Sen. Kamala D. Harris vowed Wednesday that if she’s elected president she would take executive action to ban imports of AR-15-style semiautomatic rifles unless Congress acts first.
Ms. Harris said she’ll give lawmakers 100 days to pass comprehensive legislation to expand background checks for gun purchases, to repeal liability protections for gun manufacturers, and to embrace a ban on military-style semiautomatic “assault weapons.”
If she doesn’t see action, the California Democrat said she’ll do what she can on the issue, including flexing a 1968 law she says would let her administration ban imports of some semiautomatic weapons.
“Assault weapons are designed to kill a lot of people in a very short period of time,” Ms. Harris said at an event in Nashua, New Hampshire. “We cannot any longer afford to allow people to make this a partisan issue. Those guns, those assault weapons do not discriminate.”
In a crowded Democratic field, Ms. Harris is seizing on the issue as one potential avenue to distinguish herself from an array of candidates who are generally supportive of new gun controls.
Her campaign said the import ban is legal under the Gun Control Act of 1968, which allows the attorney general to prohibit importation of guns that are not “suitable or readily adaptable to sporting purposes.”
Her move would not only ban AR-15-style imports, but would also suspend imports of more than 200 other models until a study is conducted on whether they meet the “sporting purposes” definition.
It’s not clear what a ban on imports would mean in practice.
Ms. Harris’s campaign says between a fifth and a quarter of assault rifles have been imported.
But a spokesman for a leading gun industry trade group said “nearly all” of the 16 million-plus “modern sporting rifles” in the U.S. were manufactured domestically.
“Sen. Harris’s proposed policy demonstrates her consistent misunderstanding of not just the Second Amendment, but also that of today’s law-abiding gun owner,” Mark Oliva, spokesman for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, said in an email.
Gun-control advocates, though, hailed the announcement, saying guns will be a major issue in the 2020 campaign.
“She knows that voters are looking for leaders who will take bold action to save American lives,” said John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety. “Every day brings more proof that gun safety will be a defining issue of the 2020 campaign.”
Earlier this month, Sen. Cory A. Booker also unveiled a more sweeping gun proposal that would impose new federal licensing requirements for firearms owners — a move gun-rights advocates have long opposed.
Though advocacy groups like Everytown are trying to elevate the gun issue, it’s less clear how much it will animate Democratic voters in early presidential states like Iowa and New Hampshire.
Guns weren’t among the 10 issues most important to likely Democratic primary voters in New Hampshire, according to a Monmouth University poll released last week. And just 1% of likely Iowa Democratic caucus-goers named guns or gun control as among the most important issues on deciding whom to support for the nomination, according to a Monmouth poll released last month.
Daniel Callahan, a Democratic Party chairman in Buchanan County, said semiautomatic weapons restrictions are going to be less popular in Iowa than expanded background checks.
“When you ban AR-style assault rifles, OK, that’s pretty cut and dry,” Mr. Callahan said. “But when you start talking about assault rifles, you get that old question about ‘How do you define an assault rifle?’ The details are always the tricky part.”
Still, Mr. Callahan said that among the people he talks to, gun control does rival the economy as the third-highest priority, behind health care and the environment/climate change.
“I wonder if she’s doing it as a way to separate herself from some of the other leading candidates. She’s probably, what, fourth or fifth overall right now,” he said. “I mean, there’s nothing terribly new in there. There’s a lot of things that have been tried in the past and that’ll work.”
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