The term “political system,” of course, is vague. The bulk of opposition to gun-safety measures, including an assault weapons ban, comes from Republicans. This needs to be called out, as does the Supreme Court’s historically obtuse Second Amendment jurisprudence.
But it’s also true that a fair share of Democrats representing rural areas are reluctant to join their big-city colleagues in support of laws too often cast as expressions of disrespect for traditions of gun ownership. The price of culture war politics is steep when it comes to gun regulation.
Because progress is so difficult and the stakes are so high, it’s important to recognize forward movement in this debate when it happens — and to celebrate politicians who seek new and creative paths to consensus.
Last week, Sens. Angus King (I-Maine) and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), who have both opposed an assault weapons ban, introduced a bill that would have much of the same impact but without banning a particular style of weapon.
Instead, their legislation, which impressed leading gun-safety groups and advocates such as Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), focuses on the engineering of guns. It would limit the rounds their magazines can contain and require those magazines to be permanent. Also crucial, King says, is making “lethal conversion devices like bump stocks and Glock switches” unlawful. The goal: to make it impossible to convert lawful firearms into what effectively become fully automatic weapons like machine guns, which have been subject to stringent limitations since 1934.
Reflecting the view of some critics of assault weapons bans, King told me in an interview that such bills “have been based on what the gun looks like, on the cosmetics of the gun” and that “manufacturers can modify the appearance, and you still end up with a substantially similar weapon.” He said his and Heinrich’s proposal would instead regulate how guns are manufactured and limit weapons “to a 10-bullet fixed permanent magazine that can’t be enlarged.”
Importantly, the bill — co-sponsored by Sens. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) and Michael F. Bennet (D-Colo.) — also includes a voluntary gun buyback provision. Owners of existing guns that would violate the law’s provisions could pass them on to a family member, he said. Otherwise, “if you decide to sell it, you have to sell it to the government.” It would be a small step toward getting lethal weaponry off the streets, but it’s a start.
King and Heinrich had been working on the idea for several years, but the Oct. 25 shootings in Lewiston, Maine, in which 18 people were killed, “certainly confirmed my resolve to do this,” King told me. The Lewiston horror had already led Rep. Jared Golden (D-Maine), one of his party’s most conservative members, to reverse his opposition to an assault weapons ban. In a brave and forthright statement, Golden declared that “the time has now come for me to take responsibility for this failure.”
King said the need for his proposal was dramatized by the Lewiston killings, since the shooter “had two large-capacity magazines duct-taped together so that when one was empty, he could flip around and easily stick another one in. And that’s what our bill would prevent.”
Politics can be a maddening business, and success often requires changing the terms of the debate. That’s what King and Heinrich are trying to do by shifting the focus from specific guns and toward features that can make ordinary weapons far more destructive.
Heinrich underscored this in a statement stressing that as a gun owner, he continued to support “laws that protect safe and responsible gun ownership.” His goal, he said, was “to get those firearms that are inherently dangerous and unusually lethal, designed for maximum harm, out of the hands of those who pose a threat to themselves or others.”
King and Heinrich have yet to find Republican co-sponsors, and — no surprise — the National Rifle Association wasted no time in coming out against the proposal. But the gun lobby’s power is slipping, and pollsters have found that parents’ worries about the safety of their children in school are increasingly driving the gun debate. One sign of change was passage last year of modest reforms in the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, the first gun-safety measure enacted in nearly 30 years.
Yes, it’s astonishing that so many politicians who tout how tough they are on crime are eager to declare their loyalty to guns and those who manufacture them rather than to the people whose lives they threaten. But winning this fight requires pragmatism and persistence. Here’s hoping that some practical senators from gun-friendly states can turn the tide.