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Joe Biden had a chance to talk about guns in good faith. He failed miserably

The former VP should have approached the debate after El Paso and Dayton sensibly. But instead he's made it harder for Republicans to imagine working with him in 2020

Jay Caruso
Washington DC
Monday 12 August 2019 18:50 BST
Biden decided to go hard on Republicans, accusing them of not caring about children in coffins. How is anyone supposed to engage with that?
Biden decided to go hard on Republicans, accusing them of not caring about children in coffins. How is anyone supposed to engage with that? (Getty)

The horror of the mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton have led to calls for more gun control legislation. And while most of the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates have mentioned such legislation in passing up into this point, former vice president Joe Biden has upped the ante with an op-ed in the New York Times. In it, Biden calls for reinstating the assault weapons ban that expired in 2004.

Biden makes a passionate case, but unfortunately, what he writes doesn't rely much on facts and evidence. If there are to be substantive discussions about gun control, those who support it must do so from a position of good faith. Many do not, and neither does Biden. He writes, "We have a huge problem with guns. Assault weapons — military-style firearms designed to fire rapidly — are a threat to our national security, and we should treat them as such."

Do we have a huge problem with guns? While it’s true that we have witnessed an increase in mass shootings over the last five to six years, gun homicides and violent crime overall is down — way down — from where it was 30 years ago.

Also, Biden's claim that the guns in question are "military-style firearms designed to fire rapidly" has little merit. Semi-automatic pistols and rifles can only fire as fast as the person can squeeze the trigger. There's no specific "design" that makes one fire at a more rapid rate than another. Gun control advocates often claim it's "semantics," but when the overwhelming majority of firearms (including handguns) sold in the United States are semi-automatic, people must be accurate in the midst of these debates. "Military-style" is just a euphemism for "scary-looking." Pistol grips, flash suppressors and barrel shrouds give a rifle the "military" look but strip the parts away, and that doesn't change how the gun functions.

There's also debate over whether or not the first ban had its intended effect. A UPenn study conducted when the first ban expired in 2004 (and paid for by federal funds), said, "...we cannot clearly credit the ban with any of the nation's recent drop in gun violence. And, indeed, there has been no discernible reduction in the lethality and injuriousness of gun violence."

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Biden references a Morning Consult poll showing 70 per cent of Americans support banning assault weapons. While public opinion polls manage to capture a snapshot in time, they are not the best method for determining whether or not to move forward on public policy. Popularity does not always translate into voter action.

Another popular gun control measure touted by politicians and many talking heads is the idea of universal background checks. It would apply the law currently reserved for retail gun purchases to private sales as well. Public opinion polls show 90 per cent support for such laws. However, two ballot initiatives to expand background checks in Nevada and Maine in 2018 did not result in overwhelming victories. The measure passed by less than one per cent in Nevada and failed in Maine, a state Hillary Clinton won in 2016.

If Democrats are prepared to legislate via public opinion polls, will they agree to drop opposition to voter ID laws that have the support of 80 per cent of Americans? What about abortion? The latest Gallup survey says 65 per cent of Americans support banning abortion after the first trimester. That number rises to 81 per cent in the third trimester. Biden just had to flip-flop on the Hyde Amendment, so it’s far from likely he'd rush to sign any abortion bans, even if the numbers tell the same story as numbers on guns.

Good faith is where the debate must begin, and it's where Biden fails more than anywhere else. Rather than accept that his ideological opponents may have different views over what is or is not good public policy, he instead descends into the mud. "The problem is with weak-willed leaders who care more about their campaign coffers than children in coffins,” he writes.

It's hard to tell how Biden gets Republicans on board with his ideas if he says their opposition stems only from their lust over campaign donations. That sort of talk may play well in the primaries, but it won't do much to persuade Republican lawmakers if the former VP is sitting in the Oval Office in 2021

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