In a December 2000 interview with CBS’s Dan Rather, President Bill Clinton, fresh off Al Gore’s defeat in the presidential election, acknowledged, “I don’t think there’s any doubt that, in at least five states I can think of, the NRA had a decisive influence … .” In his 2004 biography, Clinton would again recall the role Gore’s extreme gun-control positions played in the 2000 race, noting that NRA “hurt Al badly” in Tennessee and “several other states.” Still smarting from the decade-old defeat in 2013, Clinton warned Democrats on gun control, stating, “Do not patronize the passionate supporters of your opponents by looking down your nose at them … . A lot of these people live in a world very different from the world lived in by the people proposing these things.”
Gun-rights supporters opposed Gore for good reason. Gore had served as vice president in an administration that had enacted a five-day waiting period on handgun sales with the Brady Handgun Violence Protection Act and banned commonly owned semi-automatic firearms and magazines under the 1994 Clinton crime bill. Moreover, Gore campaigned in 2000 on federal handgun-owner licensing. The 2000 Democratic Platform reiterated this position. The platform read, “We should require a photo license I.D., a full background check, and a gun safety test to buy a new handgun in America.”
After Gore’s defeat, it wasn’t until the 2016 presidential campaign that American gun owners were again subjected to such overt hostility from one of the major party’s candidates. Ignoring the sage advice of her husband, Hillary Clinton campaigned on a raft of gun-control policies and expressed her opposition to the U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion in District of Columbia v. Heller, which held that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to keep and bear arms. Thanks in no small part to the efforts of NRA members, Clinton would lose in what Politico called the “biggest upset in U.S. history.”
The evidence suggests that a significant portion of the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates are similarly obstinate. With a crowded field (23 candidates at press time), many of the hopefuls are engaged in an embarrassing race for left-wing votes, attention from the anti-gun legacy press and Michael Bloomberg’s favor. In this ugly race, each candidate gains ground by embracing gun-control policies and anti-gun rhetoric more shocking than their competitors.
The starting point for the 2020 Democratic candidates is a ban on commonly owned semi-automatic firearms and magazines. Apparently, the multiple U.S. Department of Justice-funded studies showing that the 1994 “assault-weapons” ban did not produce a measurable reduction in violent crime are not enough to put the field off this ineffective policy. At press time, the top 10 candidates (according to the RealClear Politics polling average) consist of former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), South Bend, Ill. Mayor Pete Buttigieg, failed U.S. Senate candidate Robert (“Beto”) O’Rourke, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and businessman Andrew Yang. All 10 have expressed support for a ban on commonly owned semi-automatic firearms.
In an attempt to distinguish themselves on the issue, many have called for far more than a return to the 1994 ban.
In March, Sanders told his Twitter followers that “We must follow New Zealand’s lead, take on the NRA and ban the sale and distribution of assault weapons in the United States.” The statement amounted to an endorsement of firearm confiscation. In the wake of a high-profile shooting, the New Zealand government enacted a ban on the civilian possession of commonly owned semi-automatic firearms and announced a mandatory turn-in program to confiscate the newly prohibited guns.
Booker has also touted confiscation of semi-automatic firearms. In a May appearance on CNN, anchor Poppy Harlow pressed Booker about whether gun owners would be jailed for failing to comply with his confiscation efforts. Booker replied in part, “[W]e should have a law that bans these weapons, and we should have a reasonable period in which people can turn in these weapons.” The candidate did not deny that noncompliant gun owners would be jailed under his proposal.
Outside the top 10, things have gotten even worse. Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) has been unequivocal about his desire to imprison noncompliant gun owners. During an April interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper, Swalwell was asked about the consequences of his semi-automatic confiscation plan. Tapper inquired, “Criminal prosecution for keeping assault weapons. What’s the punishment for people who don’t hand in their guns, do they go to jail?” to which Swalwell responded, “Well, Jake, they would … .”
