Nine candidates in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary appeared at a forum in Las Vegas Wednesday to talk about gun control, two years after the city saw the worst mass shooting in modern American history.
Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak, a Democrat elected after a gunman opened fire on the Route 91 Harvest music festival and killed 58 people, said the state was proud of what it had done after achieving that deadly distinction: It banned bump stocks, passed red flag laws that give courts the power to seize guns in emergencies and took other gun control measures.
The forum was presented by MSNBC; March for Our Lives, the student-led movement for gun control; and Giffords, the organization created by former Rep. Gabby Giffords after she was shot at a community meeting in Arizona and who appeared at the meeting to urge the attendees to fight.
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Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders canceled his appearance after he had an emergency heart procedure for a blocked artery Tuesday night. Here is an overview of the candidates' stances on gun by NBC News. Below is a recap of what they had to say at the gun forum:
Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, said he sensed a shift in power away from the National Rifle Association, which has blocked major gun control measures for decades. Its influence comes not just from donations but also the NRA's ability to mobilize voters around a single issue. Buttigieg said that voter influence is being challenged by groups like Moms Demand Action and March for Our Lives.
He also said that young people's moral urgency is supported by their parents and their grandparents, who are cheering them on.
“And I don’t think the NRA can match that,” he said.
The country knows which laws are needed, he said: universal background checks, closing loopholes that allow those convicted of hate crimes from buying weapons, red flag laws that permit courts to order guns be confiscated from those posing a danger, and a ban on assault rifles. The issue now is to get them passed, he said.
Buttigieg, who served as a lieutenant in U.S. Naval Reserves in Afghanistan, wants a nationwide standard on gun licenses, though said he would support it being administered at a state level. He said he thought that mandatory buy-back programs for weapons could distract from other efforts — Americans are split in their support on such programs, according to polls — while voluntary ones had mixed results.
Julián Castro, former secretary of Housing and Urban Development under former President Barack Obama, would focus as much on regulating ammunition as weapons. He would raise $600 million to $700 million from an excise tax on ammunition and guns — money he would invest in programs to prevent gun violence — and he would make ammunition easier to trace through unique markers. He supports a voluntary buy-back program of assault weapons, not a mandatory one.
He said he believed that the idea that more gun ownership makes Americans safer — that a good guy with a gun will confront a bad guy with a gun — is beginning to wane after shootings like those at the El Paso, Texas, Walmart in August that left 22 people dead.
“That shooter knew that he was walking into a place where a lot of people were carrying and that didn’t make a difference,” he said.
After another shooting 14 hours later in Dayton, Ohio, left nine people dead, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine was met with a crowd shouting, “Do something.”
That is the message for the 2020 elections, Castro said.
Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, and a former mayor of Newark, New Jersey, said guns used to kill in states with strong gun control programs are coming in from states with lax laws, he said. Eighty percent of gun deaths in New Jersey are a result of out-of-state weapons, according to statistics compiled by the state.
“You should not be a nominee from our party that can seriously stand in front of urban places and say, ‘I will protect you,’ if you don’t believe in gun licensing,” Booker said.
Booker supports a mandatory buyback program of assault weapons, which he would ban, but said that did not mean federal agents showing up at gun-owners' doors.
“Do not let the fearmongers dictate our policy,” he said.
Booker choked up after hearing from a mother whose 15-year-old was accidentally killed by an unsecured gun belonging to a friend’s father. He said he would support federal accountability on the safe storage of guns.
“I’m so sorry for your loss,” Booker said. “I hear these stories a lot."
Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts said the lack of gun control, some forms of which most Americans want, exposed the fundamental corruption in Washington, D.C. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, President Donald Trump and other Republicans are impeding Congress’ ability to pass such laws, she said, as she rejected Trump’s contention that the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry was getting in the way of legislation on gun safety.
“There is too much power in the gun industry and the gun lobby," she said.
Ninety-three percent of Americans support universal background checks, according to a Quinnipiac University poll from August.
Asked about her proposed cap of one gun purchase a month, she said it would prevent would-be killers from bulking up, but also cautioned that the gun violence problem would need more than one piece of legislation.
