Sen. Cory Booker wants Democrats to go bolder on guns — and says they’re playing into the hands of the National Rifle Association and the corporate gun lobby by rejecting bolder ideas.
“For Democrats to play into the hands of the corporate gun lobby, and just letting them define what the realm of possible is, it’s so defeatist to me,” the New Jersey senator told me during an interview this week. “At a time with the levels of carnage in our country, we don’t need people who are defeatist in their thinking about what’s possible.”
Booker, who is running for president, was among the first 2020 candidates to release a comprehensive gun policy platform, as well as a second platform that focused on gun suicides.
For the past two decades, Democrats have by and large stuck to two ideas for gun policy: universal background checks and an assault weapons ban.
Booker’s proposals, however, went further by calling for a licensing requirement to buy and own a gun. Researchers have repeatedly found that gun licensing would do more to push down gun deaths in the US than just universal background checks or an assault weapons ban — studies that Booker pointed to in defending his proposal.
“We know that in Connecticut, researchers found that because of gun licensing, they found a 40 percent drop in gun homicide and a 15 percent reduction in firearm suicide,” he said. “That’s data. That is fact.”
Since Booker put out his proposals, other Democratic presidential candidates, including Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg, have released plans that call for requiring a license to buy and own a gun.
But the idea has also faced criticisms from some candidates. Joe Biden, the polling frontrunner, argued that “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.” Asked about licensing, Kirsten Gillibrand said “there is a better approach.”
Booker argued the party should push to the left on this issue as it has on others, like health care and higher education. “I have little tolerance for Democrats who seem to be bold on a lot of other plans and issues but aren’t bold on the commonsense things that will make my community safe and communities like mine all across this country,” he said.
I asked Booker about his gun policy proposals, the potential shift in the Democratic debate about guns, and whether even licensing goes far enough in tackling the US’s gun problem. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What’s your pitch for going beyond just universal background checks and doing something like gun licensing?
We’ve let this debate for too long be framed by the corporate gun lobby and the NRA, and by not approaching guns with the same kind of bold, visionary things we’ve been doing in the Democratic Party going back to FDR — you know, just bold visions on health care, on retirement security. This campaign has seen bold visions on how to fix Social Security, how to deal with education. But for some reason, on the issue that is affecting large parts of our nation, large parts of the Democratic Party today, we haven’t seen that kind of bold thinking.
Being in Newark, where you talk to people who have to deal with the scourge of gun violence on a regular basis, where you see the ongoing trauma of gun violence, you see how it just rips the communities — the economic well-being of communities, the mental health well-being, not to mention the grievous loss of life and injury. Folks don’t think that plans like mine are bold at all. They think they’re commonsense.
So I’m really happy just to see already in this national conversation, what is considered mainstream and commonsense now has shifted.
I’m often struck by the difference between public support and what is actually happening in Congress on a whole host of issues. But with this, it’s particularly striking. Gun licensing is considered bold or ambitious in Congress. But if you look at the polling, something like 70 percent of Americans support it. What do you make of that?
Well, first of all, I’m happy that more of the presidential field is now talking about this issue. I think that is going to not only help put it on the table, but help to even drive the numbers higher than the 70s.
Leaders should not follow public opinion. They should be a part of molding it. That’s what leadership is — don’t just stick your finger in the wind and then see which way the crowd is going.
This is an issue that we should be having a national conversation about. And I’m hoping that will drive up the numbers.
Number two, yeah, this is an issue that has often been framed by those trying to stop any action being taken. And that is unacceptable to me. And so for Democrats to play into the hands of the corporate gun lobby, and just letting them define what the realm of possible is, it’s so defeatist to me — at a time with the levels of carnage in our country, we don’t need people who are defeatist in their thinking about what’s possible.
We should be able to stand up and have a bold statement of American freedom again — that Americans should be free from fear, that Americans should be free from the threats of violence, that this is an assault on our basic liberties as Americans to be able to go to a shopping mall or a synagogue or a concert, or kids should be able to go to school without having to be taught about how to hide in our country.
And so I think we’ve got to regain the narrative. And where they’re trying to … sort of co-opt a lot of the words of our nation — freedom and liberty — it’s time we regain that, regain the language of our nation. Understand that what’s happening now is a capitulation to fear, when we tell our children that we can’t protect you, so we’re going to teach you in the school how to hide and shelter in place.
I want Democrats to go on the offensive on this issue, to say that we are the party of gun safety, we are the party of security and strength. And most of all, we’re the party of liberty and freedom, which the gun lobby wants to steal from us and to turn us into a country with a culture of fear.
Some of the Democratic candidates, like Joe Biden and Kirsten Gillibrand, have been critical of gun licensing. They argue that there are better solutions and licensing won’t work.
Well, I just patently disagree.
