The 2020 Democratic presidential candidates are far more forceful and united on gun control than their predecessors, endorsing a wide range of policies that past nominees sidestepped or rejected, according to a New York Times survey of the 19 campaigns.
The political terrain on guns has been shifting for several years in response to a seemingly unending series of mass shootings and a newly emboldened network of advocacy groups. Policies that were dividing lines among Democrats have become baselines, and proposals that were politically untouchable are now firmly on the table.
All 19 candidates support an assault weapons ban. The biggest disagreement: whether people who already own those weapons should be required to sell them to the government, or simply given the option to do so. There is also some support for a federal gun registry, an idea that many Democrats used to dismiss exasperatedly as gun-lobby scaremongering.
Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. is calling for a ban on all online sales of guns and gun parts, an unusually aggressive proposal. Senator Elizabeth Warren wants a 30 percent excise tax on guns and a 50 percent excise tax on ammunition. Thirteen candidates want to require a license to own a gun.
The scope of the candidates’ plans is striking: The Times asked about 17 policies, and a third of the field said yes to all of them. Most said they were prepared to take executive action, push to eliminate the Senate filibuster, or both in order to enact them.
The candidates feel comfortable releasing sweeping gun plans largely because they believe they now have the political momentum Democrats lacked for years. While some gun-control measures are more popular than others — and the divide between Democrats and Republicans is still large — a wide range of them are supported by a majority of Americans, according to the Pew Research Center.
“It’s a story about how the country is shifting,” said Peter Ambler, the executive director of Giffords, a gun control advocacy group. “And what you see happening in the Democratic primary is a direct reflection of what’s happening in the country.”
Unanimous support for an assault weapons ban
If it seems unremarkable that every Democratic presidential candidate wants to ban assault weapons, it’s worth looking back just a few years. In 2013, the last time such a ban received a floor vote in the Senate, nearly 30 percent of the Democratic caucus voted against it.
Several other policies had unanimous support among the candidates who completed the survey:
So-called red-flag laws, which allow the confiscation of guns from people judged to pose an imminent risk to themselves or others;
A ban on high-capacity magazines;
Closing the “boyfriend loophole,” which lets convicted domestic abusers buy guns if they weren’t married to, living with or raising a child with the person they abused;
Closing the “Charleston loophole,” which lets gun sales go through without a background check if the check takes more than three days;
Enacting a federal anti-gun-trafficking law.
Most of the candidates also support a higher minimum age (generally 21) for gun purchases; a waiting period ranging from three days (Senator Amy Klobuchar) to 14 days (Marianne Williamson); a purchase limit of one gun per month; and civil liability for gun manufacturers when their weapons are used in crimes.
Buybacks are among the most divisive policies
The biggest sticking point among Democrats now is what to do about the millions of assault weapons Americans already own. The candidates are united in calling for a buyback program, through which owners would be able to sell those weapons to the government. But, to state the obvious, many people don’t want to give up their AR-15s.
Should the government make them? And if so, how?
Most of the candidates, including the three leaders in the polls, told The Times that buybacks should be voluntary. Several — including those leaders, Mr. Biden, Ms. Warren and Senator Bernie Sanders — said that anyone who kept an assault weapon should have to register it.
Only five candidates support mandatory buybacks; Senator Kamala Harris is the highest polling among them. But their calls have gotten outsized attention, especially since one candidate, former Representative Beto O’Rourke, declared at the last debate: “Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47.”
That remark led to a caustic exchange at a recent gun control forum that pointed to differences in strategy. Mayor Pete Buttigieg argued that by insisting on mandatory buybacks, Democrats might squander a chance to pass new gun laws. Mr. O’Rourke accused him of being “afraid of doing the right thing.”
That argument continues to play out more broadly. Several senators who support gun control measures have worried publicly that Mr. O’Rourke’s “hell yes” comment, and the idea of mandatory buybacks, have played into the National Rifle Association’s hands.
The Times survey asked the candidates who supported mandatory buybacks how they intended to enforce them. None answered in detail. While they described penalties for noncompliance, they did not explain how, if the owner of an AR-15 kept it, officials would ever know.
“When a mandatory buyback program for assault weapons is enacted, it is the law,” Chris Evans, a spokesman for Mr. O’Rourke, said. “We expect people to follow the law here in the United States, and we know that Americans are law-abiding people.”
Gun licensing is a new frontier
Fourteen states and the District of Columbia require a license or permit to buy a gun, and some studies have found that licensing requirements are associated with a decrease in gun homicides and suicides.
But at the national level, a federal gun licensing program was barely part of the discussion until this May, when Senator Cory Booker proposed one.
In a vivid example of how quickly the Democratic field is adopting new ideas, other candidates followed almost immediately. Thirteen of them, including nine of the top 10 by polling average, now support such a program.
The outlier is Mr. Biden, whose gun plan would incentivize states to enact licensing programs but would not require them to do so.
“You don’t need a federal license to drive a car,” Mr. Biden said at the recent gun forum, though the analogy is imperfect given that every state requires a driver’s license. He framed his choice mainly as a matter of what could pass Congress.
Mr. Booker said at the forum that licensing was “not a radical concept” and that anyone who did not support a federal program “should not be a nominee from our party.”
The candidates’ licensing plans vary, but the common threads are a federal background check and an interview. Some candidates, including Mr. Booker and Julián Castro, would require applicants to pass a gun safety course. Andrew Yang supports a tiered system, meaning different guns would require different licenses, much as a regular driver’s license is not sufficient to drive a truck.
Gun registration is losing its third-rail status
The N.R.A. and other gun-rights groups have long used the idea of a gun registry to motivate voters, arguing that universal background checks would lead to a database of gun owners, and that a database would lead to gun confiscation.
In the past, Democrats generally tried to counter this argument by rejecting the premise: No, they said, background checks wouldn’t lead to a registry. They didn’t want to “take away your guns.” They dismissed such talk as gun-lobby alarmism.
That approach is still common, but no longer universal. Based on the Times survey, 11 candidates support a registration requirement in at least some circumstances.
Some, including Mr. Biden and Mr. Sanders, said the requirement would apply only to assault weapon owners who chose not to participate in a voluntary buyback program. But at least five candidates — Mr. Booker, Wayne Messam, Mr. O’Rourke, Ms. Warren and Marianne Williamson — are proposing more than that.
“Individuals will be required to register their guns through a registry,” Mr. O’Rourke told The Times. “All new handguns will be microstamped.”
Ms. Warren, a front-runner for the nomination and steadily rising in the polls, was similarly unequivocal.
“I believe that all guns should be registered,” she said.
HOW WE COMPILED THE RESULTS Fifteen candidates responded to The Times’s survey. For those who didn’t — Julián Castro, John Delaney, Tulsi Gabbard and Andrew Yang — we found answers to some of our questions in published plans, interviews and debate transcripts.