Capitol Alert

Fact Check: Could a President Harris ban assault weapons in America?

Key moments from the third Democratic debate

The third Democratic debate took place in Houston, Texas on Sept. 12, 2019. Frontrunners like Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren went head to head on the same stage.
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The third Democratic debate took place in Houston, Texas on Sept. 12, 2019. Frontrunners like Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren went head to head on the same stage.

Former Vice President Joe Biden argued during Thursday night’s Democratic debate that the president cannot unilaterally ban so-called assault weapons, highlighting the limits of California Sen. Kamala Harris’ gun control proposal. He was correct.

Harris is one of a number of Democrats running for president who has promised to take executive action to stem the nation’s epidemic of gun violence if they win the White House in 2020.

But legal experts say the reality is Congress — not the president — holds most of the power on gun policy, and executive orders are unlikely to make a significant dent in the problem.

In particular, banning semiautomatic rifles and other rapid-fire military-style guns would require Congress to pass a law — as they did in 1994.

Harris supports such a law. She has also promised that if Congress fails to pass a ban within the first 100 days of her presidency, she would take action to prohibit the importation of AR-15-style assault weapons and direct the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to suspend all assault weapon imports until a comprehensive study is conducted regarding their admissibility.

The Gun Control Act of 1968 gives the executive branch broad authority to bar gun imports that are “not suitable for or readily adaptable to sporting purposes,” and experts agree she would be on firm legal ground in doing so.

That is different, however, than banning the manufacture or ownership of all the types of guns often characterized as assault weapons. One pro-gun control news outlet estimates that there are roughly 15 to 20 million assault-style rifles in the United States. And approximately one-fifth of those are imported.

Harris’ proposed executive order would affect new guns manufactured abroad by companies such as Glock, Sig Sauer, and Beretta. But it would not tackle the millions of assault-style weapons already in the country or those continuing to be made in the country, because that would require a new law. And that was Biden’s point.

“When they say I’m going to eliminate assault weapons ... you can’t do it by executive order,” debate moderator David Muir said, quoting Biden. “ Does the vice president have a point there?” he asked Harris.

The senator’s reply was misleading. “I would just say, hey Joe, instead of saying, ‘no we can’t,’ let’s say, ‘yes we can,’”she responded. “The idea that we would wait for this Congress, which has done nothing to act, it is overlooking the fact that every day our babies are going to school to have drills … where they were learning about how they have to hide in a closet or crouch in a corner if there was a mass shooter roaming the halls of their schools.”

Harris did not address the constitutional limits on the president’s power on guns.

But as Massachusetts Elizabeth Warren later pointed out, “We’ve got to change Congress,” to have a chance of re-instituting the assault weapons ban, which was in effect from 1994 to 2004.

As long as Republicans in the Senate remain opposed to the ban, the odds of passing it are long.

Emily Cadei works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, where she covers national politics and policy for McClatchy’s California readers. A native of Sacramento, she has spent more than a decade in D.C. reporting on U.S. elections, Congress and foreign affairs for publications including Newsweek, Congressional Quarterly and Roll Call.