We’re still starved for details about the Wednesday rampage that killed 14 people and wounded 17 at a social services center in San Bernardino, California. What we do know confounds our model of mass shootings. Most of the time, we have a single, male shooter. Here, we have two killers, one man and one woman: Syed Rizwan Farook, 28, and Tashfeen Malik, 27. They were married, with a child. The shooting was planned—Farook and Malik had highly deadly assault weapons, pipe bombs, and a (failed) strategy for avoiding police—but they didn’t leave an explanation and there’s no obvious motive.*
This lack of information hasn’t stopped anyone from speculating about the shooting and its intended purpose. “At this point, the details of what happened in San Bernardino are still unclear,” said a careful Ted Cruz during his address to the Republican Jewish Coalition on Thursday. “But our prayers are with the families of those who were murdered and those who were shot. And all of us are deeply concerned that this is yet another manifestation of terrorism, radical Islamic terrorism here at home.” South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, at the same gathering, was more blunt. This shooting, he said, “was about two people who have bought into an ideology that’s just absolutely insane.”
More circumspect was President Obama. “We do not yet know why this terrible event occurred,” Obama said in a statement from the Oval Office. “It’s possible this was terrorist-related, but we don’t know.”
The investigation—into the nature of the shooting—is just beginning (the FBI is probing the shooters’ potential links to terrorists). But at least one thing is clear: Whether it’s terrorism or not, Democrats want to make this an argument about gun control. “I refuse to accept this as normal,” said Hillary Clinton in a Twitter message on Wednesday. “We must take action to stop gun violence now.” Her rival, Bernie Sanders, followed suit. “Mass shootings are becoming an almost-everyday occurrence in this country,” he said. “This sickening and senseless gun violence must stop.” And Martin O’Malley made a direct attack on the influential National Rifle Association. “Enough is enough: it’s time to stand up to the NRA and enact meaningful gun safety laws,” he said.
Mass shootings have become frequent enough that this rhetoric is now boilerplate. Of course Democrats are going to call for gun control in the wake of a massacre. Conservatives, citing the long drop in violent crime, are skeptical that we need new laws. But even with crime at an almost 50-year low, the United States still has an unusual—and startling—level of gun homicide. So, the question for Democrats now should be what kind of gun control do they want? Mass shootings, while awful, are just a fraction of overall gun homicides, and a gun plan pegged to these black swan events may fail to touch the main sources of violence: suicide, gun accidents, and inner-city homicide.
What have the three Democratic candidates proposed to address gun violence, and what kinds of violence would their platforms actually tackle? The good—if politically tricky—news is that, across the board, Democratic gun control proposals seem targeted at the types of violence that are far more common than mass shootings.
Clinton has a three-pronged plan. First, there are background checks. As president, she would hope to sign comprehensive federal background check legislation and close such loopholes for gun show and Internet sales. On the supply-side, her plan calls for repealing the law that prevents victims of gun violence from suing manufacturers and dealers, and backing punitive action against “bad-actor” dealers that “knowingly supply straw purchasers and traffickers.” She would also seek to limit access to guns among the mentally ill—specifically people “involuntarily committed to outpatient treatment”—and make straw purchasing a federal crime.
O’Malley has a similar approach, drawn from his experience in Maryland. He wants expanded background checks, an end to “unregulated internet gun and ammunition sales”—which seems especially apt given the huge amount of ammunition held by the San Bernardino shooters—and greater information sharing between states, so that a background check in Virginia, for instance, is useful to authorities in Oregon.
Beyond background checks, O’Malley wants fingerprint-licensing and safety training for all gun purchases, including private sales by licensed dealers; a national age requirement for handgun possession; required safety standards for gun storage; and pushback against concealed-carry laws. To fight gun crime and domestic violence, he wants to ban gun ownership for people convicted of domestic violence in any relationship, as well as gun ownership for people subject to emergency restraining orders. He’ll also push a national firearms registry, mandatory reporting of lost or stolen firearms, and “microstamping”—a unique code stamped onto a cartridge case—for all guns, to help law enforcement trace weapons involved in crime. And like Clinton, he’d punish dealers who break the law and expand penalties for gun traffickers.
Bernie Sanders hasn’t released a package for gun control, but his campaign is crafting one, and judging from the present environment in the Democratic Party, it will likely hew to the Clinton and O’Malley models.
With that said, Democrats should be honest as they tout their plans for gun control: The odds they’ll accomplish any of this are not good. Even if elected president, any Democrat would have to have a full Democratic Congress, which is highly unlikely, barring a sui generis event like a Donald Trump nomination in the Republican primary. Even with a Democratic Congress, it’s not clear there’s a full party consensus on the kind of gun control the country needs. And if, somehow, legislation came to the floor of this hypothetical Democratic-controlled Senate, Democrats would still need to beat a likely Republican filibuster (assuming the filibuster still exists).
Still, these plans are important. They tell us where the candidates’ priorities lie, and they tie each figure to a promise. If elected president, any of these Democrats would try to accomplish something on guns.
As for the plans themselves, the good news—for supporters of gun control, at least— is that they likely would do something about the most common causes of gun homicide: accidents, suicide, and crime. When guns come with safety requirements, children and others are less likely to be harmed in handling them. When they are harder to obtain, it’s harder to act on suicidal impulses. And with a crackdown on straw purchases, illegal sales, and unscrupulous dealers, it’s more difficult for criminals to obtain weapons. Put simply, with higher barriers to gun ownership, less people will buy guns. And fewer guns means fewer deaths.
The bad news is that, even under this regime for gun control, the San Bernardino shooting is still possible. The shooters, after all, bought their guns legally. That doesn’t mean, for gun control supporters, that these policies aren’t worth pursuing. But it does mean Democrats should be careful about linking gun control to mass shootings. The United States has always had more homicide than its peers. And by definition, a large, relatively violent country with a substantial number of armed citizens is prone to events like Wednesday’s killings. We can reduce the frequency of mass shootings, but absent a full gun ban, there’s just no avoiding them entirely.
Read more of Slate’s coverage of the San Bernardino, California, shooting.
*Correction, Dec. 4, 2015: This article originally misstated that some of the weapons used were large caliber. They were assault weapons, but not of a large caliber. (Return.)