I disagree because the data is clear. We know that in Connecticut, researchers found that because of gun licensing, they found a 40 percent drop in gun homicide and a 15 percent reduction in firearm suicide. That’s data. That is fact.
Missouri repealed in 2007 its handgun licensing requirements. That again was associated with a dramatic increase from 17 to 27 percent increase in firearm homicide through 2017, and a 16 percent increase in firearms suicide.
So we have a lot of data that flies in the face of anybody who wants to say that this does not work. We actually know it does.
My plan is not in any way just sort of throwing solutions at a problem. It’s all derived from evidence-based measures being done in the state that make a difference.
This is the challenge, though: that states with strong gun safety laws that are near states that don’t have them often see an influx of guns from those states used in crimes. This patchwork of laws, state to state to state, means that your state is only as safe as the closest state with the weakest laws. The guns in New Jersey, in Newark, that we were recovering were disproportionately coming from out of the state — and often from places as far away as Virginia, [which] has very lax gun safety laws.
So I respect my colleagues, but on this, they’re just plain wrong. The evidence shows that they are wrong in not supporting gun licensing.
Another area we’ve seen a bit of movement in terms of the broader debate about gun policy is coupling an assault weapons ban with a buyback program to, unlike the 1994 ban, actually get some of the existing weapons out of circulation. Do you think that’s a good idea? And would you make it voluntary or mandatory?
To me, this is very similar to the machine gun ban that we saw many years ago. First of all, just having an outright ban on them, [we] began to see the reduction of their existence in the hands of private citizens.
I just think that we need to go as far as we possibly can in removing these weapons of war from our communities and from our streets.
I know this is something that ultimately we [need to] get the Democratic Party on board with, but I would like to see a buyback program and a mandatory turnover.
Now, what the consequences are for that — I do not think we should be going out and arresting people for having guns. I think that is language that is being used by the right and by the gun lobbies to try to scare people away from an assault rifle ban.
But we need to have a firm law that bans assault weapons from our communities, that gets people ultimately to respect it. And having a buyback program, to me, is a very fair way of doing it.
So the penalty will be something more along the lines of fines.
Yeah, I think there needs to be some kind of penalty. But I see it being done in our civil courts — not in a way that’s criminalizing individuals so that they would lose their physical liberty.
One thing I wanted to ask you about is a part of Elizabeth Warren’s proposal that stuck out to me: to reevaluate gun laws every year, using federally funded research to treat this like a public health problem. She draws a comparison to car crashes. Do you think that’s a good idea?
It aligns with what I’ve been saying since I’ve been mayor of the city of Newark: that this is a public health problem. And that if you look at the research that is being done, you see that it actually fits patterns that you see with infectious diseases and other health crises in our country. So to not be doing the kind of search that would help us to find more evidence-based interventions is just ludicrous.
We need to be focusing on this scourge from every perspective. And I’ve been calling for it to be treated like a public health problem and researched in a similar way for a long time.
It does seem, though, that revisiting the issue every year might be politically challenging.
Look, I believe in something really radical called science, and that we should have a public forum in which evidence is pointing us toward solutions. I haven’t looked that closely at Elizabeth Warren’s plan, but the idea that legislators — based upon evidence — would not be pushing new proposals as a result of that evidence to me seems just wrong.
I’m sure you’ve seen the research that suggests America’s core problem is that it has too many guns. That’s what drives us is higher levels of gun violence compared to, say, Canada, the UK, or Japan. You’ve proposed licensing. But do you think Democrats need to go even further than that at some point to get guns out of circulation?
Again, I start this all with my experiences. It’s very hard for me to look at this problem not through where I was — I just drove out of Newark — but where I go home to, where I can tell you, if we walked my block in my neighborhood, where people were shot. And so I know this for a fact.
When we looked when I was mayor of the city of Newark, about all the shootings that we had — and this wasn’t scientific, but we just did a cursory survey — we could only find one instance — one instance — where a homicide in my city was done with someone who had acquired a gun legally. And that was a terrible case of depression, where someone killed themselves but in the process killed their child. That was a correctional officer. But every other shooting in our city was done with someone who could not legally buy a gun.
To stop this problem means to stop the ease of ability for people who should not have guns getting their hands on guns.
To do that, for me, is very clear. And that’s why my plan isn’t just licensing. It’s everything from, hey, you know what, the ATF will tell you themselves they don’t have the resources to enforce the laws that we have. That means, you know what, do microstamping on casings so when they’re injected, it’s easy for us to actually capture the people that are doing the harm. Hey, you know what? Let’s stop the ease with which guns are transferred from casual sellers to people who have no right to have a gun in the first place.
So the totality of our plan, including the element to prevent suicide, will end this epidemic. I am confident in that — from dealing with this problem for two decades, I’ve been on the front lines of dealing with this problem. Twenty years, I’ve seen carnage in this country that just should not be. I’ve gone to funeral after funeral of parents burying their children.
