Opinion:

Be honest about gun control

Beto O’Rourke has easily emerged as my favorite presidential candidate on the issue of gun control.

He has done so because he is speaking openly, passionately and honestly about what he would like to do to stem our epidemic of gun violence, a stance that is surprisingly rare.

I long ago tired of hearing politicians who are supposed to be in favor of smarter gun laws and reducing American gun deaths and injuries pull their punches so as not to upset the gun lobby and gun lobbyists.

Among other things, O’Rourke’s gun safety plan includes declaring gun violence a public health emergency, creating a national gun licensing system and registry, requiring universal background checks, implementing red flag laws and banning “the manufacturing, sale and possession of military-style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.”

Other candidates agree with some of these proposals, and have additional ones, but I like the full-throated way O’Rourke responds to being challenged on this front.

Last week in Charlottesville, Va., a reporter asked O’Rourke, “How do you address the fears that the government is going to take away those assault rifles — if you are talking about buybacks and banning?”

O’Rourke didn’t skip a beat: “I want to be really clear, that that’s exactly what we’re going to do. Americans who own AR-15s, AK-47s, will have to sell them to the government. We’re not going to allow them to stay on our streets, to show up in our communities.”

This was not the first time O’Rourke’s buyback plan has been challenged. Two weeks ago, the USA Today editorial board complained, “Anything smacking of confiscation would breathe life and energy into the not-from-my-cold-dead-hands crowd, endangering law enforcement and likely putting a full stop to any further gun safety measures.”

When asked this week on CNN about that criticism, O’Rourke responded, “This triangulation, calculation, poll-testing every move — that’s what got us here in the first place.”

Finally, a breath of fresh air.

Listen, I don’t know if O’Rourke’s full slate of gun policies are all right, but we have to start taking deliberate and thoughtful action to deal with this problem. For instance, a mandatory buyback could be met with a constitutional challenge. A voluntary buyback might be most doable.

The scope of the problem is enormous.

According to a Washington Post report in 2018: “There are more than 393 million civilian-owned firearms in the United States, or enough for every man, woman and child to own one and still have 67 million guns left over.”

Furthermore, The New York Times reported in December:

“There were 39,773 gun deaths in 2017, up by more than 1,000 from the year before. Nearly two-thirds were suicides. It was the largest yearly total on record in the CDC’s electronic database, which goes back 50 years, and reflects the sheer number of lives lost.”

The goal is as simple as the task is daunting: We must reduce the overall number of guns in the population, especially those considered weapons of war; we must shrink the market desire for new weapons; and we must set a course to not only pass a new law in a moment but build in the expectation that federal legislation around guns will be the never-ending, ever-adjusting reality.

People interested in reducing gun violence in America have to stop lying about what that would require. Opponents of new gun legislation will accuse its supporters of seeking the worst no matter what they do.

But also, the opponents are right in some of their arguments. Can I or anyone else point to a specific proposal and say it would have affected this or that specific mass shooting? Occasionally yes, but often not. But that’s not the point. The point is to see a reduction in all shootings. And that argument actually reinforces a need to aggressively fund studies to figure out which measures would work best.

They are right when they say that restrictions on new purchases would place a burden on responsible gun owners — the overwhelming majority of gun owners — when only a tiny fraction participate in shootings. To that I say: And?! Nearly 40,000 people in 2017 were killed by guns in this country. If a reduction in that number comes with more red tape for you, then so be it.

This is a public health crisis, as O’Rourke points out, and anything we can do to prevent guns from being used in a crime, to prevent a child from accidentally shooting a sibling, to prevent a depressed person from putting a barrel in his or her mouth, must be a consuming priority for all of us.

The people resisting regulation say that any legislation is a slippery slope for an aggressive agenda to massively restrict guns. I say my great desire is to thoroughly hose that slope with oil.

Even in the radical District of Columbia v. Heller Supreme Court decision in 2008 that established the right to bear arms as an individual right, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in the majority opinion:

“Like most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited. From Blackstone through the 19th-century cases, commentators and courts routinely explained that the right was not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.”

Guns can be effectively and constitutionally regulated in this country. People who want to do so should be upfront and honest about how far they truly hope to go in that regard.

Charles Blow is a columnist for The New York Times.