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Policy Matters: A Closer Look at Where the Candidates Stand on Gun Violence and White Nationalist Terrorism

The events of the last three weeks have thrust the issues of gun violence and domestic terrorism back into the headlines, and onto the debate stage. Earlier this year, we took a close look at what some of the 2020 presidential candidates were saying and doing on gun violence. Today, we’re taking an even closer look as additional candidates have come forward with detailed gun violence prevention plans, and we’re taking another look at a couple candidates who are adding more details to their respective plans of action.

“If the answer to the question, ‘Do racism and white supremacy exist?’ is yes, then the real question isn’t who is or isn’t a racist, but who is and isn’t doing something about it.” 
– Cory Booker, in Charleston, South Carolina, on August 7
Photo by Andrew Davey

Back in May, U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) released his gun violence prevention plan that not only covered all the bases set by Hillary Clinton’s 2016 platform (which has played a major role in making policies like universal background checks, a new assault weapons ban, and a national “red flag law” into 2019-20 Democratic Party mainstays), but broke new ground in including a policy that experts have been wanting politicians to consider for years: a permit-to-purchase gun licensing requirement. It’s already on the books in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Jersey, and Booker wants a national licensing standard in place along with a national database to track gun purchases and transfers and a one-handgun-per-month purchasing limit.

This week, Booker expanded upon this by releasing a detailed plan of action on hate crimes and white nationalist violence. His plan includes the creation of a White House Office on Hate Crimes and White Supremacist Violence to better coordinate the federal government’s actions and assist local communities, passage of the Khalid Jabara-Heather Heyer NO HATE Act to update law enforcement protocol on reporting and investigating hate crimes, a new requirement for federal law enforcement agencies to assess the threats posed by white nationalist extremists and submit annual reports to Congress and the public, and going beyond mere reversal of President Donald Trump’s diversion of resources from counterterrorism programs to provide more funding for such programs and direct federal law enforcement to prioritize white nationalist violence as a national security threat.

Photo by Andrew Davey

While previewing his new plan during an August 7 speech at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina (where nine African-American parishioners were murdered in a June 2015 hate crime), Booker declared, “People’s very lives are in the balance. And to be frank, the future of the country hangs in the balance, which is why we can’t let these conversations devolve into the impotent simplicity of who is or isn’t a racist. Because if the answer to the question, ‘Do racism and white supremacy exist?’ is yes, then the real question isn’t who is or isn’t a racist, but who is and isn’t doing something about it.”

“Across the country, we are seeing a rise in hate crimes. That is domestic terrorism. We are seeing a rise in white nationalism. That is domestic terrorism.” 
– Kamala Harris, in Henderson on August 3
Photo by Andrew Davey

Also in May, U.S. Senator Kamala Harris (D-California) released her own sweeping gun violence prevention plan. But unlike Booker’s policy proposals that will require approval from Congress, Harris’ plan relies more heavily upon executive action. Basically if Congress does not give President Kamala Harris a universal background checks bill, a new and updated assault weapons ban, and the repeal of a 2005 law that grants gun manufacturers legal immunity to sign into law within her first 100 days in office, she will take executive action to require anyone who sells five or more guns for profit annually to order background checks on such transactions, close the “boyfriend loophole” that allows some domestic violence offenders to keep their access to guns and ammunition, revoke the licenses of gun manufacturers who break the law regardless of whether they claim immunity under that 2005 statute, and reverse Trump’s February 2017 redefinition of “fugitive from justice” that allows people fleeing criminal arrest warrants to purchase firearms.

Photo by Andrew Davey

This week, Harris expanded upon her plan by offering more proposals specifically to counter the threat of white nationalist terrorism. Included in this new, expanded plan of action are proposals for executive action to require online gun sales platforms like ArmsList to perform background checks, legislation to create a “Domestic Terrorism Prevention Order” for federal courts to grant law enforcement the ability to seize weapons from individuals if they provide sufficient evidence that these individuals are planning imminent terrorist attacks, direct the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) to address the global threat of rising white nationalist extremism and include domestic terrorism in its mission going forward, and go beyond reversing Trump’s deprioritzation of domestic terrorism to “commit $2 billion to investigate, disrupt, and prosecute domestic terrorists”. 

While speaking in Henderson on August 3, Harris noted, “Across the country, we are seeing a rise in hate crimes. That is domestic terrorism. We are seeing a rise in white nationalism. That is domestic terrorism.” She later added, “We are better than this. This must be a moment when we fight for the best of who we are, and fight we will.”

“The real change in America will come when we say, ‘No more.’ We’re going to be a democracy, and we’re not going to let this country be run by a handful of those with buckets of money.” 
– Elizabeth Warren, in Henderson on August 2
Photo by Andrew Davey

She may have waited a bit longer to release her own gun violence prevention plan, but supreme planmaker and U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) now has one. In addition to the background checks expansion and assault weapons ban that nearly all Democratic presidential candidates agree upon, Warren also endorses the national gun licensing requirement that’s the centerpiece of Booker’s plan, as well as the repeal of “blanket immunity” for gun manufacturers that Harris and Booker include in their respective plans. 