I’m encouraged to see more people coming around to the commonsense things that we’ve been talking about for a long time. I’m deeply sorry that what’s making people come around to this is the increased amount of bloodshed and mass murders that we’re having.
I have little tolerance for Democrats who seem to be bold on a lot of other plans and issues but aren’t bold on the commonsense things that will make my community safe and communities like mine all across this country.
That’s what I’m fighting for. I have a lot of confidence that I’m going to be the nominee and ultimately the president, but I know that time is precious and tomorrow’s not guaranteed. I take a lot of pride in being one of the people that’s helping shift the national conversation already on this issue. And I’m very happy that more and more presidential candidates are coming over to my beliefs about what needs to be done, and what can be done, and what the evidence says will make a difference.
Just to make sure I’m getting this clear: Do you think your plan will help over time remove from circulation these illegal firearms — through better enforcement, through licensing, and whatnot — and that is what will help bring down the number of guns and gun deaths as well?
Look, the corporate gun lobby, as part of their sales strategy, it knows the appetite for weapons of people engaged in illegal activity is great. A large percentage of these guns that are on our street, the reason why there are so many guns in America is not just collectors, hunters, and people who are interested in self-defense. There’s a massive criminal element.
I know this because my city has done, in Newark, a raid of gun stashes and gun storages where we find armaments. We’ve done some that have just blown me away with the number of weapons that are being warehoused in places around this country for illegal purposes.
So I hear your question, but I’m trying to impress upon you that what I’m doing here — the proposals that I’m making — will cut down significantly on the number of weapons that are in the United States because so many of them are being stashed, bought, trafficked by people in the illegal criminal world. And so my plan will significantly reduce the number of weapons in the United States of America, cutting into the corporate gun lobby’s quest for profit off the backs of pain and carnage that’s a result of criminal activity.
This is a point I’ve heard from people on the other side of this issue: Why would somebody who’s already breaking the law care about obtaining a license or following other gun laws? I’m curious how you would respond to those questions.
Well, as a guy who’s done gun buyback program that got thousands of guns off the street — and we did them with amnesty, just come in and return your gun — I cannot tell you how many people who had guns illegally came in and gave them and allowed us to have them.
This is an interesting point: We had a tip line for people to tell us where the illegal guns are, and we asked for tips. We were able to get a lot of massive gun busts as a result of that as well.
I am confident that our plan will remove a significant amount of the weapons from circulation in our communities. I’m very excited about that reality. The tired tropes that often come from people on the other side, like the one you just repeated, [are] just plain wrong. And we know that from the machine gun ban, we know that from the past assault weapons ban, that this will drive down the numbers of criminal-involved shootings, as well as the numbers of these weapons in our communities and in our country.
One last thing I wanted to ask you about: I think there’s a bit of tension here between gun policy and criminal justice reform. In the past, for example, stricter gun laws have been used by the criminal justice system and police in ways that disproportionately hurt minority Americans. We’ve seen that with mandatory minimums related to guns. Stop-and-frisk was founded on the idea of getting guns off the streets. How do you think about these concerns?
First of all, they’re valid. We’ve seen people like Weldon Angelos, which is a case that got a lot of attention, where he got, like, 50 years for marijuana-related crimes because he was in possession of a gun. And that was used as an excuse to put him away for a longer period of time than murderers had probably gotten. And those things are just wrong. And that’s why I’ve been on the side of fighting to change our laws and get rid of mandatory minimums.
I don’t think there’s necessarily a tension between [ending] mandatory minimums and doing the kinds of things that would get guns off our streets and lower the levels of shootings, the homicides in our country. I don’t think there’s an inconsistency of being a big advocate, like I have, with criminal justice reform as well as an advocate of commonsense gun safety. I think that they are resonant.
A lot of these laws have been trying to go about the gun problem in the wrong way, as opposed to doing the commonsense things — of the assault weapons ban, licensing, one-handgun-a-month laws, and more — that are the right way to stop people with criminal intention from getting their hands on guns.
Earlier when I asked you about the buyback program for assault weapons, you mentioned that arrests should not be the punishment — that people shouldn’t be jailed and that this should be done in the civil courts. Is that what you’re speaking to in striking this balance between being a criminal justice reformer and still advocating for stronger gun laws?
Yeah. I think that the way we try to incarcerate ourselves out of problems has proven just a failure. We try to incarcerate ourselves out of addiction problems, incarcerate ourselves out of mental health problems. We cannot be a society that tries to deal with every problem by putting people in jail.
In this case, it’s just not necessary to dramatically lower the number of homicides in our country. I keep pointing to the past experience we had with machine guns. There are ways of going about this problem that will drive down the shootings. You do not need to incarcerate and criminalize people in order to get these weapons off our streets.