While watching the Democratic primary debates last week, I was surprised to see the candidates almost universally adopt several far-left positions that would have been unthinkable even a few years ago. One by one, the candidates pledged their support for the Green New Deal and Medicare for All, a clear sign of the party’s recent leftward shift. However, on one issue, the Democrats have stayed relatively moderate: gun control. Outside of a few notable exceptions, the Democrats seem content to hold moderate views on gun policy.
The Democrats are correct to be cautious in their calls for gun policy reform and should continue to be careful in their messaging.
The time feels ripe for gun control reform. For decades, the National Rifle Association’s influence has cast a dark shadow over gun control advocates’ work. The powerful interest group has often stifled efforts to pass even small pieces of legislation to reduce gun violence by rallying its supporters. However, the NRA, following bad news and infighting, seems to be weakened and less able to fight gun control policies. Politico reports the NRA’s membership and revenue are down significantly, and the NRA was outspent by gun control groups for the first time ever during the midterm elections last year.
However, the NRA’s situation can change rapidly. If Democrats scare conservatives into thinking their right to bear arms is under siege, the NRA could galvanize support and receive an influx of donations, rejuvenating its financial situation and restoring much of its power in the debate.
Though most Democrats at the debate advocated for moderate changes, there were some who pushed for stronger measures. For instance, California Representative Eric Swalwell proposed a mandatory buyback program for assault weapons. Buyback programs seek to reduce gun violence by purchasing guns from gun owners for a fair price. Their logic is simple: with fewer guns on the street, there should be fewer deaths caused by gun violence.
Unfortunately, buyback programs do not work. According to USA Today, despite being a popular gun control measure in some circles, buyback programs do little to lessen gun violence. The programs recover too few of the guns to make a large difference, and the guns they do collect tend to be from law-abiding owners who are not threats to use them irresponsibly.
Instead, Democrats and gun control advocates should focus their attention on promoting policies that are both popular and effective. For example, expanding background checks receives impressive approval ratings from both Democrats (91%) and Republicans (79%). In addition, research shows that expanding background checks can reduce gun homicides, making the policy popular and practical.
Politics requires bold initiatives and political courage. Still, politicians should not needlessly create controversy to support views that are neither popular nor effective. The primaries are a chance to debate policies, and I welcome further discussion. But if they hope to finally make progress on reducing gun violence, the future Democratic nominee should refrain from embracing extreme positions on gun control policy.