FUNDAMENTAL QUESTIONS about American’s constitutional right to bear arms are roiling the Massachusetts Democratic primary for US Senate. After mass shootings, a distressingly occurrence in American politics, the debate typically focuses on incremental changes to gun laws that might be possible in our polarized political environment. But after two back-to-back mass shootings this past weekend claimed 31 lives, US Senate candidate Shannon Liss-Riordan called for the repeal of the Second Amendment.
“I am tired of half steps, old ideas, and fake urgency around the problem we face: the presence of guns in our communities,” Liss-Riordan said in a statement Tuesday morning. “Enough is enough. It is time we take real action and repeal the Second Amendment.”
Liss-Riordan, a Brookline attorney, is running for Senate against incumbent Ed Markey and businessman Steve Pemberton. In response, Pemberton told the State House News Service that Liss-Riordan’s stance “misses the urgency of the moment” because repealing the Second Amendment would take years to accomplish. Both Markey and Pemberton have advocated for background checks and assault weapons bans.
It’s these more incremental gun control measures that receive significantly more support across the country. But even more dramatic steps earn majority support. According to a Quinnipiac poll released this May, 94 percent of American voters support requiring background checks for all gun buyers. Nearly two-thirds (63 percent) support a nationwide ban on the sale of assault weapons. Only 17 percent in that poll supported repealing the Second Amendment altogether.
Liss-Riordan’s call for a constitutional amendment is a tough sell even in deep-blue Massachusetts. In March 2018, in the wake of the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, a WBUR poll found only 28 percent of Massachusetts voters supported repealing the Second Amendment. Support is slightly higher among Democrats but only reaches 37% in Massachusetts (33 percent in the Quinnipiac national study).
With poll numbers like these, repealing the Second Amendment is hard to see on the immediate horizon. True, these numbers are from past polls, and we will have to wait several more days to see if new events have moved public opinion. For now though, many other gun control measures earn strong majority support, and hold the potential to succeed if given a vote in the Senate. One that has entered the national conversation this week is a federal red flag law, or an Extreme Risk Protection Order. Such a law would allow families, law enforcement, or other third parties to ask a court to temporarily remove firearms from someone who they believe is capable of harm. These type of laws have been approved in 17 states and the District of Columbia, including Massachusetts, which passed a Red Flag law last July, five months after the Parkland shootings, thanks in no small part to student activism.
A federal Extreme Risk Protection Order law would be popular. An April 2018 ABC/Washington Post poll found 85 percent national support for red flag laws. Republicans seem to be warming to the idea, although Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said passing a red flag law alone would be “an ineffective cop out.” Schumer said Democrats would try to link a vote on a red flag law to background checks legislation passed by the House of Representatives earlier this year. The polling on this issue will need to updated now that the issue is more in the center of the national conversation. As party leaders cue their voters on where they stand on the specifics, it is possible these figures may move.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told a Kentucky radio station that both he and Trump are interested in passing legislation, and that background checks, red flag laws, and an assault weapons ban will be discussed in the Senate. But McConnell said he would not bring the Senate back from its August recess, leading some to question whether he’s trying to run out the clock. Indeed, public support for gun control tends to rise and then fall after each mass shooting.
If Congress ends up passing anything, it would amount to the most significant gun control law enacted in 20 years. This may be the moment: both red flag laws and background checks are widely popular, and the National Rifle Association could be sidelined by its own internal controversy. But as history shows us time and again, widespread support for a bill does not ensure its passing into law, especially when it comes to guns. And with Congress in recess until September, the nation may have to wait until the next tragedy to see legislative action.
Rich Parr is the research director and Libby Gormley is the research associate at the MassINC Polling Group. Hear more analysis on proposed gun control legislation and other updates in Massachusetts politics and policy in this week’s episode of The Horse Race.