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Where the Democratic candidates stand on gun control legislation

Democratic presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke speaks on Sunday

Democratic presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke speaks on Sunday in El Paso, Texas, during a vigil after a shooting at a Walmart there the day before that ultimately left 22 people dead. Credit: AFP / Getty Images / Mark Ralston

Democratic candidates for president called for gun-control legislation to finally end the epidemic of mass shootings, in the aftermath of the bloodshed in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio.

The sense of urgency, including from representatives of more politically conservative swaths of the country, didn’t go unnoticed by advocates who have long pushed for strengthened federal gun laws.

“They’re going right from ‘this is horrible and our hearts are with the community, whether it’s Dayton or El Paso or Brownsville, Brooklyn, or Gilroy, California, and they’re pivoting immediately to a conversation and a dialogue about what we can do to prevent this,” said Diane Rinaldo, a volunteer with Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.

The four shootings took place over two weekends, with gunmen killing a total of 35 people and wounding dozens more.

Gun safety was hardly discussed in the campaigns of former President Barack Obama, even if he ultimately championed it in the White House, noted Robin Lloyd, managing director of Giffords, the organization founded by Gabrielle Giffords, the former member of congress who survived a shooting.

Now, Lloyd said, all the Democratic candidates have addressed it in some capacity, including interpersonal community violence and suicide prevention. “What we’ve seen this year leading up to the 2020 election is a watershed moment,” she said.

Republican President Donald Trump, for his part, reiterated Friday that he is open to “intelligent” and “meaningful” background checks.

Former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) both delivered speeches last Wednesday assailing Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric as an inspiration for the El Paso gunman, but also proposing multipronged approaches to gun restrictions.

Here’s a look at the policies the Democratic contenders have been discussing:

Universal background checks

Two dozen Democratic candidates have voiced support for requiring background checks on all gun sales, including from gun shows and unlicensed online sales.

Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, in a recently released gun-control plan said: “After each new mass shooting, it has become routine to learn that the perpetrator acquired their guns legally.”

Several candidates urged Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to bring senators back from their August recess to vote on legislation to expand background checks that passed months ago in the House with bipartisan support. McConnell said the body will discuss gun-control measures in September.

Polling shows a majority of Americans want expanded background checks, which Lloyd called a “fundamental first step.”

Assault weapons ban

Biden, thus far the frontrunner for the nomination, on Wednesday in Iowa emphasized his role as senator in passing the ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines in 1994, alongside then-Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). 

“If I’m elected president, we will do it again, we will do it again,” Biden said to applause.

The prohibition expired in 2004 under a GOP-controlled White House and Congress. Reinstating it has wide support among Democrats. Some Republicans also have called for the ban.

Biden also pushed for a federal gun buyback program “to get as many of these military-style weapons of war as possible off the street.”

Limiting magazine capacity

Moms Demand Action supports an assault weapons ban but prioritizes limiting magazine capacity.

“A ban on high-capacity magazines is more enforceable and it’s harder for the manufacturers to work around,” Rinaldo said. “It is also really those high-capacity magazines that make the guns so lethal.”

Fewer Democratic candidates have spoken about limiting magazine capacity than about banning assault weapons, but support for the measure in the party still is broad.

Red flag laws

Also known as extreme-risk protection orders, such laws would allow family members and law enforcement officials to ask a court to temporarily confiscate the firearms of people deemed a risk to themselves or others. New York has such laws in place.

More so than limiting magazine capacity, the Democratic candidates have expressed a need for red flag laws.

Red-state Gov. Steve Bullock of Montana has said such legislation “would make a difference.”

Sens. Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Kamala Harris of California, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts are co-sponsors of the Extreme Risk Protection Order Act of 2019.

Licensing requirements

There is less consensus among the Democrats on the need for and political viability of the federal licensing of firearms, but Booker has been among the most vocal on the approach.

“We’ve done it for cars; we can do it for guns,” Booker said Wednesday in Charleston, South Carolina. “It is a common-sense policy and one that we know from the evidence and the data will actually save lives.”

Biden has not mentioned licensing in his recent remarks and said in June that he believes “gun licensing will not change whether or not people buy what weapons, what kinds of weapons they can buy, where they can use them, how they can store them.”

Community gun violence

The great majority of shootings occurs in urban areas and disproportionately impacts people of color, noted The Trace, a nonprofit news organization focusing on gun violence.

Sanders’ campaign told The Trace that the candidate seeks to invest in community policing to “develop the relationships necessary to make our communities safer together.” Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas told The Trace that he would, as president, provide public education about firearm safety and community-based retrenchment programs.

Harris on her campaign website discusses “community-based violence intervention programs.”

Booker has said he would provide grant funding to local police departments for such technology as acoustic gunshot-detection equipment.

Buttigieg and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio are members of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, which pledges to invest in “neighborhood-level violence intervention programs.”

Domestic terrorism law

The FBI labeled the El Paso Walmart shooting, which killed 22 people on Aug. 3, and Gilroy Garlic Festival shooting, which killed three people on July 28, as domestic terrorism. But there’s no domestic terrorism law in the federal criminal code, and the Justice Department must rely on laws such as hate crimes and weapons offenses when it comes to politically motivated shooters, according to The Associated Press.

Biden in his Iowa remarks called for a federal domestic terrorism law.

“We can do it without infringing on anyone’s free speech, without tampering with anyone’s liberties,” he said.

The Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act of 2019, which cites the growing threat of “white supremacists and other far-right-wing extremists,” is co-sponsored by Booker, Harris, Klobuchar and Sanders, but not by the other senators running for president: Gillibrand, Warren and Michael Bennet of Colorado.

Other measures

Several Democratic candidates have sought the closure of the “boyfriend loophole,” which would keep people who are under a restraining order or who are convicted of abusing or stalking their domestic partners from buying guns. Klobuchar this year reintroduced the Protecting Domestic Violence and Stalking Victims Act.

Many also have called for action to close the “gun show loophole,” which can allow criminals, under-aged people and other prohibited buyers to get firearms from unlicensed sellers at gun shows. Unlicensed dealers aren’t required to run background checks or keep records of sales.

Booker and others have condemned the “Charleston loophole” for background checks, so named because it allowed a self-described white supremacist to obtain the gun he used to kill nine people four years ago at a predominantly black South Carolina church. Currently, the FBI has up to three days to complete a background check on buyers purchasing from a license seller, but no check has been done before that window closes, the dealer may proceed with the sale.

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