safety courses; ban online sales; limit purchases to one gun a month; cap the size of magazines and ratify a constitutional amendment superseding the Second to allow broader handgun bans.
Whatever the substantive merits of these ideas, most Democrats won’t leap that far to the left on guns for an obvious reason: All available evidence points to gun control as political suicide.
As I wrote in POLITICO Magazine last May, Democrats began downplaying the issue ever since the Bill Clinton-era gun laws and Al Gore’s 2000 campaign proposal to ban cheap handguns alienated previously Democratic states such as West Virginia, Arkansas and Tennessee. When Democrats took control of Congress after the 2006 midterms, it was thanks in part to candidates who shed that past and ran on pro-gun rhetoric. Barack Obama didn’t champion the gun control cause until Sandy Hook happened, one month after he had completed his last presidential race. In 2016, Clinton’s attempt to run as a proud supporter of “gun violence prevention” only succeeded in enticing the NRA to spend more than any other outside group on Donald Trump’s campaign. Her anti-gun stance may have helped her defeat Sanders in the primary, but she got shellacked in rural areas during the general election.
Looking at the public support for moderate ideas like universal background checks, Murphy may believe the NRA is a paper tiger. But the reality is that over the last 20 years, Democrats have won only in the states and districts that counted when they kept guns off of the agenda.
Furthermore, some of the more ambitious proposals poll terribly. For example, Gallup found that only 23 percent of Americans support a broad handgun ban. It would not be wise for the entire Democratic Party to lead with its chin on gun control.
However, what’s dangerous for the party’s short-term prospects need not paralyze every individual Democrat from establishing an intellectual foundation for a comprehensive solution to the plague of gun violence.
In 2013, after Sandy Hook, it was understandable for President Obama – after offering a long list of ideas – to get behind the narrow background check bill from the bipartisan duo of Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Pat Toomey (R-Penn.). It was the only bill with the hope of earning sufficient bipartisan support to break a Senate filibuster. While a tighter system wouldn’t have stopped killers who legitimately clear the checks – such as Orlando’s Omar Mateen, Aurora’s James Holmes and this week’s Vegas sniper – others have fallen through the cracks in the system, like Charleston’s Dylann Roof, who had a prior felony conviction, and Virginia Tech’s Seung-Hui Cho, who was adjudicated as a “mental defective.” Any incremental step forward potentially saves a life.
Yet even with Democrats holding the presidential bully pulpit, huge support in polls and a majority in the Senate, Manchin-Toomey was rejected by four Senate Democrats and ultimately fell five votes short of the required 60.
But in 2017, we know that in a Washington fully controlled by Republicans in thrall to the NRA, any gun control bill – no matter how narrow or now popular – has zero chance of even making it to the House or Senate floor, let alone becoming law. And we also know from recent experience that trying to embarrass Republicans by demanding votes on the tiniest bit of gun control – even on legislation banning suspected terrorists on the no-fly list from buying a gun – fails to impress voters come Election Day.
So why should Democrats expend most of their energy today on exceedingly incremental legislation, when such measures lend themselves to disingenuous attacks from the right? If you stress background checks, then Republicans point out all the cases where that wouldn’t have made a difference. If you emphasize assault weapons, you hear the guffaws from the right that liberals don’t know enough about guns to properly define what should qualify for a ban. If you talk about high-profile mass shooters, then you get an earful about how you’re ignoring the daily gun violence in liberal cities like Chicago.
What gun rights advocates are trying to do in this predictable back-and-forth is bait Democrats into admitting they want broader restrictions to stop that everyday violence. Avoiding the bait is politically sensible in the short run. But it’s unserious and intellectually incoherent, and it hampers the ability to sustain focus on the gun issue between massacres, when the public tunes out.
Considering that going big is all the rage on the left – as many progressives vilify the soulless pragmatism personified by Hillary Clinton as detrimental to inspiring voter turnout – you might think more Democrats would be competing with each other to see who can offer the boldest proposal to address an issue of moral urgency. Yet gun control doesn’t attract the same level of passion on the left as health care.
Which is odd. As I argued after Sanders’ introduced his Medicare for All plan, on health care, Democrats have an easier path: building on the hard-fought success of the Affordable Care Act instead of agitating for a wholesale revamp. But it’s precisely the Democrats’ success in defending the ACA that has whetted the left’s appetite. Why just regulate private insurance when we can eliminate it?
However, unrealistic expectations of an unprecedented hostile government takeover of a private industry are what make the single-payer push so dangerous; the odds of bitter disappointment once Democrats regain power are high. But with gun control, expectations couldn’t be much lower.
Moreover, Democrats in general are already being tagged as “gun grabbers” for merely raising the issue of guns, even if their main proposals would not touch the guns of most people. For one or two Democrats to go big on guns helps expand the parameters of the debate and position relatively modest ideas as centrist compromises, without damaging the Democratic brand among the white working-class … at least, not much more than it already has been damaged.
With so many Democratic prospects considering the presidency, many are hungry to find opportunities to exude leadership. The years of Democratic timidity on gun control present an enormous opening for a politician to claim the mantle of boldness. And on this issue, and maybe only this issue, there’s no chance of getting outflanked on your left by Bernie Sanders.
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