Vox’s guide to where 2020 Democrats stand on policy
Less than a week after mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, Sen. Elizabeth Warren has released one of the most sweeping gun policy proposals of the Democratic presidential candidates. And she’s set a big objective for the plan: to get US gun deaths down by 80 percent.
It’s an ambitious, if not downright impossible, goal — one that would attempt to shift US levels of gun violence down to that of America’s developed peers. But Warren’s plan goes further than the typical Democratic proposals, which are mostly focused on universal background checks and an assault weapons ban, to start moving America in that direction.
“We might not know how to get all the way there yet,” Warren acknowledges in a Medium post. “But we’ll start by implementing solutions that we believe will work. We’ll continue by constantly revisiting and updating those solutions based on new public health research.”
Her proposal begins with executive actions to expand background checks, close loopholes in current gun laws, and target gun traffickers and licensed gun dealers who break the law. She proposes sweeping legislation, including universal background checks and an assault weapons ban but also a system requiring a license to buy and own guns as well as urban gun violence intervention programs.
She also vows to revisit the issue of guns every year, “adding new ideas and tweaking existing ones based on new data — to continually reduce the number of gun deaths in America.”
Warren points out that many of these ideas have popular support. (Indeed, even a majority of Republicans back universal background checks and an assault weapons ban, according to surveys from the Pew Research Center.) She argues that it’s the political system, fueled largely by lobbying and advocacy from the NRA, that’s made such proposals impossible to pass Congress — so she claims that eliminating the filibuster in the Senate, as well as her anti-corruption legislation, would make it possible to pass stricter gun laws in her first 100 days as president.
Warren’s plan also shows the shift starting to take hold around Democrats and guns. In response to the recent spate of mass shootings, particularly in El Paso and Dayton, and the party’s broader shift to the left on a host of issues, some presidential candidates are getting bolder with their gun policy proposals. Instead of simply advocating for better background checks and an assault weapons ban, as Democrats have for decades, they’re starting to call for more ambitious proposals like a gun licensing system and federal buyback programs.
It’s unlikely that even these more ambitious proposals really could get America down to 80 percent fewer gun deaths, at least anytime soon. (That’d likely require a wholesale effort to reduce the US’s massive stockpile of guns.) But Warren’s plan at least takes a serious jab at the issue.
What Warren’s gun policy plan does
Warren’s plan is a mix of the Democratic mainstays on guns, along with a series of far more ambitious and less frequently discussed ideas.
Some of Warren’s plan, she writes, could be done solely through executive actions. She’d expand background checks by redefining who’s “engaged in the business” of dealing firearms to include everyone outside of family-to-family exchanges. She’d attempt to close loopholes in existing laws. She’d direct the federal government to prosecute gun traffickers, and revoke licenses from gun dealers who break the law. She’d investigate the NRA, whose leadership has been accused of using the organization for personal financial gain.
On the legislative side, Warren’s plan includes universal background checks and an assault weapons ban, paired with a ban on high-capacity magazines. It also aims to repeal more loopholes in existing gun laws, end special legal protections for gun companies, improve oversight of gun dealers, and raise the minimum age for gun sales to 21.
But she also proposes policies that go further than Democrats have generally gone, at least before 2020. For one, she proposes a federal system that would require everyone obtain a license to own and buy a gun. She would pair that with the mandatory registration of guns — essentially requiring, like cars, license and registration. It’s a system the research shows can reduce gun deaths more effectively than simple background checks, and a key reason why Warren’s home state of Massachusetts, with a similar system at the state level, has the lowest gun death rate in the country.
Warren also proposes a one-week waiting period for firearm purchases and a higher tax on gun manufacturers. And with her assault weapons ban, she proposes a program that would force current assault weapon owners — with the threat of penalties — to dispose or register the guns.
She includes proposals that don’t directly touch on gun control, too, pointing to research that more focused police and public health strategies, which target the few individuals at risk of violence in a community, can massively reduce gun deaths. This, she argues, would especially help minority communities that today experience disproportionate levels of gun violence.
