Kamala Harris Rolls Out Plan to Take Executive Action on Assault Rifles, Other Gun Reform Measures

kamala harris gun control assault rifle
Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) speaks at a campaign stop on May 15, 2019, in Nashua, New Hampshire. Spencer Platt / Getty Images

Senator Kamala Harris, D-Calif., announced on Wednesday that, if elected president, she would move to ban the importation of "assault weapons" into the United States. Harris, who is running for the 2020 Democratic nomination, indicated that her efforts would involve unilateral action from the White House if Congress doesn't put legislation on her desk.

She told supporters at a Nashua, New Hampshire, rally that her administration would take "executive action to ban the import of assault weapons into our country." The Harris campaign website cites a provision of the 1968 Gun Control Act that allows the executive to halt gun imports which aren't "suitable" for "sporting purposes."

Harris is also a co-sponsor of a Senate bill that would revive a Clinton-era statute banning assault weapons outright. Other co-sponsors of the Senate bill include fellow 2020 Democratic candidates Amy Klobuchar, Kirsten Gillibrand, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker and Bernie Sanders.

Beyond assault weapons, Harris's campaign has enumerated a host of different policy areas where, as president, she is prepared to take executive action to tighten gun ownership rules. One notable area concerns what is known as the "gun-show loophole," an oversight in federal law that allows private-party sellers to avoid conducting background checks on prospective buyers. Many states have their own background check requirements for private sales, but currently there are no federal standards for these transactions. Harris's campaign says that her administration would "consider" any private party that sells five or more guns per year for a profit to be a "dealer" as it concerns federal law.

Her campaign also issued a call to kneecap a federal law that protects gun manufacturers and sellers when their weapons are used in criminal activities. The Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA), passed by Congress in 2005, inoculates gun makers against civil suits unless their actions violate an existing gun control rule. This shields firearms companies from common-law and other legal liabilities that are otherwise generally applicable to U.S. corporations. Harris aims to work around this barrier indirectly, by invoking a series of public laws that tangentially involve the conduct of gun makers. An ongoing lawsuit against gun maker Remington is tackling this very question, whether laws indirectly related to gun manufacturing allow plaintiffs to overcome the barriers of the PLCAA. The case is likely headed to the Supreme Court and could bear directly on Harris's efforts to weaken the law in question.

Another target of the gun reform movement, the "boyfriend loophole," is reflected in Senator Harris's proposals. The Gun Control Act prohibits the possession of weapons by felons, individuals convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanor or individuals subject to a domestic violence protective order. The law reserves the category of domestic violence for spouses and couples who share a child. This allows non-cohabitating partners–boyfriends, in many cases–to escape from the law's gun-ownership restrictions. Harris says she "will take executive action" to close the loophole, but did not specify how her administration could work around the law's plain language.