A gun-control activist holds a sign calling for a gun ban at a Washington, D.C. protest on November 7th, 2023
A gun-control activist holds a sign calling for a gun ban at a Washington, D.C. protest on November 7th, 2023 / Stephen Gutowski

Analysis: The Politics of Rebranding a National AR-15 Ban [Member Exclusive]

This week, a group of Democratic Senators introduced a new AR-15 and ammo magazine ban. It won’t become law this year, but it could signal a shift in tactics.

Senators Martin Heinrich (D., N.M.), Mark Kelly (D., Ariz.), Michael Bennet (D., Colo), and Angus King (I., Maine), who caucuses with the Democrats, introduced the Gas-Operated Semiautomatic Firearm Exclusion (GOSAFE) Act on Thursday. The bill, which is rather poorly written, is broadly similar in its effect to a traditional “assault weapon” ban. The road it takes to get there is more winding, with a few unexpected twists and turns, but the result is a law that’s, if anything, stricter than its predecessors.

That complicates one of the key selling points for why this proposal differs from the others. Senator King emphasized that three of the four Democrats on board with the new bill had never sponsored an assault weapons ban in a recent interview with MSNBC. The group also has a reputation for being more moderate on gun policy than many other Democrats.

So, a new bill that effectively does the same thing as an assault weapon ban but is called something else may be designed to break the stalemate on the policy by attracting some moderates. But the fact this bill goes further and has weaker branding, given very few people know what a “gas-operated semi-automatic firearm” is and the bill doesn’t use the terminology right anyway, means it doesn’t actually appear to have made much tangible progress on that front.

The other selling point King focused on was the idea that the GOSAFE Act represents a response to the common critique that assault weapon bans are overly focused on cosmetic or ergonomic features. He argued the bill focuses on “the way the gun operates rather than what it looks like.” But the bill is poorly written on that front.

Despite claiming only to target “gas-operated” semi-autos, it defines “gas-operated” as including all kinds of operating systems. Blowback or recoil-operated guns don’t actually use the gas expelled by a fired round of ammunition to cycle the action, but they’re included in the definition anyway. And the bill consists of a myriad of incoherent expectations, such as excepting bolt-action or single-shot guns from a semi-automatic ban.

If anything, the new bill is less coherent than traditional assault weapon bans. It’s also bundled with another prohibition that’s meant to target bump stocks but actually bans any modification that could “materially increase” a gun’s rate of fire. That could outlaw things like premium triggers, recoil springs, or a whole host of other common upgrades.

These factors will likely make it just as hard a sell to anybody on the right of GOSAFE’s co-sponsors on this plan as the previous bans.

Plus, while King, Heinrich, Kelly, and Bennet may not be gun-control stalwarts like their colleague Senator Chris Murphy (D., Conn.), and some have voted against an AR-15 ban in their long careers, they have all expressed support for an assault weapon ban before now. So, their willingness to ban the guns they’re targeting isn’t really a new development. And they didn’t get anyone on board who hasn’t expressed support in the past.

In fact, without Senators Kyrsten Sinema (I., Ariz.), Jon Tester (D., Mont.), and Joe Manchin (D., W.Va.) on board, the new bill faces the same issue the assault weapon ban that passed the House last year did: it probably can’t even get 50 Democrats to vote for it.

Even if the bill could get all the Democratic votes, it would still be nine votes short of passing. And, of course, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives is exceedingly unlikely to ever take up an AR-15 ban by any name, regardless of what the Senate does.

Still, the bill is potentially important to the American gun debate for several reasons. Though King, Bennet, Kelly, and Heinrich are a touch to the left on guns from the true center of the Senate, they have all tried to avoid highlighting gun control as a significant part of their careers. They probably have a better chance of getting more Senators on board than the other Democrats who’ve previously spearheaded ban attempts.

If they can get Tester, Manchin, and Sinema on board, that would be a sign they’re making real progress. If they get Republican Senators like Susan Collins (R., Maine) or Mitt Romney (R., Utah) to support the new effort, that would start to look more like a potential game changer.

There’s little reason to think GOSAFE could become law before the 2024 election. The polarized nature of the electorate we’ve seen over the past decade or so also makes it unlikely it could happen even after the next election. Even with how unpopular each party’s leading candidates for president are, it’s unlikely one of them can capture a majority large enough to get something as controversial as an AR-15 ban through.

The best shot Democrats would have at that is by recapturing total control of Congress and the White House, a bit of an uphill battle since the Senate map favors Republicans this year. But they would have to do that with the kind of Senate majority willing to nuke the filibuster. At that point, they could push through any legislation they wanted with a majority vote.

Of course, the Supreme Court appears primed to strike down these sorts of sales bans on guns as popular as the AR-15. But an unfavorable ruling from the Court could be overcome by packing the Court with the filibuster gone.

That’s all theoretically possible but not terribly likely.

Still, even if it’s unlikely to become law anytime soon, the proposal has the potential to become the dominant gun ban bill moving forward. If the rebrand resonates with other more-moderate lawmakers, it may replace the 30-year-old assault weapon ban proposals that haven’t made the kind of progress most gun-control activists want to see.

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Created by potrace 1.16, written by Peter Selinger 2001-2019

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Created by potrace 1.16, written by Peter Selinger 2001-2019

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