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The new Democratic gun-control agenda: dangerous people shouldn't have guns

Over the last several years, Democrats have settled on a gun-control agenda that focuses on keeping "dangerous people" from having guns, rather than banning guns entirely.

Win McNamee/Getty

It's become a pattern. After a mass shooting — like the one in Orlando, Florida, that killed 50 people (including the shooter) on Saturday — Republicans call for "thoughts and prayers." Democrats call for action on gun control.

On the first day Congress is back in session after the Orlando attack, Senate Democrats are introducing a bill to prevent "suspected terrorists" from legally purchasing guns. (The Orlando shooter, Omar Mateen, had been investigated by the FBI on two different occasions.) After the San Bernardino shootings in 2015, Democrats led a similar effort to ban people on the no-fly list from gun purchases. And Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) is introducing a bill that would ban gun ownership by people convicted of hate crimes.

This wasn't always the case. When Bill Clinton was in the White House, gun control was seen as a losing issue for Democrats — one that alienated them with white moderate voters who could be gun owners themselves. It simply wasn't an issue that most Democrats brought up if they didn't have to. Now that they can focus on "terrorists" instead of the guns themselves, though, Democrats are leaning in.

The shift to an agenda that focuses on keeping guns out of the hands of particular people is probably one big reason why Democratic elected officials are comfortable calling for gun control proposals. But it could also be camouflaging the divides among moderates, liberals, and Democratic politicians about what the ultimate solutions are.

"Dangerous people should not be able to easily acquire guns"

National Democrats aren't just coalescing around the general idea that gun violence is a fixable issue and greater restrictions on guns would help. They've unified (mostly) behind a particular policy agenda — one that's slightly different, at least in its emphasis, from the gun control debates of 20 years ago.

The new Democratic gun control agenda boils down to something the Center for American Progress says: "Dangerous people should not be able to easily acquire guns." That means universal background checks. It means more robust mental health requirements for gun ownership. And it means preventing particular populations of people from buying guns legally — including suspected terrorists and domestic abusers.

In the 1990s, the gun control debate was about particularly dangerous guns or forms of ammunition. The "dangerous people" agenda deemphasizes those policies. Instead, it's about the process by which the government decides whether it's okay for someone to own a gun to begin with.

It's actually possible to pin down exactly when this shift occurred — or at least when it was formalized. In April 2013, Senate Democrats decided to try to pass a gun control bill after a mass shooting killed 26 people, most of them children, at Sandy Hook Elementary School. But then–Majority Leader Harry Reid deliberately decided not to include an "assault weapons ban" (banning guns with particular "military-style" features from being sold) in the main bill. When sponsor Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) offered it as an amendment, only 40 senators voted for it. (Compare that with 2004, when a similar bill got 52 yes votes in a Republican-controlled Senate.)

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) meets with families of victims killed in the Sandy Hook shooting.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) meets with families of victims killed in the Sandy Hook shooting. (Mark Wilson/Getty)

When Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Pat Toomey (R-PA) agreed on a proposal to expand background checks, though, Reid and Senate Democrats tried to get it into the existing bill. When the Manchin-Toomey proposal got only 54 votes — not enough to clear the 60-vote threshold required — President Obama gave a Rose Garden speech calling it a "shameful day for America."

But the legislative defeat for the Democrats opened up a big political opportunity. Expanded background checks are overwhelmingly popular — 85 percent of Americans support requiring background checks for gun-show purchases, according to the Pew Research Center. That includes 79 percent of Republicans and 82 percent of people who think protecting gun rights is more important than controlling gun ownership. Add that to the fact that a majority of senators had voted for Manchin-Toomey, and it became a no-brainer policy for Democrats to rally around — one they didn't have to worry would alienate moderates.

"The trick to winning over moderates is to be the most reasonable person in the room," says Sarah Trumble of Third Way — an organization that pushes for moderation and bipartisanship. "It's not hard to support both the Second Amendment and reasonable restrictions, because the proposals on the table that people are talking about are things that legitimate gun owners do as a matter of course."

Former Democratic strategist and current head of the Institute on Politics at Georgetown Mo Elleithee put it another way: "There is no more powerful interest, no more powerful constituency, than suburban moms. And I think you would be hard-pressed to find a suburban mom who doesn't support some form of increased gun safety measure. Even the suburban moms who support the Second Amendment, who like the idea that there should be a gun in the house for safety, still believe that there should be a background check."

Of course, in theory, something so broadly supported would simply be passed by Congress — taking it away as a rallying point for one party. But because the NRA and Republican members of Congress are standing firm against any gun restrictions, they have allowed Democrats to seize the issue.

Pew partisan gun policy

(Pew Research Center)

"Right now," Trumble says, "the NRA doesn't look even remotely reasonable." And that's opened up an opportunity for Democrats to come off as the adults in the room.

The urgency progressives feel has put a damper on civil liberties concerns

Expanding background checks is one component of the "dangerous people shouldn't have guns" agenda. The other is who can be barred from buying a gun once the information in that background check comes back.

