Sep 13, 2019

Democrats' watershed moment on guns

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

One sentence from Beto O'Rourke has the potential to upset a decades-old balancing act on guns by top Democrats: "Hell yes, we're going to take your AR-15, your AK-47," O'Rouke said during last night's debate.

Why it matters: Moving the status quo from "who can buy a gun," or even "what guns can they buy," to "what guns can people own" is a really big deal.

  • Since the Assault Weapons Ban passed in 1994 (and expired 10 years later), there hasn't been much nationwide movement on banning guns.
  • But after a mass shooting in his hometown, O'Rourke has made mandatory buybacks (aka confiscation) of modern sporting rifles (the semiautomatic rifles like AR-15s that are often referred to as assault weapons) a key feature of his campaign.

The big picture: Poll after poll shows rising support for gun control measures, particularly among Democrats, although outright confiscation is far less popular.

  • Democrats have traditionally focused on restricting the conditions under which people can buy guns — think background checks, red flag laws and lengthened waiting periods.
  • Part of that cautious approach comes from red and purple states. Gun control efforts there often fail to match the enthusiasm registered in national polls.
  • This approach has also given cover to swing district Democrats as our politics have increasingly nationalized.

What they're saying: Axios reached out to several of the other Democratic candidates for reaction, but campaign officials declined to comment on the record.

  • One unaffiliated Democratic strategist said O'Rourke's impassioned breakout moment carries a risk to the rest of the field, by association.
  • "Yes, Democrats need to be bold, but they need to be responsible," the strategist said.
  • "We were successful in 2018 because we were the party of common sense. Let Republicans be the radicals. Let's win with ideas that are truly progressive, but aren't going to strike the electorate as extreme."

Between the lines: Mass shootings remain a minority of gun deaths in America, but they're by far the most publicized and feared.

  • And after two decades of mass shootings conducted using weapons like the AR-15, conditions may be ripe for a political sea change.

What's next: Expect other Democratic candidates to tread carefully, and Republicans to start releasing ads featuring O'Rourke.

  • As America First — a pro-Trump super PAC — told Axios, they'll be "logging and clipping." 

Go deeper

Beto vs. Buttigieg on gun control

2020 contender Pete Buttigieg told CNN on Sunday that Beto O'Rourke's remark of "Hell yes, we're going to take your AR-15" plays into the hands of Republicans on gun control.

O'Rourke's Twitter response: "Leaving millions of weapons of war on the streets because Trump and McConnell are 'at least pretending to be open to reforms'? That calculation and fear is what got us here in the first place. Let’s have the courage to say what we believe and fight for it."

Go deeperArrowSep 15, 2019

Schumer dismisses O'Rourke's assault weapon buyback proposal

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Wednesday that Beto O'Rourke's proposed assault weapon buyback program is unrepresentative of Democratic views, according to Albany's Times Union.

Why it matters: Schumer's dismissal of O'Rourke's proposal signals that some top Democrats are concerned that it could derail ongoing talks about gun control legislation and may allow Republicans to claim during the 2020 election cycle that Democrats intend to take Americans' guns away.

Go deeperArrowSep 19, 2019

Where 2020 Democrats stand on gun control

Warren and Biden on the debate stage on Jan. 14. Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Sen. Elizabeth Warren introduced a new gun reform bill on Thursday with Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) that calls for raising the minimum age for all gun purchases to 21 and increasing the excise tax on gun sales to 30% and ammunition sales to 50%.

The big picture: 2019's mass shootings in El Paso, Texas; Dayton, Ohio; Virginia Beach; and near Odessa, Texas, have pushed 2020 Democrats to take harder stances on gun control than in the last presidential election, when Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton only briefly addressed the issue in their primary debate.

Go deeperArrowUpdated Jan 30, 2020 - Politics & Policy