Democrats dropping cautious rhetoric as mass shootings escalate

Former Vice President Joe Biden is talking about the 1994 crime bill again, but this time around he’s not on the defensive.

Biden — often hammered over his lead role in drafting the Clinton-era legislation and its role in fueling a mass incarceration crisis — alluded on Monday to a lapsed provision of the law most Democrats want to see reinstated: a ban on so-called assault weapons.

Asked by CNN’s Anderson Cooper if he supported one, Biden reminded voters: “I was able to get one passed.”

The rapidly shifting politics of gun control have come into stark relief in the aftermath of a pair of mass shootings, a little more than 12 hours apart, this past weekend here in El Paso and in Dayton, Ohio. The alleged gunmen killed at least 31 people, 22 of them in Texas, where a 21-year-old white nationalist is now in police custody.

This most recent spasm of gun violence has further emboldened 2020 Democratic primary candidates, many of whom were already offering ambitious gun control plans, to advocate for sweeping new legislation — and, failing that, executive action — to restrict some of the most deadly weapons available to Americans. In public statements and formal proposals and on campaign websites, the hopefuls have set out the kinds of aggressive agendas that might have been viewed as political poison even a few years ago.

Biden on Monday responded defiantly to the suggestion that some Republicans would say his administration would set out to take away people’s guns.

“Bingo,” he told CNN. “You’re right, if you have an assault weapon. The fact of the matter is they should be illegal. Period. The Second Amendment doesn’t say you can’t restrict the kinds of weapons people can own. You can’t buy a bazooka. You can’t have a flamethrower.”

He stopped short of calling for enforced gun confiscations but pledged to implement a voluntary national buyback program.

Where the candidates stand

Less than 24 hours later, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg released a new proposal that tied together new gun laws — including a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines — and increased federal funding for research on gun violence. Another boldfaced part of the plan would dedicate $1 billion to combat violent extremism and radicalization taking place on social media forums like 8chan.

Buttigieg outlined a comprehensive package that would close a series of loopholes and implement universal background checks — a composite of positions that are held by nearly every major 2020 Democratic presidential candidate.

Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas, who left the campaign trail to return home to El Paso in the wake of Saturday’s shooting, has also advocated mandatory background checks. In calling for a ban on the sale of assault rifles, he said in Las Vegas on Saturday, minutes after learning of the shooting: “Keep that shit on the battlefield. Do not bring it into our communities.”

A day later, the tensions around Trump’s rhetoric and the shooting bubbled over. O’Rourke, asked by a reporter what the President could do to make things better, became emotional.

“What do you think? You know the s— he’s been saying. He’s been calling Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals. I don’t know, like, members of the press, what the f—? Hold on a second. You know, I — it’s these questions that you know the answers to,” O’Rourke said.

“I mean, connect the dots about what he’s been doing in this country. He’s not tolerating racism, he’s promoting racism. He’s not tolerating violence, he’s inciting racism and violence in this country. So, you know, I just — I don’t know what kind of question that is.”

In a “Pod Save America” podcast interview Monday, O’Rourke also said he is open to a mandatory gun buyback program similar to one in Australia.

“At the end of the day, if it’s going to save lives, if it’s going to prevent the kind of tragedies that we saw in El Paso, or Gilroy, or Dayton, or this weekend in Chicago, or all over this country on a daily basis, then let’s move forward and do it,” he said.

Sen. Kamala Harris of California has been among the most aggressive proponents of the new measures favored by the field. At a CNN town hall in April, she called out “supposed leaders in Washington” for their inaction.

“We need reasonable gun safety laws in this country, starting with universal background checks and a renewal of the assault weapon ban,” Harris said. “But (elected officials) have failed to have the courage to act.”

Her promise: “Upon being elected, I will give the United States Congress 100 days to get their act together and have the courage to pass reasonable gun safety laws. And if they fail to do it, then I will take executive action.”

The less cautious positioning and language among Democrats, and some Republicans’ public willingness to support a degree of new restrictions, is backed by most recent national polling. In a Marist survey from mid-July, 57% of all registered voters — including 83% of Democrats — said it was a “good idea” to impose a “ban on the sale of semi-automatic assault guns such as the AK-47 or the AR-15.” The numbers were mostly consistent across regions of the country and even 31% of Trump supporters from 2016 agreed.

A question from the same poll asking about “background checks for gun purchases at gun shows or other private sales” found overwhelming bipartisan support — 86% of registered voters backed it, including 96% of Democrats and 84% of Republicans.

But even in the face of vast public support for action, there are no signs that Republicans in Congress are prepared to move forward with any meaningful new legislation. The Senate has repeatedly — even in the aftermath of the 2012 massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, when Democrats had a narrow majority in the chamber — failed to bring votes to the floor on even modest gun control bills. And the Democratic candidates’ promises to use executive action, if elected next year, from the White House would likely be gummed up in the courts.

Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, who has spoken frequently and in personal terms about the need for innovative new restrictions, has also put out one of the most robust and detailed plans. Notably, his pitch included a proposal to create gun licenses modeled after driver’s licenses.

“If you need a license to drive a car, you should need a license to buy and own a firearm,” he said during the first round of primary debates, in June.

Standing next to Booker on the stage that night, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts declared gun violence — both mass shootings and cases that don’t make headlines — “a national health emergency in this country.”

“We can do the things that are sensible. We can do universal background checks, we can ban the weapons of war, but we can also double down on the research and find out what really works,” Warren said. “We need to treat this like the virus that’s killing our children.”

The other leading 2020 progressive, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, was hammered on gun issues during the 2016 primary by Hillary Clinton, who pointed to his five votes in the early 1990s against the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act. His campaign cited Sanders’ belief at the time that, while he didn’t oppose the substance of the legislation, the decisions on that kind of bill should be left to the states.

But Sanders, who voted as a House member for the 1994 bill that included a federal assault weapons ban, has since pushed for more aggressive legislation. He has talked about “an epidemic of gun violence” and, like his primary opponents, supports expanded background checks and closing loopholes. He still backs outlawing assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.

“The issue of the moment,” Sanders told CNN’s Jake Tapper on Sunday, “is whether the (National Rifle Association) will continue to determine gun policy in America despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of the American people — gun owners and non-gun owners — want common-sense gun safety legislation.”

The NRA, in the aftermath of El Paso and Dayton, put out a statement offering its “deepest sympathies” to the victims and their families. But the group remains adamantly opposed to the kinds of strict new laws being pursued by Democrats.

“Those who have been adjudicated as a danger to themselves or others should not have access to firearms and should be admitted for treatment,” the NRA said on Monday, without specifying what, if any, legislation it might support.

Sanders was also among the first in the field to call on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, to convene a special session in Washington so lawmakers can “sit down and work on the kind of legislation that we need.”

Despite similar pushes from others in the Senate, and lingering bipartisan legislation on the table that would expand background checks, McConnell has not signaled any intention of breaking up the body’s summer recess.