As hundreds of thousands of American schoolchildren prepared to rally for gun law reform in Washington, Albuquerque and other U.S. cities late last month, Sen. Martin Heinrich marveled at the students’ power to change the national conversation.
“It’s had more impact than anything I’ve seen in my years in elected office,” the New Mexico Democrat said during a Journal interview in his Capitol Hill office two days before the historic March for Our Lives.
In the six weeks since a former student shot and killed 17 students and faculty with an AR-15 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida on Valentine’s Day, students across America have mobilized and spoken out at a rate unseen since the Vietnam War. Fueled by fear of being shot at school and armed with social media savvy, the students seized control of a national gun debate that had become as predictable as the next mass shooting.
As a hunter, gun owner and father of two school-age boys, Heinrich told me he welcomes young people to the national conversation, and he hopes to turn their enthusiasm into action on Capitol Hill. He said he’s working on legislation that would ban very specific types of guns capable of killing the most people, although he wasn’t ready to reveal many details.
After the Florida school massacre in February, as the national youth protest grew louder, Heinrich began catching flak from the political left on social media. Some – including former Democratic New Mexico Lt. Gov. Diane Denish – criticized Heinrich’s 2013 vote against renewing a Clinton-era assault weapons ban. Gun control advocates also pointed out that Heinrich hadn’t called for a ban on AR-15 rifles like the one that killed so many in Parkland, Fla. In the Journal interview, Heinrich still stopped short of supporting a ban specifically on the semiautomatic AR-15, but said he now supports a ban on assault weapons generally.
“I don’t think it’s productive to go firearm by firearm,” the senator said. “The question is, what is it about the AR-15 that makes it so dangerous? It’s the size of the magazine (that holds the gun’s bullets) and how quickly the action cycle reloads the next bullet.”
Heinrich said previous attempts to ban the deadly assault weapons have focused at least in part on “cosmetics,” such as folding stocks or pistol grips, and not on what actually makes a weapon deadlier than others.
“It doesn’t matter if you have a folding stock, it doesn’t matter if you have a pistol grip … but it does matter how the action cycles and how fast they (the weapons) can throw lead downrange, and how many times you can pull the trigger before you’re out of ammunition,” Heinrich said. “Those are the functional things that are at the heart of what makes these (guns) so dangerous compared to other firearms.
“I’m trying to get the details right and get away from the battle over cosmetics and really get at the fundamental things that cause these mass shooting events to be so big and destructive.”
How one defines “assault weapon” remains at the crux of the debate over banning them.
The senator suggested that his pending gun legislation would take aim at specific types of gas-operated autoloaders common in some rifles, including the AR-15.
“What AR-15s have – and this is pretty much what people consider assault rifles across the board – is they use expanding gas to reload the second bullet so it’s almost instantaneous,” he said. “When you pull the trigger, it doesn’t fire multiple times, but when you pull the trigger it does immediately start reloading to fire again. That also reduces the kickback, which means that you can fire multiple times very accurately.”
He said he plans to introduce his bill this year, but didn’t specify whether the legislation would come before or after the November elections.
“We’re pretty far down the road,” he said.
A mechanical engineer by training, Heinrich said he hopes to help Democrats elevate their rhetoric on guns by grounding it in mechanics.
“Details matter, and if we are going to be taken seriously on gun safety legislation, we have to write legislation informed by experience with firearms,” Heinrich said.
Ryan Cangiolosi, chairman of the Republican Party of New Mexico, said Heinrich’s current position on guns is out of step with many of the New Mexicans he represents.
“Martin Heinrich has shamelessly joined other liberal politicians who abandoned New Mexico values to appease East Coast special interests,” Cangiolosi said, noting Heinrich’s newfound support for an assault weapons ban. “This anti-Second Amendment agenda might score points with East Coast progressives, but is completely out of touch with everyday New Mexicans.”
Obviously, Heinrich doesn’t see it that way. And he said his two sons – young hunters ages 11 and 14 forced to participate in live shooter drills at their schools – don’t see it that way either.
“Having conversations with them is really helpful for me,” Heinrich said. “They are fairly unique kids in that they have grown up in this era of mass shootings. They hate it, and they don’t like having to do mass shooter drills at their schools, but they are not in any way, shape or form anti-firearm. These are kids that have grown up with many of their best memories associated with firearms. They understand that with rights come responsibilities.”
Quitting the NRA
When Heinrich first got to Congress as a U.S. representative in 2009, he was a proud member of the National Rifle Association. In his first re-election campaign in Congress, he touted the “A” rating he received from the powerful national gun lobby. NRA membership was a rite of passage for young gun owners like himself who looked forward to receiving their membership cards and the organization’s magazine in the mail, Heinrich said. But he grew disenchanted with the NRA when it mostly remained silent after a deranged man shot then-Rep. Gabby Giffords of Arizona in the head in 2011, then resisted calls for change after the horrific shooting in Newtown, Conn., that left 20 elementary school students and six adults dead a year later.
“There was no engagement” from the NRA, Heinrich recalled. “I’ve seen time and time again a complete unwillingness to even have a conversation. It created a level of frustration that I didn’t want to be associated with.”
Heinrich said he suspects his evolution on gun policy to cost him votes in the general election this year.
“This is going to be a hard cultural conversation,” Heinrich said.
And while he’s preparing to propose some new weapons restrictions, Heinrich stressed that he also wants to respect responsible hunters, hobbyists and other gun owners who just want to safeguard their legal right to shoot turkeys or targets.
“Hopefully, we get the details right and don’t have unintended consequences,” Heinrich said. “It would be easy to define things inaccurately and then feed the paranoia on the right that people want to take people’s turkey gun away when they don’t. We could do this wrong and feed that paranoia. Getting the details right in a way that is informed by firsthand experience with the hardware is important.”