The Gun Control Policies Of Every Serious Presidential Contender


Bulletproof backpacks and active shooter drills. A president continually floating the possibility of a connection between mental illness and mass violence. A nation in shock. This is the United States in the face of an ongoing epidemic of gun violence. A poll conducted in time for the first anniversary of the Parkland shooting found that 69 percent of Americans want tougher gun laws but have a serious lack of confidence that lawmakers will do anything.

History supports this level of skepticism but the tide seems to be turning. There are at least a dozen relatively serious contenders in the 2020 presidential election and many of them have released comprehensive platforms to address gun violence. This issue may have stagnated (or fallen to states to handle) since Sandy Hook, but it’s certainly on the minds of those who would lead the nation. Below, we’ve compiled the gun control policies of all of the top presidential candidates — the incumbent and all Democrats who have qualified for the third round of debates.

Here’s everything you need to know.

Joe Biden

Former Vice President and current front-runner Biden has not yet released a gun control platform, but as part of his Education platform he promised to push for “legislation to ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines” which would echo the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban — which he helped pass during his tenure in Senate. Further, during the June primary debate, he advocated for the use of smart guns (weapons with biometric technology that only allow the owner to pull the trigger).

He said, “No gun should be able to be sold unless your biometric measure could pull that trigger. It’s within our right to do that. We can do that. Our enemy is the gun manufacturers, not the NRA. The gun manufacturers.” This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has paid attention to Biden’s career: he expressed interest in smart gun technology as early as January 2013 — right after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook.

Cory Booker

Booker released a comprehensive gun control platform in early May, which we covered in-depth. Here are the highlights of his 14-part proposal:

  • Ban assault weapons.
  • Create a federal gun licensing program which will require extensive background checks, gun safety courses, and an interview process to procure a five-year license to carry a handgun.
  • Close purchase loopholes like the boyfriend loophole and the gun show loophole.
  • Fund research that approaches gun violence as a public health issue.
  • End legal immunity for gun manufacturers.

Booker’s proposal is one of the most comprehensive platforms we have from any of the candidates, and it may just be the cornerstone of his campaign.

Pete Buttigieg

On August 6, the Mayor of South Bend released a gun control platform that links gun violence and domestic terrorism called, “An Action Plan to Combat the National Threat Posed by Hate and the Gun Lobby,” the most highlighted text of which was, “After foreign terrorist attacks, airport travelers have to take off their shoes. After three mass shootings in a single week, Congress takes off for recess.” Ooohhh, burn Mayor Pete!

  • Create a $1 billion fund to combat “radicalization and violent extremism” from white nationalists by increasing staff dedicated to monitoring domestic terrorism threats, creating comprehensive databases to track potential domestic terrorists, and creating outreach and prevention programs.
  • Create a universal background check system and close purchase loopholes.
  • Ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.
  • Create a nationwide gun licensing program (similar to Booker’s program, but Buttigieg’s proposal has fewer details)
  • Fund gun violence research.
  • Address internet radicalization.
  • End the filibuster (which prevented the post-Sandy Hook gun control bill from passing the Senate despite having 54 votes).

Julián Castro

Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Castro, who officially made the September debate stage on August 20, released what he calls the “People First Plan To Disarm Hate” on August 9. Like Buttigieg’s plan, Castro’s plan makes a direct connection between gun violence and growing white nationalism in the U.S.

Castro calls the problem a “toxic brew of guns and hate.” Here’s how he would approach the issue:

  • Address rising white nationalist threats by reforming policing to “address racial disparities” in how and why communities are policed and investing in programs that recognize and combat domestic terrorist threats.
  • Address rising extremism and radicalization on the internet by committing to the Christchurch Call to eliminate extremist content online.
  • End the firearm dealer licensing loophole, the Charleston loophole, the boyfriend loophole, and include unmarried domestic partners under the protection of the Violence Against Women Act (which would be an even more stringent means of closing the boyfriend loophole).
  • Create universal background checks.
  • Create a minimum seven-day waiting period.
  • Ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.
  • Create a federal licensing program which requires an FBI interview, extensive background check, and gun safety courses.
  • Study gun violence as a public health issue.
  • Raise taxes on handguns and ammunition and use the revenue to fund gun violence prevention programs.