Chelsea Parsons of the Center for American Progress brings up domestic abusers as one example. There's an "increased risk of homicide to women posed by domestic abusers who have easy access to guns," she says. "That is another gap in the law that we spent a lot of time working on, to strengthen the laws and reduce access by that group of known dangerous people."

That's also the logic behind tighter restrictions on mentally ill gun buyers, another policy that's overwhelmingly supported by Americans across the ideological spectrum. In fact, it's more popular with Republicans than with Democrats — in part because many liberals feel that conservatives scapegoat the mentally ill after mass shootings to distract from the issue of gun violence.

And this is where the "dangerous people" agenda runs into a bit of trouble. The particular groups targeted by restrictions are often either marginalized — like the mentally ill — or intersect with other issues where liberals tend to be much more skeptical of government power, such as national security.

Yahya Wehelie was stuck in Cairo for two months after being placed on the US no-fly list, without knowing why. Mark Gail/Washington Post

Yahya Wehelie was stuck in Cairo for two months after being placed on the US no-fly list, without knowing why. (Mark Gail/Washington Post)

After the San Bernardino shooting last week, President Obama and White House officials urged Congress to pass a law barring people on the federal "no-fly list" from buying guns. Obama presented this as another no-brainer issue: "Those same people who we don’t allow to fly can go in to a store right now in the United States and buy a firearm, and there’s nothing that we can do to stop them." But what Senate Democrats actually proposed (unsuccessfully) was a slightly different proposal that dates back to the George W. Bush administration: giving the Department of Justice the power to ban people on the FBI's terrorism watch list, much bigger than the no-fly list, from legally buying a gun.

A recent GAO report found that people on the watch list have succeeded in buying guns about 2,000 times between 2004 and 2014. But there are 700,000 people or more on the list. And, as progressives have pointed out throughout the Bush and Obama administrations, it's hard to even know who's on the watch list — and even harder for those wrongfully placed on it to get off.

The Senate, ironically, knows better than anyone that the government's terrorism watch lists can be overbroad: Former Sen. Ted Kennedy spent three weeks trying to get his name off the no-fly list in 2004. (This might have been why the Senate went with the FBI watch list instead.) But the FBI watch list is much bigger, and unlikely to be less flawed — especially given reports of FBI profiling and entrapment of Muslims. The awkward politics of the issue are epitomized by who's sponsoring the bill in each chamber: In the Senate, it's centrist Democrat and security hawk Feinstein; in the House, it's Rep. Peter King (R-NY), Congress's most vocal supporter of surveilling American Muslims.

Rep. Peter King (R-NY) at one of the hearings he's held about radicalization of American Muslims.

(Alex Wong/Getty)

Of course, it's not unusual for policies that pose civil liberties concerns to garner broad public support. Progressives are generally more sensitive to those concerns, but when it comes to guns, they're compelled by the sheer obviousness of the "dangerous people shouldn't have guns" logic.

Parsons, of CAP, says the answer is to fix the watch list. "We should do both things. We should strive to make the watch list appropriate and accurate and constitutional, and at the same time we should make sure that individuals who are known to the FBI to have ties to terrorism aren't able to buy guns."

Both moderates and advocates are cooling on assault weapons bans

Though it doesn't look like Democrats will be able to expand background checks, fix what Parsons calls the "terror gap," or enact any other restrictions on gun ownership anytime soon, this could actually be good news. Much like the defeat of Manchin-Toomey in 2013, these failures are an advantage for Democrats: As long as there are policies that are overwhelmingly supported not just by the public but by gun owners themselves, but aren't yet law, there will be a way for Democratic elected officials to talk about guns without alienating gun owners.

But it's genuinely hard to tell how deep the consensus on gun control among moderates (including gun owners), liberals, and Democratic elected officials goes.

Mo Elleithee assumes that passing expanded background checks will build momentum for further action. "The assault weapons ban, a ban on armor-piercing bullets, a ban on high-capacity clips — that is, I think, the next level of where the fight will go," he says. "Because we don't have those things despite significant public support — it's not as high as the background checks, but there's still more than a bare majority."

That significant public support, however, comes with a big asterisk. According to Pew, 57 percent of Americans support a ban on assault-style weapons; in 2013, 53 percent of Americans supported a ban on high-capacity ammunition clips. But unlike the "dangerous people" agenda, bans on these types of weapons divide gun owners from non–gun owners. Of Americans with a gun in the house, 49 percent support an assault weapons ban; in 2013, 43 percent of people who said they owned a gun supported the ban (and only 41 percent of gun owners supported a ban on high-capacity clips).

"The place you're most likely to see a policy difference" between moderates and liberals, Trumble explains, "is when you're talking about bans. Liberals are much more likely to support assault weapons bans and high-capacity magazine bans. That's a dog whistle for moderates and people on the right" — talk about banning one thing, and gun owners (and those more sympathetic to them) start getting worried the government will ban more things.