“This is not going to be a one and done,” she said.
Warren likened gun violence to deaths on the highways in the 1960s. The country focused on bringing those numbers down — first with safety glass and seatbelts, then air bags and other innovations. She said she's committed to bringing the same persistence to gun deaths.
Former Vice President Joe Biden defended his decision to suggest rather than require a licensing system. A federal registry might be possible down the line, he said, but he would not want disagreements over one to hold up other legislation.
Asked why he thought compromise with Republicans was not possible now as it has been in the past, Biden said: “Because we’ve got a president named Trump.”
He said he had beaten the NRA in the past — for example with the 1994 Brady Bill, which banned assault weapons — but acknowledged he and fellow Democrats failed to pass legislation after the murder of 20 6- and 7-year-olds and six staff members at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Democrats had lost control of the House of Representatives, he noted, and regulations that President Obama did put into effect — licenses for gun sellers and increased mental health treatment, among them — were by executive order.
Now, he said, “This has gone from a cause to a movement.”
Former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke of El Paso, Texas, was adamant that a mandatory buyback program of assault weapons was the right policy and called out Buttigieg by name for not supporting one. It is the right thing to do, he said.
“The American people are with us on this issue,” he said. “It is time to lead.”
The Quinnipiac University poll at the end of August showed 46 percent to 49 percent of Americans supporting a mandatory buyback of assault weapons.
As for enforcement, he said he expected Americans to follow the law.
Young people have led progress in the United States, he said, integrating lunch counters in Greensboro, North Carolina, for example. The Parkland, Florida, students who started March for Our Lives after 17 were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School are continuing that tradition. The country would be moved by the moral compass they had shown, he told one of those students, Emma Gonzalez.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota said the country had witnessed a sea change in the attitudes toward gun control, among them universal background checks, that she attributed to young activists such as the March for Our Lives organizers.
“When they stood up, they were icons,” she said.
Lawmakers in Washington, D.C., have lacked the extraordinary courage that ordinary people have shown when shootings occur, such as the El Paso mother killed while shielding her baby, she said. The 2020 presidential election is about showing that ordinary people are not going to take it anymore, she said.
Unlike some of her competitors, she would begin with a voluntary buyback program. She would focus instead on the bills passed by the House and blocked by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, including requiring background checks on all gun purchases.
Entrepreneur Andrew Yang of New York supports banning assault weapons and high capacity magazines, but unlike the other candidates, he would enact a three-tier licensing requirement that distinguishes weapons by their power.
Yang, who has made a basic income of $1,000 a month for every adult a central part of his campaign, said the money would help address gun violence.
“And there are many reasons why I'm certain we should do this, but it even impacts the causes, the underlying root causes of gun violence, because if you look at the series of events that lead to gun violence, what are we talking about?” he asked. “ We're talking about the composition and stress levels in homes, in the family.”
He also would give all Americans $100 to donate to candidates or a cause, which he argued would weaken the NRA and a gun lobby that has prevented the country from treating gun violence for what it is: a public health crisis.
“When the NRA lobbyists or the gun lobby comes along and says, ‘I’m going to give you $100,000 to bury this legislation,’ you say, ‘I don't care about your $100,000. I'm getting $1 million from the people.’ That's how we override the stranglehold,” he said. “We break the stranglehold that the NRA and the gun lobbies have over our laws.”
Sen. Kamala Harris of California said the conversation about gun violence had to begin not with the criminal justice system but with the health of a community, and the resources being put into schools and mental health resources.
“Healthy communities create safe communities,” she said.
She would invest $100 billion in neighborhoods that had historically been redlined, or denied funds for mortgages typically because of race and ethnicity. Residents of those neighborhoods and of federally subsidized housing would receive grants for down-payments and closing costs so they could buy homes. Research has connected home ownership with lower crime.
Harris was a former district attorney in San Francisco and California’s attorney general.
“Growing up as a black girl in America, nobody had to teach me what was not right about the system,” she said. “And my point was, why do we always want to change the system from the outside? Let's also be on the inside.”