The Corner

Politics & Policy

Could Democrats Pass the Assault Weapons Ban in 2021?

Former Vice President Joe Biden at The Graduate Center of CUNY in the New York City, July 11, 2019. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

While Republicans in Washington are talking about the possibility of passing a “red-flag” law and expanding background checks for gun sales, 2020 Democrats continue to put the Assault Weapons Ban front and center.

2020 frontrunner Joe Biden published a New York Times op-ed this week promising to reinstate the ban if elected president, and he’s blaming the failure to pass it on “weak-willed leaders who care more about their campaign coffers than children in coffins.” This incendiary attack is odd given the fact that the Obama-Biden administration never led Democrats to even hold a vote on the ban—nor any other gun-control measure—when there were 60 Democrats in the Senate and nearly 260 in the House.

If Democrats didn’t have the will to pass the Assault Weapons Ban back then, is there any reason to think they would actually have the votes to pass the if they take back the Senate and the White House in 2020? It’s possible but very unlikely, even if they abolish the filibuster. 

Not a single Republican in the Senate, not even moderate Susan Collins of Maine, backed the ban the last time it received a vote in the Senate in 2013. Seven of the sixteen Democrats who voted against the ban in 2013 are still serving: Michael Bennet (Colorado), Martin Heinrich (New Mexico), Angus King (Maine), Joe Manchin (West Virginia), Jon Tester (Montana), Tom Udall (New Mexico), Mark Warner (Virginia). And Democrats have picked up a couple new members who have been cagey about the ban: Kyrsten Sinema (Arizona) and Doug Jones (Alabama). 

It’s possible to imagine most of these Democratic senators flip-flopping on the issue (Mark Warner already has done so) if they were under pressure. But it’s very hard to see Joe Manchin and Jon Tester ever voting for the ban, a move that would very likely end their political careers. 

So Democrats and gun-control activists, in their best-case scenario, would likely need to hold at least 52 Senate seats and abolish the filibuster to pass the ban in 2021.

Right now, Republicans control the Senate 53 to 47, and it will be quite a difficult task for Democrats to pick up five seats. They have to defend a seat in deep-red Alabama, but also have pick-up opportunities in the blue and purple states of Maine, Colorado, Arizona, North Carolina, and Iowa. If Democrats don’t run the table these races, they’d need look for one or more pick-ups in red states—such as Georgia, Texas, or Montana—to get to 52 seats. Again, that seems very unlikely but not impossible.

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