That isn't stopping some liberal institutions like the New York Times editorial board from calling for a version of an assault weapons ban. But at the same time the Times is embracing the concept, others in the liberal policy elite are shying away from it — not because it goes too far, but because it doesn't go nearly far enough.

For some people, the problem is simply too many guns

This is the other thing that makes the "dangerous people" agenda different from the rest of the gun policy debate. Gun policy experts are fairly well convinced that expanding background checks would have a meaningful role in reducing gun violence — not necessarily the spectacular mass shootings that are often the political reason Congress tries to pass gun control, but what CAP's Chelsea Parsons calls "interpersonal violence that happens in communities around the country that ends up becoming fatal because of easy access to firearms." In other words, it's not only good politics but also good (as in effective) policy.

The same is true for other planks in the "dangerous people" agenda: mental health screenings, domestic violence restrictions. And while Parsons acknowledges, "I don't think that individuals on the terror watch list are primary drivers of gun violence in this country," she still thinks the "terror gap" is too obvious a hole in the law not to fix.

But assault weapons bans don't work as well. As Nick Baumann wrote in the Huffington Post in response to the Times's op-ed, "Assault weapons bans are hard to write and implement, and easy to undermine and circumvent. Even a perfect assault weapons ban wouldn't do anything about most gun violence, because most gun violence involves handguns that aren't forbidden under such laws."

And this gets to the heart of the problem: Many of the progressives who are worried about gun violence in its own right are increasingly convinced that the real problem is that there are, in fact, simply too many guns in America. And that means the ultimate policy solution, for them, is to take some of those guns away.

There aren't exactly policy proposals for Australian-style mandatory buybacks circulating among the progressive pundit class — largely because it's a nonstarter with the current Supreme Court, which has ruled that there is an individual right to own guns (a premise that many liberals still argue with). Instead it's more of an attitude: the sense that there is not actually any such thing as the "responsible gun owner" Trumble talks about, because it is irresponsible to own something so lethal.

Last week, for example, progressives were outraged by Senate Republicans' refusal to expand background checks. But just before that, many progressives were talking with alarm about news reports that a record number of gun-sale background checks had been conducted on Black Friday — because that meant a lot of people were buying guns. The fact that these were all, by definition, people who could pass a background check was irrelevant. The guns themselves were the problem.

And while Elleithee says that many suburban moms who favor some restrictions on guns "like the idea that there should be a gun in the house for safety," many progressives don't. In October, Washington Post writer Christopher Ingraham compiled data showing that an average of one person a week in America is shot and killed by a toddler, most often because the toddler has gotten hold of an unsecured gun. Ingraham mentioned particular policies that could mitigate the likelihood of that happening, which the NRA predictably opposes: more low-hanging fruit. But he also concluded, "In a country with more guns than people, it's only natural that a certain number of small children are going get their hands on an unsecured firearm, with tragic consequences."

"We're seeing sort of a cultural divide that makes it really hard for people to put themselves in one another's shoes," says Sarah Trumble. "Someone who grew up in a sport-hunting, shooting community can't relate to being scared of guns. And someone who grew up in an inner city, whose only interaction with guns is drive-by shootings, can't understand why anyone would need one at all." That's borne out by public opinion: 58 percent of people without a gun in the house would feel uncomfortable with one. The groups that are least likely to own guns themselves, including nonwhites and urban residents, are also the ones who are least likely to be comfortable with the idea.

This is where the liberal-moderate coalition that's allowed Democrats to lean in on guns breaks down. Calling gun ownership a problem in its own right, Trumble says, "promotes the same type of backlash that the Gun Owners of America–type rhetoric does on the other side — extreme extremes that are not helpful to the conversation. Because the fact of the matter is that America is a gun culture. ... We're not going to put that toothpaste back in the tube."

Trumble frames it as the difference between "gun safety" and "gun control." The latter, she says, "often scares moderates and gun owners and makes them feel very villainized."

"But we're not trying to wave a magic wand to get rid of all the guns," Trumble continues, "and certainly no one should be." Except that some progressives would, in fact, like to see that happen — at least if the perennial popularity of articles about gun control in Japan and Australia, where guns are more or less banned, is any indication.

Elleithee, too, dismisses the notion that anyone in power is calling not just for restrictions on certain types of guns or gun owners but for fewer guns, period. When I shrugged that I'd seen some calls for it in the progressive media, he blurted, "Yeah, the progressive media. That doesn't represent a majority of America."

He's right; it doesn't. Only 26 percent of Americans support a handgun ban. The –Sandy Hook era hasn't actually resulted in Americans becoming more supportive of widespread gun control — in December 2014, Pew saw a 20-year high in the share of Americans who said that gun rights were more important than gun control.

The depth of the gun divide makes it all the more astonishing that Democrats have managed to find a unified voice — and a popular policy agenda — on the issue by focusing on the problem of "dangerous people." Most of the credit for this goes to the NRA and Republicans, for allowing Democrats to seize the moral high ground in rhetoric and the middle ground in policy. As long as that's the case, it appears, guns will be good for Democrats.

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