Clinton and Sanders Should Unite to Ban Assault Weapons

Now is the perfect moment to harness the energy of their campaigns, and turn it into real action

Gun control has been a major issue in Bernie Sanders' and Hillary Clinton's campaigns. It could become an even bigger issue after Sunday morning's shooting in Orlando. Credit: Patrick Semansky/AP, Jennifer Graylock/Getty

There is no way Omar Mateen could have walked into a gay nightclub in Orlando and committed the worst mass shooting and the ugliest hate crime in American history if he weren't using an AR-15, or another weapon with similar destructive power.

Adam Lanza used an AR-15-type rifle when he murdered 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. Tashfeen Malik and Syed Rizwan Farook used the same sorts of weapons — modified to make them deadlier — when they turned a San Bernardino office holiday party into a horror show last year.

Assault weapons make these tragedies deadlier. It's time to reinstate the ban on them — and, yes, confiscate the ones people own now.

I don't care that even with an assault weapons ban, criminals might still get their hands on them; at least we’d make it a lot harder to do so. I don't care that an assault weapons ban won't end all violence; it's enough to take action that will reduce violence and save lives. I don't care what Mateen's ideology was; shooters of all stripes have used assault weapons to turbocharge their killing sprees. I don't care about semantic arguments about what constitutes an assault weapon; if it can kill that many people that quickly, ban the goddamned thing.

These arguments are familiar, right? We have them every time we face another American-as-apple-pie mass murder. Sure, the body count was higher this time, but does that mean we’re any more likely to see gun-control laws passed?

It’s possible. It could be different this time. The people who could make it different? Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

Nothing moves people in America like presidential campaigns. The amount of money and attention devoted to a race for the White House is like no other phenomenon of U.S. politics.

This year we've seen that mobilization on steroids. The massive fundraising machine built by the Sanders campaign, the huge and raucous rallies, even the passion of his supporters on social media are evidence of the tremendous energy corralled this election season. And he didn't even win! Common wisdom dictates Clinton inspires less enthusiasm among her supporters, but neither the data nor the election results bear that out.

Take all that energy and enthusiasm for two liberal candidates for president. Add the fear and anger at an opponent so far removed from basic decency that his first public response to the Orlando tragedy was to call it "really bad," with not a word of concern for the victims. And what you get is the potential for a powerful movement for action that could dwarf anything we've seen in the fight to pass sensible regulations on guns.

It's easy to be pessimistic. Once Congress failed to act after the faces of 20 dead Connecticut children dominated news coverage for weeks, it feels like no tragedy could be enough to spur them to action. The NRA just seems too powerful. And the gun lobby is powerful, make no mistake. But it has lost before, and it can lose again. Members of Congress do respond to political pressure. If they believe their jobs are at stake, they will act.

Now is the moment to bring that pressure to bear, and Clinton and Sanders should work together to bring it.

It's the ideal moment. The final primary race is Tuesday, and the Democratic Party has begun to consolidate around Clinton. Sanders has millions of ardent supporters with enthusiasm for action (and donating) who need a new outlet. Here we have an immediate, urgent problem that needs powerful political action. Sanders created a movement; let's see what it can do.

And if Sanders is serious about doing everything in his power to stop Donald Trump, this is the perfect opportunity. Like all primary races, the Clinton-Sanders battle has left some lingering hostility and bitterness. By working hand-in-hand with Clinton, Sanders can do more to unify the party than he could ever do with a speech.

On Clinton's end: She's made gun control a key issue in her campaign (including criticizing Sanders' record), and now she has to demonstrate that commitment through action. That means a shift in the campaign's focus to drumming up support for real solutions to get rid of assault weapons.

Sanders and Clinton can and must work together to lift millions of voices, to make a noise so loud Congress will have to hear. Bury Congress members in phone calls and letters and emails. Organize a massive march on the Capitol demanding action. Whatever it takes.

An election year is not a good time to pass legislation. But this could be the perfect moment to start a movement no one can ignore. We may not get a bill passed in 2016, but if Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders combine forces to honor the victims in Orlando with action, we could see results surprisingly fast.

We owe it to the patrons of the gay club in Orlando, the members of the black church in Charleston, the coworkers celebrating the holidays in San Bernardino, the school children in Newtown and all the other victims of horrific mass shootings to do everything we can.