The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Harris promises to impose new gun rules if Congress won’t

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., speaks recently at a meeting of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority. (Gerald Herbert/AP)

MANCHESTER, N.H. — Sen. Kamala D. Harris said Monday that as president she would give Congress 100 days to pass broad gun control legislation — and if it failed to do so, she would take executive action to expand background checks, revoke the licenses of gun dealers who break the law and restore fugitives to the list of people who cannot buy a handgun.

“Upon being elected, I will give Congress 100 days to get their act together and have the courage to pass reasonable gun safety laws,” Harris (D-Calif.) said at a town hall meeting sponsored by CNN at St. Anselm College. “And if they fail to do it, I will take executive action.”

An aide with Harris’s campaign said that the scope of her initiative would go beyond what she outlined at the town hall and that she would also close the “boyfriend loophole” to prevent convicted domestic abusers from purchasing guns.

Harris’s comments came during a late-April battle for voter attention as CNN hosted back-to-back town hall events Monday night with five Democratic presidential hopefuls. Harris was preceded by Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, with South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg following.

Like other Democratic candidates, Harris has made gun control a central part of her message, and she has now gone farther than most of her rivals. At stop after campaign stop, she asks voters to consider a family sitting down to dinner anywhere in the country and parents asking their children about their day. In Harris’s hypothetical, the children report that their day was marred by an active-shooter drill that forced them to hide in a closet, and they ask their parents why they must do such a thing.

“The answer, of course,” she says, “is that so-called leaders in Washington don’t have the courage” to enact “reasonable gun safety laws” like universal background checks and a renewed assault weapons ban. It’s one of her most reliable applause lines.

Republicans argue that such restrictions would violate the rights of gun owners, and many conservatives contend they would be unconstitutional. The way to curb gun violence, they say, is to improve enforcement and security, and some also advocate such measures as more funding for mental health services.

Harris’s announcement Monday was unusual in setting a specific schedule for gun regulation and a plan for how to deliver if Congress does not. The details of her plan remained unclear, however, including how much success she would have in imposing such regulations without congressional approval.

Drafting regulations and then implementing them can be time-consuming. Such measures would almost certainly prompt a backlash from gun owners and the National Rifle Association, which would probably challenge them in court.

“Executive action” encompasses a variety of presidential directives. Executive orders are the best-known type of presidential edict, but not the only one.

According to a campaign aide, Harris’s approach would be to take steps such as ordering the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to craft regulations that define a gun dealer as someone who sells five or more firearms a year. That would have the effect of increasing the number of sellers who must conduct background checks.

Harris would also direct ATF to redefine its definition of domestic relationships to include dating relationships, with a goal of closing the loophole that allows those convicted of domestic abuse to purchase firearms if they are not married to the person they abused, the aide said.

“The ATF has been doing a lot of the A and the T, but not much of the F,” Harris said.

Harris also plans to act if Congress doesn’t repeal the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA), which prevents lawsuits against gun dealers and manufacturers for violence perpetrated with their wares.

A campaign aide said that if the PLCAA were not repealed in Harris’s first 100 days, her administration would revoke the licenses of any companies “willfully” violating local, state and federal law, and would prosecute “the most egregious offenders.” Any fines from that litigation would go toward expanding access to mental health treatment and trauma care.

Sanders is the only one of Harris’s presidential rivals who was in the Senate when the PLCAA was passed in 2005, and he voted in favor of it. He has since said he supports repealing it.

Sanders, like Klobuchar, Warren, Buttigieg, and most of Harris’s other competitors, supports increased gun control, which has become a staple of the 2020 Democratic position. Rep. Eric Swalwell (Calif.) has made gun control a core issue of his candidacy, and he has gone farther than the rest of the field in calling for a “mandatory national ban and buyback of military-style semiautomatic assault weapons.”

Harris made further news Monday when she said she thinks Congress should begin steps toward impeaching President Trump, a stance first taken by fellow 2020 candidates Warren and Julián Castro, and one she had not stated until Monday night.

Monday’s gun control announcement was Harris’s second major policy initiative announcement as a candidate. She previously introduced a plan to increase teacher salaries with federal funds.