September 5, 2019 | Reading Time: 3 minutes

On Guns, Dems Open Overton Window

Some are taking a position formerly unthinkable for presidential candidates.

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Beto O’Rourke, Cory Booker and others are taking a position formerly unthinkable among Democratic candidates. They say we should take certain guns away. O’Rourke said Tuesday: “I was asked how I’d address people’s fears that we will take away their assault rifles. I want to be clear: That’s exactly what we’re going to do. Americans who own AR-15s and AK-47s will have to sell their assault weapons. All of them.” 

Take a moment.

Let that sink in.

Editor’s note

Hiya! Today’s edition goes out to everyone. But please, if you’re able, subscribe today ($6/mo.) to support my work. Just click on the red button. You’re the super-duper best! —JS

For years and years—and years and years—liberal Democrats fended off the accusation that what they “really” wanted in passing gun-control legislation is to take people’s guns away. Those accusations were always, always, in bad faith. They were premised on the fraudulent and malicious notion that anything less than absolute adherence to the Second Amendment was a “slippery slope” toward totalitarian tyranny. It was a lie, but even so, any Democrat who wanted to do anything (this is nowhere near hyperbole) had to contend with endless questions about “confiscation,” “gun grabbing,” and the like.

And yet here we are. 

What are the Democrats thinking? 

I don’t have exclusive access to any of the candidates’ minds, but if I had to guess, I’d say O’Rourke, Booker and a few trailing Democrats are doing what they can to win time, money and attention in their bids for the Democratic nomination. You could reasonably say they are taking on a fringe point of view in the hope of getting what they haven’t gotten in their campaigns, and so far that appears to be working.

There’s a less cynical way of looking at it. During the years and years—and years and years—in which liberal Democrats fended off accusations of wanting to take people’s guns away, they knew they were losing the fight over gun policy but hadn’t yet conceded defeat. They had at least some reason to hope the Republicans would accede to commonsense in the end. The 2012 Sandy Hook massacre put a stop to that magical thinking, and every mass shooting since has affirmed that terrible conclusion. 

When partisans realize they have lost, and after they have accepted defeat, they turn to new strategies, an innovative period of interest to the late EE Schattschneider. In a book called The Semisovereign People, the Wesleyan political scientist theorized that losers search for people outside the “scope of conflict” in order to change the outcome of the fight. This, he said, constitutes the organization and structure of the “pressure system.” Years later, the late Joseph Overton added to Schattschneider’s theory. His “Overton Window” is the range of ideas tolerable for debate. The goal of partisans, good and bad, is opening the “window” to include their priorities and objectives. 

No one until recently has ever—ever—said out loud that we should legally compel gun-owners to sell certain kinds of firearms to the government.

Applied to gun politics: the Democrats were once more than happy to accept the established “scope of conflict,” which was more or less debating the pros and cons of universal criminal background checks. Moreover, they were more than happy to ease the minds of opponents fearing universal criminal background checks were a “slippery slope” toward totalitarian tyranny. They were more than happy to do that as long as the Republicans gave them reason to believe commonsense would prevail in the end. 

Since 2012, the Democrats have slowly widened the scope of conflict to include reinstituting the federal ban on military-style weapons (AR-15s particularly); a public-relations assault on the waning reputation of the National Rifle Association (turning it into a boogeyman; for instance, San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors yesterday voted to declare the NRA a “domestic terror organization.”); and some minor city- and state-level efforts to tax bullets (Elizabeth Warren wants to do that at the federal level).

But no Democrat until recently has ever—ever—said you’re right: We want to take your guns away. (Specifically, the idea is passing a law forcing gun-owners to sell certain types of firearms to the US government. This is sometimes called “compulsory buyback.”)

That’s why you should take a moment.

Let that sink in.

Will it work? No idea. But the gambit has already yielded results. Look to the reaction among some Republicans, particularly those warning of violence imminent in buying back guns. What they are saying without actually saying is that some gun-owners can’t be trusted to obey the law, which is an amazing thing to say. After all, gun-rights defenders tell us gun control can’t stop criminals from law-breaking. It only punishes “law-abiding” citizens. Like everything else in gun politics, such claims were a lie.

—John Stoehr

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.


  1. Carrington Ward on July 30, 2021 at 7:53 am

    One thing I’d note is that the ‘slippery slope’ argument does not apply to assault weapons — and yes, by that I mean _semi-automatic_ weapons or “selective-fire” patterned after the German StG-44 assault rifle.

    Like large bore artillery or armored vehicles, assault rifles are simply not logistically viable tools for the ‘well-regulated militia’ the founders endorsed as essential to the preservation of freedom.

    They’re fun to fire (much as an Abrams tank is fun to drive), but as a “tool for liberty,” they are sub-optimal. To be certain mass slaughter is an important ‘off-label’ usage of semi-automatic weapons. But, historically these weapons were originally designed for use in specific miltary situations by well-provisioned soldiers operating under specific tactical doctrine in the context of great power war.

