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Clarence Page

Even before last Saturday's mass shooting at a California synagogue added a new mind-numbing tragedy to the gun safety debate, the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates have been showing a historically high level of agreement about what needs to be done.

Yet, while that new unanimity leaves little for the candidates to debate on gun safety, some restless souls in the party's progressive wing have produced new litmus tests, not only about candidates' public positions on guns but their private ownership of firearms too.

An excellent example is offered by Sen. Kamala Harris, the first of the party's more than 20 announced candidates to stake out a major position on guns in the 2020 race. If she becomes president and Congress doesn't act within 100 days on gun safety, she said during a CNN town hall, she would sign an executive order to require background checks before every gun sale by anyone who sells five or more guns a year.

Background checks are often called a "common sense" reform, since polls show that most voters tend to like that proposal, even if the politically powerful National Rifle Association doesn't.

Among other reforms, the California senator's campaign said she would repeal a law that prevents victims from holding gunmakers and firearms dealers liable for their losses, reverse a Trump administration rule change that allows fugitives with arrest warrants to buy guns, and close the so-called boyfriend loophole that allows gun purchases by those convicted of domestic violence charges.

Yet, as much as the other candidates tend to agree, some progressive voices complain that she has not gone far enough, including in her personal life.

An op-ed published in Monday's USA Today kicked over a beehive of commenters in social media by arguing that Harris' ownership of a gun is a "disqualifying" issue for a Democratic presidential nominee.

The piece was written by Peter Funt, who is best known for hosting a revival of his late father Allen Funt's popular "Candid Camera" TV show. He lambastes gun ownership itself as a "position held by the NRA, not progressive Democrats."

Disqualifying? If that were true, Harris wouldn't be the only Democrat who would have to leave the field. Six of 18 Democratic presidential contenders who declared before former Vice President Joe Biden entered the race own firearms, a Washington Post survey reported earlier this month.

Biden would be another gun owner, according to his 2013 interview with Field & Stream magazine. Arguing against military-style weapons like the AR-15 used by some mass shooters, he said his shotgun was better for both hunting and defending one's home. A lot of his Democrats didn't like that response, but it sounded honest, a big virtue for Biden as he casts himself as the best person to lure Trump-voting Democrats back.

Among other Democrats, Beto O'Rourke told the Post that he inherited several guns but they're not in operating condition. Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., similarly said he owns two antique guns that he doesn't use. Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio said he doesn't use the shotgun that he won in a raffle either. Former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper and former congressman John Delaney of Maryland also reported owning firearms.

By contrast, when Republicans had their own platoon of presidential contenders on the debate stage in 2016, the Post found that 15 of the 17 candidates owned at least 40 guns among them.

In the past, Harris has said that her own gun ownership began when she was as a career prosecutor who dealt with "dangerous criminals" and she "felt compelled to have a gun." That may not sit well with Funt, but it sounds like common sense to me.

By arguing with themselves over an issue on which they mostly agree, Democrats only create the "circular firing squad" that former President Barack Obama has warned them about.

In fact, a better reason to worry about guns in anybody's house is the disproportionate amount of gun violence that occurs in such homes, including accidents and suicides.

Although gun-related homicides get a lot more attention, guns are used even more frequently in suicides. For example, a study in 2016 by the Boston University School of Public Health found that states with higher rates of gun ownership also have higher rates of gun-related suicides. Three years earlier, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 21,175 firearm suicides, compared to 11,208 firearm homicides.

Many of these suicides would not have occurred, experts say, if the victim did not have a gun handy. The NRA agrees that mental health care needs to be made more widely available, especially when that argument helps the group change the subject from gun control.

We can do better. We can do both.

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Clarence Page writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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