The one-upsmanship on semi-automatic bans has gotten so frenzied that one impulsive candidate has proposed using executive authority to enact a policy that is already in place. During a May campaign event in Nashua, N.H., Kamala Harris stated, “I’m announcing for the first time today here with you to take executive action to ban the import of assault weapons into our country.” She reiterated the plan on her Twitter account, stating, “I’ll take executive action as President to ban imports of AR-15-style assault weapons.”
Harris was referring to banning the import of commonly owned semi-automatic firearms using the so-called “sporting purposes test.” As interpreted, 18 U.S.C. § 925 permits the Attorney General to prohibit the importation of firearms that are not “particularly suitable for or readily adaptable to sporting purposes … .” She appeared to be ignorant of the fact that in 1998, at the urging of the Clinton White House, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives adopted an interpretation of the relevant statute that has barred importation of the firearms the senator wants to prohibit.
While a sweeping gun ban is the most-popular extreme gun-control position in the Democratic field, candidates have tried to edge out their competition by pushing a wide array of increasingly outlandish proposals.
In May, Booker released a gun-control wish list titled, “Cory’s Plan to End the Gun Violence Epidemic.” The senator has called his plan the “most sweeping gun violence prevention plan ever put forth by a presidential candidate.” The centerpiece of Booker’s “plan” is a federal gun-owner licensing regime. He made clear that applicants would be required to “submit fingerprints, provide basic background information, and demonstrate completion of a certified gun safety course” and that the license would only be valid for five years (five years less than Illinois’ Firearms Owner Identification Card and one year less than a Massachusetts Firearms Identification Card). Moreover, The New York Times reported that Booker’s licensing procedure would require an applicant to sit for an interview. This indicates that he envisions a “may-issue” licensing regime in which a government functionary could use subjective criteria to deny a person their Second Amendment rights. Unlike the Gore proposal, this license would also be required to own a rifle or a shotgun.
Other portions of Booker’s plan call for handgun rationing (a one-handgun-a-month law), mandatory handgun microstamping, elimination of the three-day, safety-valve provision on the FBI conducting National Instant Criminal Background Check System checks and the repeal of the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA). He also called for legislation to empower the Consumer Product Safety Commission to regulate firearms, a tactic long-favored by handgun prohibition organization the Violence Policy Center.
Following the release of Booker’s plan, a handful of candidates felt compelled to endorse a federal gun-owner licensing scheme. When asked about the proposal by CNN’s Tapper, Harris stated, “I like the idea.” In the race to get in line with the new gun-control orthodoxy, Beto O’Rourke set a land-speed record for political flip-flopping. When first presented the idea, O’Rourke said Booker’s proposal “might be too far.” The very next day the candidate told New Hampshire’s WMUR, “I think he is to be commended for doing this. I think we should explore that idea.”
Perhaps feeling left out of the gun-control binge and craving the attention granted to Booker’s proposal, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper issued an even more extreme version of the Booker plan. Among a host of anti-gun measures, Hickenlooper proposed a federal gun-licensing regime, a ban on the sale of suppressors, the criminalization of private firearms transfers, repeal of the PLCAA and raising the minimum age to purchase any firearm to 21.
Aside from radical policy proposals, other marginal candidates have sought to raise their profile by smearing the NRA. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) tried to distinguish herself by telling a Fox News townhall audience, “I think the NRA is the worst organization in this country … .”
The hateful statement secured Gillibrand’s place on the political fringe. A 2018 Gallup poll found that the majority of Americans hold a favorable view of the NRA. Moreover, her desperate opportunism was exposed when the NRA released a 2008 letter from then-Representative Gillibrand in which she wrote, “I appreciate the work that the NRA does to protect gun owners rights and I look forward to working with you for many years in Congress.”
Rather than learning from a history of electoral hubris, much of the 2020 Democratic field seems intent on indulging their anti-gun prejudice at the cost of shackling their party to ineffective policies that the American people have repeatedly rejected. For these candidates, the race for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination has become a race to the bottom regarding our firearms freedom.