An assault weapons ban. A federal gun buyback program. Stricter background checks. Banning high-capacity magazines. The list of proposals from the 2020 field of Democratic presidential candidates to address gun violence in the United States reads like an advocate’s wish list.
But will any of it get passed? Will the bloody weekend in which 31 people were killed and dozens injured in separate mass shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio represent a turning point in the debate?
Gun control advocates say they’ve seen the tragic pattern — shock, grief, sadness, anger, a call to action, and then nothing — play itself out too many times to know that one moment will not immediately change everything.
“It just takes a long time for the culture to slowly shift and change,” said Mark Barden, whose seven-year-old son Daniel was one of 20 children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in 2012.
“It’s a slow progression of these horrible tragedies, coming at too great a cost, that creates this continuum of slow change.”
According to Barden, the first step to saving lives is sitting in the lap of U.S. senators right now: A bipartisan bill, passed in the House of Representatives in February, calling for stricter background checks on a greater number of gun sales.
Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer on Tuesday called on his Republican counterpart to hold an emergency session to pass the legislation but so far, Mitch McConnell hasn’t shown an interest in debating the bill.
Another measure that has strong public support is extreme risk protection orders, or so-called “red flag” laws, which allow families or law enforcement to temporarily remove firearms from anyone deemed a risk to themselves or others.
“I think we have gone past that tipping point and our elected officials are behind the curve now,” Barden said.
Is progress fast enough? ‘Hell no’
In the wake of the twin shootings, U.S. President Donald Trump, who has made promises around gun control measures before, floated support for red flag laws on Monday. Though he also cited mental illness and violent video games as factors that need attention — something many experts were quick to reject.
According to Andrew Patrick, with the Washington-based Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, Trump is following a standard pattern of shifting the attention away from guns.
“The inaction is not working and the American people recognize that,” he said.
Patrick agrees that things are shifting — but at a glacial pace. “The movement continues to go in the direction we want to see. Is it going fast enough? Hell no.”
Pushing the boundaries of the gun control discussion is the vast field of Democratic presidential candidates.
New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker has one of the most ambitious plans to curb gun violence, calling for all gun owners to be licensed. His proposal is echoed by fellow candidate Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who released his own comprehensive plan to combat gun violence on Tuesday.
The ideas across the board have a similar theme, varying only in the details — a sign of how far the Democratic Party has come on the issue, says Matt Glassman, with the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University.
“Ten years ago, the Democratic Party still included a lot of pro-gun southern conservative Democrats. And they have basically disappeared from the party at the congressional level,” he said.
He notes, however, that the nearly two dozen presidential candidates pushing gun control platforms are trying to appeal to the activist base of Democratic voters who will go to the polls in the upcoming primaries. Those ideas may not translate to the general election, Glassman said, where Democrats are likely to see health care, education and the economy as more pressing issues.
Focus on shooters, not guns
Some gun rights advocates admit the mood in the country has shifted and there is an appetite for legislative change, but they warn there are limits to what gun owners will accept.
The focus for change must remain on people’s ability to obtain guns, not limiting the supply of guns themselves, says Jon Stokes, a contributing editor with The Firearm Blog.
“I don’t think there will ever be support for a ban for registration — certainly not for any kind of confiscation or buyback,” he said.
And efforts to ban certain magazines, like the 100-round drum used by the shooter in Dayton, are a non-starter, he said, because while gun owners want to feel safe too, they worry about such limitations becoming a slippery slope.
“People are not going to support restrictions on that because then where does it stop? We all live in the same world and so we’re nervous in public, like everybody else,” he said. “But we’re also nervous about our rights.”
Stokes said he does believe there is support for strengthened background checks and red flag laws.
Solving everyday gun violence
Some experts say the U.S. needs to treat gun violence as a public health crisis in order to deal with it the way society has worked to address drunk driving and smoking.
Louis Klarevas, author of Rampage Nation: Securing America from Mass Shootings, says no one solution will work, and he’s not optimistic that this recent round of shootings will spur immediate action.
A piecemeal approach also won’t work, he said, noting it will take bans, background checks, licensing changes and red flag laws to collectively make a difference.
“It’s going to take all of those coming together — and tinkered and tailored in a way that they’re most effective — to significantly reduce gun violence in America.”
Barden, who works on violence prevention through a group he co-founded called Sandy Hook Promise, says his fight isn’t just about stopping high-profile mass shootings, but rather the everyday gun violence that plagues communities.
“We need to get folks to prioritize this issue and become vocal and active by petitioning their elected officials to vote the right way on this, or to vote them out,” he said.