Joe Biden Calls for Assault Weapon Ban, Avoids ‘Gun Buyback’

The gun control debate has become the center of attention for many 2020 presidential hopefuls, with one of the likely front-runners introducing his official proposals ahead of debate season proper: Joe Biden last Wednesday released an eleven-page gun control plan, in which the former Vice President hopes to reintroduce an assault-weapons ban much like the 1994 ban supported by the Clinton Administration.

Biden’s plan also introduces the requirement for a universal background for all gun purchases (“gift” purchases between family members are excluded) with $900 million in federal funding requested over an eight-year period to enact anti-gun-violence programs in major U.S. cities. Importantly — and eschewing many of the extremist calls of his fellow rivals — Biden’s gun control plan does not force mandatory buybacks on owners. Perhaps considering the polarizing response to Beto O’Rourke’s promise to “take your AR-15, your AK-47” Biden says gun buybacks should be voluntary.

This is a calculated move on Biden’s part for two reasons. First, avoiding the calls for mandatory confiscations distances Biden from his left-leaning rivals. Both candidates Kamala Harris and Cory Booker have expressed their support for mandatory buybacks. Booker stated “Americans should be thrown in jail” if they refuse to turn in their weapons.

Second, avoiding the mandatory rhetoric insulates Biden from the risk of losing independents and undecided voters — and it helps him avoid the spotlight of the President’s blistering Twitter feed. Trump was quick to demonize O’rourke in a tweet following his calls for confiscation after the last Democratic debate, saying “Dummy Beto made it much harder to make a deal.” Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer also remarked on a conference call, “I don’t know of any other Democrat who agrees with Beto O’Rourke.”

Americans Probably Wouldn’t Turn in Guns, Anyway.

Biden’s decision to run counter to the Democratic field’s calls for gun confiscations is well-considered, even outside the context of the responses other Democrats have received when making such proposals. When New York attempted to force the state’s gun owners to register their AR-15s as assault weapons, nearly one million owners refused. After being forced to give up the numbers, New York State Police said they recorded just 23,847 registrations. The National Shooting Sports Foundation estimated approximately 976,153 owners remained unaccounted for. Local sentiment among Sheriffs and law enforcement runs counter to such programs, too. Opposition to New York’s SAFE Act (which required the registration) has been widespread, where 52 of the state’s 62 counties have passed resolutions opposing the law.

In upper-state New York, rural Ulster county Sheriff Paul VanBlarcum has been a vocal critic: “We’re a rural county with a lot of gun enthusiasts. So [463 registrations] sounds like a very low number. We’re not actively out looking to enforce any aspect of the SAFE Act,” commenting on his county’s own turn-out. State officials in Connecticut attempted the same registration procedures, only to receive 41,347 applications out of over 350,000 estimated owners. Consider again this noncompliance was in response to mere registration, not confiscation.

Half the World’s Guns are Owned by Americans.

Biden is also likely avoiding the risk of implementing any sort of firearm registration or gun confiscation for one other reason: Americans now own nearly half the world’s firearms. While U.S. citizens account for just 4% of the population, it was estimated by the Small Arms Survey in 2017 that about 46% of the estimated 857 million weapons in civilian hands belong to an American. This figure rose astronomically, too. The total number of estimated firearms was 650 million in 2017, marking a 25% increase in just two years. That figure is likely much higher today.

“The biggest force pushing up gun ownership around the world is civilian ownership in the United States. Ordinary American people buy approximately 14 million new and imported guns every year,” survey author Aaron Karp told reporters. “Why are they buying them? That’s another debate. Above all, they are buying them probably because they can. The American market is extraordinarily permissive,” he told a news conference at the United Nations in New York.

Just How Permissive is U.S. Gun Culture? Many Guns are Built Unregistered.

Karp said every figure published by the gun ownership survey for 230 countries and territories “includes some degree of estimation.” That estimation likely included a projected guess of how many unregistered, homemade firearms might be in Americans’ hands already. The Gun Control Act of 1968 was ratified to regulate firearm commerce, generally prohibiting interstate firearms transfers except among licensed manufacturers. Importantly, the GCA of 1968 also cemented a little-known but long-standing Constitutional right: The right to build an unregistered firearm at home, from scratch. This is perfectly legal to do with no firearms manufacturing license (FFL) required. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms clarifies the scope and limitations of the Act’s language.

Homebrewed guns became popular when the first commercially-available receiver blanks were introduced to the AR-15 market a few years ago. Officially called an “80 lower receiver”, these blanks aren’t considered firearms by any state or federal law, though New York’s Attorney General recently sent a cease-and-desist letter to websites selling these blanks. They can be purchased online and shipped directly to the consumer’s home, no paperwork or licensing required. Since the receiver is the only component of the AR-15 considered a firearm, consumers may also legally purchase all the other parts needed to build a rifle or handgun at home. The end result is the ability to build a functional AR-15 with little government oversight.

Federal legislators introduced a bill, H. R. 7115, to ban these receiver blanks and gun-making kits. That bill currently resides on the House Floor with no plans to be called for a vote.

Threading a “Centrist”-ish Needle

Gun control is an incredibly polarizing subject, one that will likely tilt voters to one candidate or another. Biden, then, appears to be toeing a fine line to appeal to a wide base. His proposal recognizes the likelihood that AR-15s and “assault-style” weapons may never be successfully removed from American homes. Instead, Biden appeases the direct calls by Democrats for a total ban, while allowing those opposed — many of whom are existing owners — to keep their weapons.

A Biden staffer told Axios on Wednesday that despite a Republican-controlled Senate, “You have in the vice president’s record two examples of him succeeding in getting legislation done and defeating the NRA before.”

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