- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 13, 2020

Joseph R. Biden’s full-throated embrace of tough new gun laws and firearms bans brings Democrats full circle in the party’s two-decade evolution on guns in presidential campaign politics.

Long skittish that talk of gun bans could cost them rural voters in battleground states, Democrats now proudly champion buyback programs and strict new controls.

“It represents close to a default position for the two parties,” said Robert J. Spitzer, a professor at SUNY Cortland who has written extensively on the politics of gun control.

Though President Trump irked some gun rights activists by banning bump stocks after the 2017 Las Vegas massacre, he has generally pushed policies that expand access to gun rights while trying to hone in on violent crimes committed with firearms.

Mr. Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, is pushing for bans on large-capacity magazines and certain kinds of semiautomatic rifles, such as the popular AR-15. He also wants to expand background checks to cover all gun sales.

His plan gives current semiautomatic firearm owners a choice: Sell them to the government or register them under the National Firearms Act.

His positioning contrasts sharply with Democratic White House hopefuls in the recent past, when the party tried to court the pro-gun vote or simply steer clear of the issue.

Democrats handled the gun issue with kid gloves after Al Gore’s 2000 loss was blamed, in part, on his support of gun control laws, notably the 1994 assault weapons ban.

Mr. Biden also championed the 1994 ban, which expired in 2004, when he was a U.S. senator from Delaware.

John Kerry, the party’s 2004 nominee, went on a carefully staged duck hunt in Ohio toward the end of that year’s campaign to woo gun-rights activists.

Four years later, then-Sen. Barack Obama attracted unwanted attention during the 2008 presidential campaign when he was caught on tape saying that people in hollowed-out industrial towns “get bitter” and “cling to guns or religion.”

But Mr. Obama ended up pushing for new controls after the 2012 Sandy Hook elementary school shooting, and by 2016, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton had fully embraced the party’s shift toward gun control.

President Trump

Mr. Trump, who has repeatedly vowed to safeguard Americans’ Second Amendment rights, generally takes a hands-off approach to guns, though he sometimes threatens a crackdown on firearms after mass shootings.

“If I wasn’t here, you wouldn’t have a Second Amendment,” the president said in a recent interview with EWTN, a Catholic news network. “Catholics like their Second Amendment. I saved the Second Amendment.”

Mr. Trump’s administration has pushed to loosen export control rules for certain kinds of firearms, and the president said he doesn’t love the idea of banning sound suppressors, or silencers.

Congressional Republicans had eyed loosening restrictions on sound suppressors before Rep. Steve Scalise, Louisiana Republican, was shot at a congressional baseball practice in June 2017.

The Justice Department in November launched “Project Guardian,” which increased federal involvement in prosecuting gun-related crimes and directed the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to increase record-sharing of the list of people who have been flagged by the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS.

The Justice Department has announced many recent arrests, but gun control advocates say the program is not a substitute for stricter measures.

“That’s all based on this concept that it’s too late if the person you don’t want to have a gun already has it,” said David Chipman, a former ATF agent and current adviser to former Rep. Gabby Giffords’ gun control group. “Because then you’re responding after the fact. And I don’t want ATF to stand for after-the-fact.”

After the October 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas, where a rapid-fire attack on a country music festival left 58 people dead, the ATF moved to ban bump-stock devices used in the attack that mimic machine-gun fire.

The president also turned heads after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida in 2018 by saying he would prefer to take guns first and ask questions later during the debate over “red flag” laws that temporarily suspend gun rights for dangerous people.

Alan Gottlieb, the founder of the Second Amendment Foundation, acknowledged that some gun owners aren’t happy that the president has not been “100% purist” on the issue.

“He’s been the most pro-gun president we’ve had and I think that any gun owners that are upset with him over the bump stock ban better sit back and realize that if Trump isn’t re-elected, then there will be no guns to put bump stocks on,” Mr. Gottlieb said.

Still, Christopher Borick, director of the Institute of Public Opinion at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania, said Mr. Trump likely will be preaching to the choir if he hammers Mr. Biden as a gun-grabber.

“I’m not sure that pitch will resonate beyond voters he already has,” Mr. Borick said.

Joseph R. Biden

Mr. Biden has generally favored new gun controls, including sweeping bans on semiautomatic, “assault-style” weapons, some of which have been used in mass shootings in recent years.

The former vice president has not gone as far as suggesting a mandatory buyback of semiautomatic firearms, but his campaign says he wants people to sell the weapons to the government or register them under the National Firearms Act.

“The Second Amendment, like every other amendment, isn’t absolute,” Mr. Biden said at a recent fundraiser. “Every one has a limitation. From the very beginning, it didn’t say you can own any kind of weapon.”

Mr. Biden wants to require background checks on all gun sales and ban online sales of guns, ammunition, kits and gun parts.

He also would create incentives for states to set up gun licensing programs and would push for “red flag” laws under which a judge can order the temporary seizure of someone’s firearms if he or she is a danger to themself or others.

Mr. Biden wants to repeal a 2005 law that granted broad immunity to gun companies from civil liability if their product is used to harm someone.

He criticized Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont, who voted for the measure, about the issue during the Democratic presidential primary contest.

Mr. Biden also wants to extend the amount of time the FBI has to complete a background check before proceeding with a sale from three to 10 days and end what Democrats call the “Charleston loophole.”

The FBI said the man who has been sentenced to death for killing nine people at a Black church in South Carolina in 2015 should not have been able to buy a weapon because of his criminal history but a clerical error let him slip through the cracks.

Mr. Biden was a leading voice in the Obama administration’s unsuccessful post-Sandy Hook gun control push, though he attracted some derision when he suggested that people could scare off would-be intruders by firing shotgun blasts into the air.

Mr. Gottlieb said if Mr. Biden and the Democrats get their way, gun owners would be in for a world of pain.

“It’s the full wish list. It’s gun apocalypse,” he said.

Mr. Borick said if a Pennsylvania voter is intensely pro-gun rights, he is probably going to vote for Mr. Biden, anyway. He might be able to win over people who aren’t single-issue voters.

“For voters that generally lean more to a pro-gun rights position, but for who gun issues are not highly salient, Biden’s policies probably don’t seem threatening enough to really overwhelm their appraisal of the candidates on economic and health issues,” he said.

Mr. Biden runs the risk of alienating pro-gun activists in key battleground states by fully embracing measures such as gun bans, though many voters’ overall sentiments about the candidate might be baked in after Mr. Biden’s more than 40 years in politics.

“Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin do have strong gun communities, without a doubt,” Mr. Spitzer said. “But I think Biden has enough pull among the voters in those states — and including some of the gun people, too — that I don’t think the gun issue is going to cost him any of those three states. If he loses any or all of those states, I think it’ll be for other reasons.”

• S.A. Miller contributed to this report.

• David Sherfinski can be reached at dsherfinski@washingtontimes.com.

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