This platform shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone following Castro. In 2012, along with twin brother and current Congressman Joaquin, Castro called for an assault weapons ban and eliminating the gun show loophole.

Kamala Harris

In late April, Harris proposed a slate of executive actions to address gun violence in the first 100 days of her administration. They are:

  • Mandatory background checks for anyone buying from a dealer who sells more than five guns per year.
  • Closing the boyfriend loophole.
  • Repealing a law preventing gun manufacturers from being sued by victims (and/or their families) of gun violence.

More recently, she discussed the connection between white nationalism and gun violence — in light of the recent terrorist attack in El Paso — and called for a red flag law she’s calling a “domestic terrorism prevention order.” The law would “would give law enforcement and family members of suspected white nationalists or domestic terrorists the ability to petition a federal court to temporarily restrict a person’s access to guns if the person exhibits clear evidence of being a danger.”

Harris would also introduce an executive order that would require mandatory background checks on all online gun sales.

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Amy Klobuchar

Along with so many other candidates, Klobuchar only recently released her gun control platform. It landed on August 6. Unlike most other candidates, she has a relatively right-leaning policy proposal. Here’s what she wants to do:

  • Create universal background checks.
  • Close the gun show loophole.
  • Ban bump stocks (which have been illegal to buy, own, or sell since March 2019).
  • Immediately raise the age to buy assault weapons from 18 to 21, then subsequently ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.
  • Close both the boyfriend and Charleston loopholes.
  • Prohibit 3D printed handguns.
  • Create a mandatory waiting period (no specification of how long, and an exception for emergencies).
  • Fund research of gun violence as a public health issue.

Beto O’Rourke

After rumors that he was thinking of stepping away from his campaign and cries for him to run for Senate against incumbent John Cornyn, O’Rourke rebooted his campaign with a renewed focus on gun control, due to the terrorist attack in El Paso, O’Rourke’s hometown. His new platform is called, “Combating Hate and Violence In America” and, as with several other candidates, it makes a direct connection between white nationalism and gun violence.

Here’s what O’Rourke has proposed:

  • Monitor and prioritize right-wing violence and create dedicated domestic terrorism offices in law enforcement agencies.
  • Block “terrorist content” online and require social media companies to develop strategies to remove hateful, radicalizing content from their platforms.
  • Support the Christchurch Call.
  • Pass the No PAC Act, which would ban PAC contributions to members of Congress or anyone running for federal office — a move directly targeted at the NRA and its outsized political power.
  • Create a national gun licensing program and registry whereby “individuals [21 and over] seeking a gun undergo an assessment by law enforcement and a background check.” Gun owners will be required to register their firearms, which will also be micro stamped. Licenses will need to be renewed every five years. One exception: anyone under 21 who has a hunting license will be allowed to lawfully possess firearms for hunting.
  • Require universal background checks.
  • Ban assault weapons, high-capacity magazines, and any other add-ons that increase the firing power of firearms.
  • Create a national buyback program for banned assault weapons and firepower-increasing add-ons, which includes fines for those who do not participate in the buyback.
  • Close the boyfriend loophole, gun show and online sale loophole, and Charleston loophole, and implement red flag laws.
  • Declare gun violence a public health emergency.
  • Invest $320 million per year in the study of gun violence as a public health problem.

In a speech in El Paso explaining his platform, O’Rourke said, “I’m confident that if at this moment, we do not wake up to this threat, then we as a country will die in our sleep.”

Bernie Sanders

Sanders’s record on gun control is hard for some Democrats and leftists to square with the rest of his platform. Historically speaking, he is more conservative when it comes to gun control. For example, in 1993, he voted against the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, which would have expanded background checks and extended the waiting period for gun purchases, and he also voted for two bills, in 2003 and 2005 respectively, that “effectively shields gun companies from lawsuits,” per Vox.

But The Bern has evolved significantly since those contentious votes — and his 2016 campaign — and has since voted for more stringent gun laws and promised a more comprehensive approach to gun control. Here’s a run-down of what he has promised to do about gun violence as president:

  • Expand background checks.
  • End the gun show loophole and “crackdown” on straw purchases, which allows people to buy guns on behalf of others.
  • Ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.
  • “Take on” the NRA.

Sanders hasn’t yet qualified how he would take on the NRA or what expanded background checks would look like—whether they’d be universal, how the checks would be conducted, or what benchmarks applicants would have to meet.

