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Analysis

Kamala Harris’ gun reform plan could be a light lift…and very effective

Closing the boyfriend loophole and universal background checks are on the table already. But Harris' vision could build a uniquely comprehensive plan.

HOUSTON, TX - APRIL 24: Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) speaks to a crowd at the She The People Presidential Forum at Texas Southern University on April 24, 2019 in Houston, Texas. Many of the Democrat presidential candidates are attending the forum to focus on issues important to women of color. (Photo by Sergio Flores/Getty Images)
HOUSTON, TX - APRIL 24: Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) speaks to a crowd at the She The People Presidential Forum at Texas Southern University on April 24, 2019 in Houston, Texas. Many of the Democrat presidential candidates are attending the forum to focus on issues important to women of color. (Photo by Sergio Flores/Getty Images)

Women in the United States are 16 times more likely to be killed with a gun than women in any other developed nation. This is just one of the grim statistics that foregrounds the ominous connection that’s often seen between horrific mass shooting incidents and the episodes of domestic violence that are often found in such shooters’ pasts.

Presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) may have had this data point from the gun safety advocacy group Everytown on her mind as she composed her master plan to curb gun violence in this country. Of the policy points she detailed, closing the boyfriend loophole — which would prevent all domestic partners with a history of domestic violence convictions from possessing a firearm, as opposed to just married partners — may be the most impactful.

On Tuesday, Harris threw down her marker. In her first 100 days as president, she says, she’ll expect to see “comprehensive gun safety legislation” land on her desk — a package that will include universal background checks, an assault weapons ban, and the repeal of the NRA’s corporate gun manufacturer and dealer immunity bill. And if Congress fails to act, she’ll use executive orders to address the problem.

Harris’ plan is best understood as a range of measures that attack America’s gun violence problem on multiple fronts. Remedies such as universal background checks, a fairly common sense gun policy initiative that nevertheless won’t fully ameliorate gun violence on its own, work in interactive ways, with the goal of reducing those grim gun violence statistics.

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For example, Harris will seek to hold gun sellers accountable for the wares they sell by altering the current Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA), which limits the legal liability of sellers. Under Harris’ plan, “any willful and serious violation of federal, state, or local law will lead to a license being revoked.”

“This includes conduct the PLCAA often protects, such as violating negligence laws by selling a gun to a straw purchaser, violating public nuisance laws by supplying dealers that consistently sell guns used in crimes, or violating unfair business practices statutes by marketing assault weapons to children in video games,” reads her campaign website.

Harris will also reverse the Trump administration’s change to the definition of “fugitive from justice.” Currently a gun sale can be made without issue from a seller to a “fugitive from justice” unless it can be demonstrated that said individual fled a state for the purpose of avoiding charges. 

The Harris campaign believes that these provisions, coupled with the closure of the boyfriend loophole, would be extremely effective in curbing gun violence. And there are already efforts underway to get this effort kickstarted. 

Earlier this month, the U.S House of Representatives voted to renew and amend the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), updating the legislature to impose gun restrictions upon former dating partners convicted of abuse or stalking.

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“Over 50% of women murdered in 2017 were slain by an intimate partner. 82% of homicide victims targeted by intimate partners are women. The weapon of choice in over half of female homicides? A firearm. This is an opportunity to support both saving the lives of women and responsible gun ownership,” Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon (D-PA) said on the House floor.

According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, nearly 20 people per minute become the victim of domestic violence in the U.S. The stats breakdown even further to even more dire figures. One in four women and one in nine men experience severe intimate partner physical violence, and the presence of a gun in a domestic violence situation increases the risk of homicide by 500%.

The amendment garnered substantial, albeit expected, pushback from the NRA. The gun lobbyists claimed adding such a provision was a wolf in sheep’s clothing, pushing a broader anti-gun agenda. 

The VAWA passed the House on a 263 to 158 vote, with 33 Republicans approving the measure. It is expected to run aground in the Senate.

In January, House Democrats proposed legislation requiring that all gun buyers go through a background check, not just those buying from a licensed dealer. This is something that an overwhelming majority of Americans support and has been implemented on the state level: Currently, 20 states and the District of Columbia already have a similar policy in place.

The virtues of Harris’ plan, then, aren’t reflected in the novelty of their innovation, but in the way it enfolds several policies — some of which are already being tested on the state level — into one comprehensive portfolio.

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There is, however, some room for Harris to beef up her plan. A federal “red flag” law (also known as an “extreme risk” law) is a measure that the Republican-controlled Senate has contemplated passing in recent weeks. Such a law would allow law enforcement officials and, potentially, family members, to petition courts and impose temporary restrictions on firearm ownership on high-risk individuals reasonably deemed to be a threat to themselves or others.

These red flag laws coupled with a closed boyfriend loophole, could help prevent someone who has never been convicted of gun violence, but still poses a great threat, from ever crossing the line into criminality in the first place — or worse, taking their own life.

Harris says that the policies she’s put forth so far are merely “part of the gun safety agenda [she] will pursue as president.” Support for a federal red flag law would be a worthy addition that would potentially lend her proposals some measure of bipartisan consensus.