Kamala Harris owns a handgun. That's disqualifying for a 2020 Democrat in my book.

When it comes to gun ownership in America, presidential aspirant Kamala Harris has shot herself in the foot.

At a time when Democrats are toughening their positions on gun control and seeking to make it a core issue in the 2020 campaign, the California senator has conceded that her personal relationship with guns is unique among the major Democratic presidential contenders. She owns a handgun, a campaign aide told CNN.

This under-publicized revelation comes as Harris is getting a lot of ink for being tough about guns. Her words are fine, but for a progressive like me, they are undermined by that handgun. And I can't be the only one who is disturbed. Keeping a handgun for personal safety is a bedrock conservative view. The best defense against a "bad guy with a gun," the NRA falsely argues, is "a good guy with a gun."

Sen. Kamala Harris at a house party in Des Moines, Iowa on April 11, 2019.
Sen. Kamala Harris at a house party in Des Moines, Iowa on April 11, 2019.

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"I am a gun owner," Harris said while campaigning in Iowa, "and I own a gun for probably the reason a lot of people do — for personal safety." The campaign aide, whom CNN did not name, scrambled to explain that the senator's handgun was purchased years ago and is locked up.

Harris justified owning the gun by pointing out that "I was a career prosecutor." She could have said, "Dealing with dangerous criminals while serving as district attorney in San Francisco I felt compelled to have a handgun. After leaving that job I disposed of the weapon."

Harris reinforced a bogus argument

But she didn't. She played to the heartland gathering by suggesting it is wise to own a handgun for protection simply because you're afraid. Such thinking presumably extends to people riding the subway or walking home at night, or driving a car among road-raged motorists. It is exactly the bogus argument that gun opponents are seeking to deflect.

Federal statistics for 2015, for example, show women are far more likely to be shot to death by an intimate partner than killed by a stranger using any means. An earlier study found that women living in a home with guns are three times as likely to be killed at home.

The Washington Post reported earlier this month that six of 18 Democratic presidential contenders own firearms. With former Vice President Joe Biden's entry into the race Thursday, make that at least seven. Beto O'Rourke and Pete Buttigieg are among the other gun owners — but their weapons are old and inoperable. Buttigieg, a Navy veteran, says he has two antique pistols that are never fired.

Harris has wisely called for banning assault weapons and requiring universal background checks for gun purchasers. However, she seems to misunderstand the nuances of the gun control argument — particularly among elected officials and candidates for high office, whose actions speak loudly.

Owning a handgun is a bad idea

While progressives support the legal reforms Harris advocates, they also seek a shift in gun culture. That means setting an example for why guns, particularly handguns, are part of the problem, not the solution.

At this week’s CNN town hall on the campus of Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire, moderator Don Lemon noted that many students are "concerned about how gun violence might affect them or a family member.” That led to a routine question about gun control, but neither the student questioning the senator nor Don Lemon thought to ask Harris if she owns a gun.

This time, Harris didn’t mention her handgun. She returned to her standard stump speech, blaming lawmakers who “have failed to have the courage” to act reasonably about guns. It's a "false choice," she said, to suggest that "you're either in favor of the Second Amendment or you want to take everyone's guns away."

Perhaps. But Kamala Harris doesn’t seem to have the courage to concede that owning a handgun for protection is a bad idea. Instead, she has given voters a real choice: Back candidates who care enough about gun control to not own handguns, or support the only major Democratic contender who has one and won't throw it away.

Peter Funt is a writer and host of "Candid Camera."

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Kamala Harris owns a handgun. That's disqualifying for a 2020 Democrat in my book.