Isabelle Schindler: How to navigate the gun control fight

Wednesday, October 16, 2019 - 5:03pm

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The issue of guns in America is deeply emotional and divisive. As the Democratic candidates vie for their party’s presidential nomination, it is critical that they recognize the optics of this issue and do not reinforce Republican talking points on gun confiscation. 

While all the Democratic presidential candidates support some form of gun control, the issue of a mandatory gun buyback program divides the candidates. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas, have all announced that, as president, they would push for a mandatory buyback program of certain semi-automatic weapons.

Meanwhile, Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-V.T., Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. and former Vice President Joe Biden have all called for instituting a voluntary gun buyback program. 

From a purely ideological perspective, I strongly support a mandatory buyback program for certain semi-automatic weapons. I have come to this position in the same way that many other young people have: growing up in an era plagued with gun violence. We are tired of the endless violence, we are tired of being afraid and we are tired of the empty thoughts and prayers offered after every shooting. 

While I had always been a major supporter of gun control, it was the shooting in Dayton, Ohio, this summer that pushed me to support a mandatory buyback on semi-automatic assault weapons. Due to the heroism of a police officer, that shooting lasted only 32 seconds. However, in those 32 seconds, the shooter was still able to kill nine people. The idea that any weapon can fire enough bullets in 30 seconds to end nine innocent lives proves why we should not have these weapons of war on our streets. I am also personally in favor of restricting semi-automatic handguns, which can also fire an obscene number of bullets in a short amount of time. 

Unfortunately, beliefs do not always align with political pragmatism. Though most Democrats and I support a mandatory full buyback of semi-automatic assault weapons, this is not feasible in this political climate. Even worse, I believe that the calls for a mandatory gun buyback program play directly into the hands of the Republican Party and the National Rifle Association.

The GOP and the gun lobby love to warn people that Democrats are coming for their guns and, by extension, their liberty. In reality, the Democrats are simply in favor of common-sense gun regulations that help ensure the safety of all Americans. Even if this mandatory buyback program were to be implemented, it would only apply to certain semi-automatic assault weapons.

The specifics of the proposed policy have been overshadowed by media coverage of each candidates’ proposed mandatory gun buybacks. This coverage is mostly centered on O’Rourke, who has made gun control a main tenet of his campaign. 

When asked about his suggested mandatory gun buyback program, O’Rourke proudly proclaimed, “Hell yes, we're going to take your AR-15, your AK-47.” This line has become a rallying cry of his campaign, even appearing on campaign merchandise.  

While this line may elicit cheers from those on the left, it only serves to further the political divide on the issue of guns. Instead of explaining the merits of a mandatory gun buyback program or citing the success that Australia had in curbing violence following their mandatory buyback, O’Rourke is instead simply providing fodder for the GOP.  

Democrats should instead be focused on highlighting the many common-sense gun measures that their party stands for, including red flag laws, expanded background checks and efforts to keep guns out of the hands of domestic abusers. 

These policies are much more popular than the mandatory buyback program. According to a September 2019 poll, 83 percent of Americans support background checks for gun purchases at gun shows or other private sales. This has far more support than a mandatory gun buyback program, which an NPR and PBS NewsHour's poll showed was only supported by 70 percent of Democrats. But for Independents, only 40 percent supported it, and for Republicans, it was only 23 percent.

I admire O’Rourke for his tenacity on this issue and for taking this stand. However, right now Democrats must focus on doing all they can to win back not only the White House, but also the Senate. No legislation on guns is likely to be passed if President Donald Trump is reelected for a second term or if Republicans hold the Senate. That is why candidates should focus on the parts of gun control that have a greater consensus. And if candidates want to speak in favor of a mandatory gun buyback program, they should watch their words carefully and use their platform to emphasize the positives of such programs and not play into the hands of Republicans. 

Isabelle Schindler can be reached ischind@umich.edu.