    We may argue — in jest — that a strict interpretation of the 2nd Amendment only protects black powder firearms, but it is very clear that the founders did not intend to protect weaponry that was itself unable to protect liberty, or that could best be used as a tool of mob rule. Further, it seems clear that they had no intention of protecting weapons that might — through fear and terror — infringe on citizen’s right to assemble in public e.g. for a redress of grievances.

    • John Stoehr on July 30, 2021 at 7:53 am

      Terrific comment, Carrington. Thank you.

      • Carrington Ward on July 30, 2021 at 7:53 am

        Thanks: as a military historian I’ve been bothered for quite some time by the specious arguments about labeling the semi-automatic AR15 an assault weapon.

        More significant, though, is the magical thinking that accompanies libertarian defense of the Second Amendment. Given what we are watching –through a peephole — in Russia, China, or Hong Kong we all would be well advised to think realistically about the terrifying power of the 21st century state — and how citizens can counter it. But it seems to me a death-grip on the AR-15 is a placebo for such thought.

  2. Geoff G on July 30, 2021 at 7:53 am

    I noticed on Twitter that a lot of liberals seemed to be surprised that some conservatives are already talking about armed resistance to “feds” trying to enforce the mandatory part of the buyback. As a Texan, I’m surprised they’re surprised. I’ve read countless letters to the editor and statements from Texas politicians, even back in the day when they weren’t quite as crazy as they are now, making this threat.

    In fact, I think this is the main thing conservatives mean when they talk about resisting tyranny – not an armed revolt against the world’s biggest military, but rather armed resistance to “confiscation.” If enforcing the law requires killing American citizens, then how many folks can the government kill before deciding that it’s too many? If that sounds like I support the “right” of people to kill feds enforcing “unjust” laws, I assure you that I don’t. But I am pretty sure that a lot of what passes for mainstream conservatism these days will. And for every conservative who comes out in favor of killing feds, there will ten others tsk-tsking that “to be sure, it’s wrong to kill feds, but it’s it’s liberals’ fault for riling folks up,” or some other wishy-washy anti-anti gun crapola limited by only conservatives’ imaginations and lack of decency.

    That said, maybe part of opening the Overton window is drawing out into public view the eagerness of some conservatives to threaten or fantasize about watering the tree of liberty with law enforcement blood. Particularly if this aspect of conservative ideology is not widely known.

    • John Stoehr on July 30, 2021 at 7:53 am

      That part of their thinking is not known at all as far as I can tell. And the reason for that is simple: it’s a terrible ideology.

      • Carrington Ward on July 30, 2021 at 7:53 am

        Yes. Including Ak47s in a Ghandhian strategy of civil disobedience seems… unwise.

      • Geoff G on July 30, 2021 at 7:53 am

        What part of their ideology isn’t terrible? The bonkers argument that guns protect our liberty from government tyranny is essentially mainstream. Tx. Gov Abbott, Lt. Gov. Patrick, Sen. Ted Cruz have all made this argument. “Meek and mild” David French made the argument in the Atlantic. Do you think Tom Cotton, Josh Hawley or Dan Crenshaw disagree? Which is easier to imagine: Dana Loesch or some other kook on NRA TV saying “We may not like the law, but we have to obey it” or “They can take my gun when they grab it from my cold dead hand”? (It’s easy to find a clip of Charlton Heston using the latter as an applause line at an NRA convention.) If you can stomach it, read Erick Erickson’s Twitter feed — he’s (or was) a regular guest on cable news.

        I sound like a crazy person, even to myself, but I don’t think I’m wrong. If I’m right, then we’re all going to get a crash course in militias and the “normal”conservatives who sympathize with them. We probably need the reckoning in order to become a normal country where politicians don’t run for office bragging about the size of their arsenals and their prowess with firearms. A country where NRA conventions aren’t a mandatory stop for any Repub politician. A country where people don’t walk around Kroger with an AK. A country where people don’t bring guns with 300 rounds of ammunition into a bar, a school, a store or a concert and slaughter people.

        I’d love to live in that country but I’m afraid it won’t be easy to get there from here.

    • Carrington Ward on July 30, 2021 at 7:53 am

      Seems I recall something unpleasant happened in Waco a while ago.

      • Geoff G on July 30, 2021 at 7:53 am

        And Ruby Ridge and in the stand-offs between the Bundys and the feds trying to collect grazing fees. How many people belong to militias? Hundreds or thousands? How do you disarm them? SWAT teams? How many are paper tigers and how many are willing to go down fighting? The main point of militias is to be prepared when the feds come to take their guns away as the first part of disarming the citizenry and resist. We’re all familiar with the specious and false argument that the Nazis disarmed the Jews as a prelude to genocide. Republican congresspeople and Fox News guests have made the argument. It’s scary as hell.

  3. Geoff G on July 30, 2021 at 7:53 am

    I’m done after this, but here’s an article where Beto responds to Meghan McCain’s warning that mandatory buybacks will lead to violence.

    • John Stoehr on July 30, 2021 at 7:53 am

      Thanks for this Geoff.

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