Elizabeth Warren

Warren rolled out her plan on August 10, promising to reduce gun deaths by 80 percent through a combination of executive action and legislation.

  • Create a federal licensing program.
  • Require universal background checks.
  • Increase taxes on gun manufacturers from 10 percent on firearms and 11 percent on ammunition to 30 percent on firearms and 50 percent on ammunition.
  • Use increased revenue from the manufacturer taxes to fund gun violence prevention program and enforce current laws.
  • Require a one-week waiting period for all gun purchases.
  • Cap firearm purchases to prevent bulk purchases.
  • Raise the federal age to 21 for the purchase of all firearms.
  • Ban assault weapons, high-capacity magazines, and add-ons that increase firing power.
  • Implement red flag laws.
  • Close the boyfriend loophole, the Charleston loophole, and the gun show loophole.
  • Eliminate the filibuster.
  • Repeal the law protecting gun manufacturers from being sued by the victims (and/or their families) of gun violence.
  • Spend at least $100 million per year on gun violence research.

Several of these proposals are basically canonical at this point, but she is also proposing more extreme measures, like raising manufacturing taxes, which could have a chilling effect on the purchase of firearms. Relatedly, Warren called for Wal-Mart to stop selling guns, stating that it’s imperative to the health and safety of Wal-Mart customers. She compared it to when CVS voluntarily stopped selling tobacco products, which led to a slight decrease in tobacco sales across all retailers.

Andrew Yang

The tech entrepreneur and dark horse candidate has a gun control platform on his website in which he acknowledges, “For many Americans, guns are a big part of their culture and identity. That must be respected. However, guns are a major responsibility and thus we need to have common-sense gun safety measures, especially considering that there are already approaching 400 million firearms in the United States.”

Here’s what Yang is calling for:

  • Create a “common sense” licensing program with a five-year renewal requirement that requires extensive background checks, gun safety courses, and proof of ownership of an appropriately-sized gun locker.
  • Close the gun show loophole and the Charleston loophole.
  • Implement a purchase limit, preventing bulk purchases.
  • Create a clear definition of assault weapon, then subsequently ban them.
  • Ban high-capacity magazines and add-ons that increase firing power.
  • Repeal the law that shields manufacturers from being held accountable for gun violence.
  • Increase funding for suicide prevention programs.
  • Invest in mental health infrastructure.
  • Invest in smart gun technology (which Yang calls “personalized gun technology”) to make it “difficult or impossible” for someone other than the owner to use a firearm.
  • Create a voluntary federal buyback program.

Yang broke down in tears discussing gun violence at a recent town hall when a woman told him that her young daughter was struck and killed by a stray bullet. He reiterated that his personalized gun proposal — which would include funding to upgrade existing guns — would prevent that from happening in the future. In October 2018, Yang tweeted that he would “start fining gun manufacturers $1 million for each person killed by their weapons” but there’s no mention of that on his platform.

Donald Trump

It’s hard to know exactly what current President Trump believes or wants when it comes to gun control. He oversaw a federal ban on bump stocks, made official in December 2018 (which took effect in March 2019), over a year after a mass shooting in Las Vegas left 58 dead and hundreds injured. Otherwise, no one really knows how the president feels right now.

According to Politico, while in conversation with several high-ranking members of the NRA, Trump had supposedly stepped back from promises to implement several gun control measures including universal background checks. Now, however, Trump is reportedly ready “close loopholes” in background checks — without specifying what loopholes or how — in time for Congress’s next session, which starts in early September. The report also states any proposal from the administration will “likely include other legislation and executive actions addressing domestic terrorism, violent video games, and mental health treatment.”

One of those proposals, according to the Washington Post, is seeking a “way to identify early signs of changes in people with mental illness that could lead to violent behavior.” This proposal has mental health experts up in arms, as mental illness is “rarely a predictor” in violent acts.

The Takeaway:

Among Democrats, there are some universal promises, namely: closing both the Charleston and gun show loopholes, and banning assault weapons. Other than that, while there’s a fair amount of overlap between potential Democratic candidates, the Democratic approach to gun control is by no means dogmatic.

As for Trump, well, per usual, he’s hard to pin down — always wrestling between public and private messaging and navigating a base that wants something without alienating a right-wing that sees no gun control action as the only course.