And Warren plans to revisit the issue of gun deaths annually, leveraging federal funding into gun violence research to find out which policies are working, which aren’t, and which could be improved.
It’s an all-in approach, one Warren compares to efforts to reduce car crash deaths with a combination of new laws and rules for airbags, seatbelts, collapsible steering columns, changes to roads, drunk driving, and much more. “Over fifty years, we reduced per-mile driving deaths by almost 80% and prevented 3.5 million automobile deaths. And we’re still at it,” Warren writes.
Tougher gun laws are backed by the research. A 2016 review of 130 studies in 10 countries, published in Epidemiologic Reviews, found that new legal restrictions on owning and purchasing guns tended to be followed by a drop in gun violence — a strong indicator that restricting access to guns can save lives.
But the idea is not that just one law could fix the entire problem, but rather a combination of efforts that tackle gun violence from different angles. As David Hemenway, director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, previously told me, “I think hardly anything is a big deal. I’m convinced that large numbers of small things add up.”
It’s unlikely all of this could really pass Congress (especially if Republicans continue to control the Senate), with or without new anti-corruption laws. Even if her plan passes, just about all these ideas are likely to face court challenges — which could ultimately succeed in front of a conservative-leaning Supreme Court.
But Warren, at least, is showing that she’s taking the issue of guns very seriously. And she’s willing to go further than the decades-old Democratic consensus to do something about it.
Democrats have played it safe on guns for 25 years
Before 2020, Democrats showed very few signs of movement on gun policy.
One way to think about it: In 1993 and 1994, Democrats, who controlled Congress and the White House, passed a federal background checks system and a 10-year assault weapons ban. In the midterm election that followed, Democrats lost horribly. So in the 25 years since, even with mass shooting after mass shooting, Democrats have by and large stuck to talking about universal background checks and an assault weapons ban, avoiding bolder policies.
Recently, though, some Democrats have started to push further, not only speaking more fiercely against the NRA but also putting out proposals like requiring a license to buy and own a gun. Cory Booker, for example, released an ambitious plan earlier this year focused largely on licensing. Pete Buttigieg and Andrew Yang did as well, while other Democrats, such as Kamala Harris, have voiced support for licensing.
Others have been skeptical. Joe Biden, the polling frontrunner, said 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.” He’s yet to release a full proposal on guns, but on the campaign trail he’s remained focused on passing universal background checks and an assault weapons ban, as well as talking up “smart guns.”
Even the bolder Democratic proposals, however, likely don’t go far enough.
The core driver of gun violence is the fact that America has too many guns — the most by far of any country in the world. This is at the center of why the US’s civilian gun death rate is nearly four times that of Switzerland, five times that of Canada, 35 times that of the United Kingdom, and 53 times that of Japan.
Research compiled by the Harvard School of Public Health’s Injury Control Research Center backs this up: After controlling for variables such as socioeconomic factors and other crime, places with more guns have more gun deaths — not just homicides but also suicides, domestic violence, violence against police, and mass shootings.
Even the boldest Democratic proposals won’t do much to significantly reduce the number of guns in the US, at least in the short- or medium-term. (Any restrictions could, of course, reduce the number of gun owners over the long-term.) Quicker action would require perhaps wider bans on firearms — potentially all semiautomatic weapons or all handguns — and coupling that with an Australian-style mandatory buyback program, which the research supports. But no Democrat is going that far, given that these ideas remain politically toxic.
Still, the research suggests that stricter gun laws, particularly firearm licensing but also a combination of other measures, would help reduce the death toll. So Warren’s plan alone might not get us to 80 percent fewer gun deaths very soon, but by reaching further than Democrats generally have proposed going in the past 25 years, it’d be a very solid start.
For more on the Democratic presidential candidates’ gun proposals, read Vox’s explainer.