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2020 Democrats promise new gun controls. How far can they go?

Emily Cadei, McClatchy Washington Bureau on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON -- California Sen. Kamala Harris and other Democrats running for president have promised aggressive action to stem the nation's epidemic of gun violence if they win the White House in 2020.

But when it comes to restricting gun access, experts say executive action is unlikely to make a significant dent in the problem, and any steps the president takes unilaterally are likely to be embroiled in legal challenges.

The reality is it's Congress -- not the president -- that holds most of the power on gun policy.

The executive branch has "limited discretion" on guns, University of California, Los Angeles Law professor Adam Winkler told McClatchy.

Former Democratic President Barack Obama "looked at all these things and had a list of 20 executive actions. Even with 20 executive actions, it didn't add up to much," said Winkler, an expert in constitutional law. "The real takeaway of these campaign promises is how gun control has surged ... as a way to energize Democratic voters."

While Democrats even a decade ago mostly avoided talking about guns, fearing it could alienate swing voters, the party's 2020 presidential candidates are making a different calculation. Most in the primary field have unveiled proposals to tighten restrictions on guns or made promises to do so on the campaign trail. The latest: former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke, who penned an op-ed in the Houston Chronicle over the weekend laying out his four-point plan to stop gun violence.

 

The candidates tend to downplay how much they would rely on Congress to achieve their goals.

For example, much of New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker's expansive 2020 gun agenda -- including the centerpiece, a universal federal gun licensing system -- would require Congress to pass new legislation. South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg also recently endorsed the idea.

Banning the sale of so-called assault weapons also would require a new law. Harris, Booker, O'Rourke and Buttigieg have all promised to pursue that goal, as have many other 2020 candidates.

Betting that Republicans in Congress will block any gun action, Harris' campaign has zeroed in on gray areas in existing gun laws that her advisers believe permit the president to tighten restrictions.

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