Like Harris, Warren is also pledging to take executive action to redefine “engaged in the business” of firearms sales to include nearly all gun sales outside intra-family transfers, though Warren will not just use this to expand background checks, but also to require reporting of bulk gun sales in all 50 states and raise the minimum age to buy guns to 18. Warren also wants to take executive action to crack down on the exportation of U.S. manufactured firearms and the importation of foreign-made assault weapons into the U.S., close the “boyfriend loophole” for domestic violence offenders, revoke licenses for gun dealers who have already violated existing law, and prosecute more cases of domestic and international gun trafficking.

Photo by Andrew Davey

In addition, Warren will pursue legislation to raise the minimum wage to 21 for gun sales, establish a new anti-trafficking law to prohibit “straw purchases” of guns on behalf of prohibited parties, limit gun purchases to one per month, raise the excise tax on gun manufacturers (currently 10-11%) to 30% on guns and 50% on ammunition, invest $100 million in research on gun violence and how to prevent it, and enact an assault weapons ban that specifically includes a ban on high-capacity magazines and accessories designed to make guns deadlier. 

As with the rest of her policy plans, Warren framed her gun violence prevention plan in the language of pursuing justice with “big, structural change”. While speaking with reporters at her Henderson town hall on August 2, Warren declared, “The real change in America will come when we say, ‘No more.’ We’re going to be a democracy, and we’re not going to let this country be run by a handful of those with buckets of money.” 

“Weapons like the one I carried in Afghanistan have no place on our streets or in our schools — least of all in the hands of white nationalists.” 
– Pete Buttigieg
Photo by Andrew Davey

While South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg earned plenty of praise for his “values” speeches early in his presidential run, he then ran into criticism for not translating these esoteric “values” into more tangible policy plans that several of his Democratic rivals were already releasing (see above). In recent weeks, Buttigieg has responded to the criticism with his own detailed plans to translate his “values” into real change. And on August 5, Buttigieg released a specific and detailed plan of action on gun violence and domestic terrorism.

Like Booker and Harris, Buttigieg also wants to reverse Trump’s diversion of resources, and Buttigieg then proposes to invest $1 billion in more FBI domestic counterterrorism field staff and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) programs to counter violent extremism. In addition, Buttigieg promises executive action to train law enforcement to identify the connection between extreme misogyny and violent extremism, encourage tech companies to cooperate more with law enforcement in tracking potentially dangerous extremist groups, “name and shame” tech companies and other online platforms (cough- 8chan -cough) that refuse to crack down on extremists who turn violent, and empower the NCTC to investigate international white supremacist terrorist operations. 

Photo by Andrew Davey

On guns, Buttigieg agrees with nearly all his Democratic rivals on background checks and assault weapons, with Booker, Harris, and Warren on pursuing a national “red flag” law, with Booker and Warren on establishing a national gun license requirement for purchase and use, and with Warren on restoring federal investment in gun violence research. In addition, Buttigieg specifically endorsed the Disarm Hate Act to prohibit hate crimes offenders from obtaining and/or possessing firearms.

Buttigieg explained why he wants to pursue this plan of action in his August 5 Medium post:
“Weapons like the one I carried in Afghanistan have no place on our streets or in our schools — least of all in the hands of white nationalists. I want to be able to look back on this moment and tell my children that we brought people together to deliver gun safety. I want my children to be able to go to the mall with their grandmother, or to school, or to the movies, without living in fear.”

Postscript: The violence continues

Just this week, we’ve seen two more gun violence incidents make national headlines: A convicted felon opening fire on police officers on Monday near the 215 Freeway in Riverside, California, using “ghost guns” that are untraceable by authorities, and another man opening fire and injuring six police officers in Philadelphia. The Trump-appointed U.S. Attorney for Eastern Pennsylvania already baselessly blamed Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner for the shooting there on Fox News last night, and El Paso Mayor Dee Margo recently told PBS that Trump himself labeled him a “RINO” during his trip to the border city following the mass shooting attack there. 

As per usual in the Trump era, the White House has again refused to assign any blame to the NRA, gun manufacturers, or lawmakers who refuse to tighten any gun laws. And as per usual in the Trump era, Trump himself briefly issued a mild condemnation of white supremacists, only to quickly reverse himself and spew even more rhetoric to fuel even more violent extremism.

Just last night, a truck drove toward a crowd of immigrant rights activists and ultimately injured five of them at a protest outside a Rhode Island prison that contracts with ICE. And as we’ve been tracking since Monday, federal authorities arrested an individual here in Las Vegas last Thursday who was planning attacks on a LGBTQ+ bar, a synagogue, and a local office for a Jewish civil rights organization. Extremist violence remains a potent national security threat, and gun violence remains a national public health crisis. Unless and until our society decides to take serious actions on both pressing matters, we can’t really say we’re being serious about “keeping America safe”.

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