If a Democrat is elected president next year, we’re certain to get a series of legislative proposals to address gun violence, all of which will be opposed by the gun lobby and most if not all Republicans in Congress. Whether any of them becomes law depends almost entirely on whether Democrats win control of both houses of Congress and then do away with the filibuster. But there’s one proposal — perhaps the one that would be most effective — that’s getting almost no debate.
A new Post-ABC News poll shows that while some of what Democrats are advocating has wide or even nearly universal support, other items are more controversial. And there are legitimate questions to ask about how effective each proposal would be at stopping the bloodshed.
Here’s the amount of support various proposals got in this poll:
- Universal background checks: 89 percent
- “Red flag” laws: 86 percent
- Ban on large-capacity magazines: 60 percent
- Ban on assault weapons: 56 percent
- Mandatory assault weapon buyback: 52 percent
All of those ideas are supported by most or all of the Democratic candidates. The ones we discuss most often are universal background checks, red-flag laws and an assault weapons ban. But why aren’t we talking about requiring anyone to get a license before they can own a gun?
We could have an actual debate about it. Many of the candidates, including Elizabeth Warren, Kamala D. Harris and Pete Buttigieg, support it; Joe Biden is against it, and Bernie Sanders doesn’t include it in his gun violence plan. (There’s a helpful roundup of where all the candidates stand on guns here.) So it seems like an area for fruitful discussion.
As gun advocates are quick to point out, relative to the size of our gun violence problem, assault weapons are a minor issue since they kill far fewer people than handguns. The reason we talk so much about assault weapons is that they’re often used in mass shootings, and you can argue that because they are so good at killing the maximum number of people in the shortest amount of time, military-style rifles play a unique role in creating the terrorizing effect that mass shootings have on Americans, which is reason enough to restrict their sale. It’s also fair to say that even if the death toll from assault weapons doesn’t reach the thousands every year that handguns are responsible for, no sane society lets people own weapons of war by the millions.
Let’s get back to licensing, which wasn’t tested in the Post poll, probably precisely because we haven’t been talking about it much. The support is there, however, at least for the basic idea: In a recent Quinnipiac poll, 82 percent of Americans said they’d support mandatory licensing.
But it’s complicated, because licensing could take many forms. We could, for instance, create something like what they have in Canada, where to get a license you have to pass a safety course and provide references who will attest to the fact that you’re a responsible person. In Canada, they also have different rules for different kinds of weapons; it’s relatively easy to get a hunting rifle but very hard to get licensed to take a handgun out of your home unless you need it for your job.
That might seem impossible to duplicate in a country where the idea of carrying around your gun wherever you go so you can convince yourself you’re ready at a moment’s notice to exchange fire with an al-Qaeda strike team has become so firmly embedded in so many people’s view of their place in the world. But even requiring the same kind of license for all guns could have a large impact.
One thing has changed in the past few years: Democrats are no longer afraid of talking about fixing our gun laws. And selling Americans on the idea that if you want to have a lethal weapon, you should have to jump through a few hoops to show you’re capable of owning it responsibly seems completely doable. We won’t know if we don’t try.