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Senator Cory Booker On Bolder Gun Reform: 'I'm Going To Bring The Fight'

'It starts with a prioritization. It starts with a sense of urgency. It starts with taking action on day one'

By De Elizabeth

In the wake of another summer filled with headlines about mass shootings and gun violence, it’s no surprise that students, parents, and teachers across the United States grew fearful as another school year began. 2018 was tracked as the worst year for school shootings on record, yet little has changed regarding national legislation that would impact gun violence. Instead, an enormous burden has been placed on schools and families to prepare for the worst at any moment: Students are purchasing bulletproof backpacks, teachers are learning how to treat bullet wounds, and districts across the country have adapted active shooter drills, some of which have proven to be traumatic for educators and students alike.

School shootings are only part of the equation, as gun violence affects people all over the country every day. The Pew Research Center reported that nearly 40,000 people died from gun-related injuries in the U.S. in 2017; that same year, the gun death rate surpassed the rate of people killed in car crashes. According to EveryTown for Gun Safety, the United States’s gun homicide rate is 25 times that of other high-income countries, and firearms have become the second leading cause of death for American children and teenagers.

Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) describes all of this as “outrageous and unacceptable” — and as a Democratic candidate for President of the United States, he is ready to jump headfirst into the fight for a safer country. “There is a fierce urgency,” he told MTV News of the necessity for legislative reform. “We must end this nightmare that is affecting families and children all around the country.”

As the 2020 presidential election approaches, gun violence remains one of the most important issues on the table. A November 2018 Gallup poll showed that gun policy was rated as “extremely important” among most voters ahead of the midterm elections, and Politico notes that Democratic presidential hopefuls have put gun reform front and center in response to the “uniquely American emergency” of mass shootings.

Booker’s 14-point gun reform plan has been described as one of the boldest among the current Democrats in the 2020 race. With details including a gun licensing program, an assault weapons ban, handgun microstamping, and additional common-sense regulations, Booker is also prepared to take on the NRA. “This is something happening every day in America,” he said. “Every day we wait costs us dozens of lives … because of the reality that too many of us are accepting, or allowing to continue. If I'm President of the United States, I'm going to bring the fight to the corporate gun lobby like they've never seen before. ... They are a threat to our nation's security because of the policies that they are preventing, the common sense policies that they are fighting against … every single day.”

During a recent phone interview, the senator talked to MTV News about his gun reform plan, his vision for a safer America, and what he wants students around the country to know about the possibility of a future without gun violence.

MTV News: You've stressed the importance of going bolder on gun reform, that it's important for politicians to rethink what's possible within this debate. What do you personally think is possible for the United States, considering where we are now compared to other countries?

Senator Cory Booker: We can end this epidemic of gun violence. I think we are fully capable of doing it and that's why our multi-point plan is … not based on theory. Every point that we put out there is an evidence-based point of something that would make us safer and more secure. We have the capability of doing it, but we can't let this debate be framed by the corporate gun lobby. We can't let them decide what common sense is. We as a nation have to decide what that is, and muster the will to create a kind of transformation.

We have allowed the gun lobby to shape this debate for way too long … as a result, we've seen unconscionable levels of gun violence in our country that no other nation sees, unless they are at war. … I'm sick of this; I live in a community that is plagued by gun violence because of these weak gun safety laws. I know the urgency, and know so many of the families that have had their lives ripped apart due to gun violence.

MTV News: What is the first step to get there? If elected, what would you do during your very first day in office?

Sen. Booker: We need to start right away in building the larger national coalition necessary to get these issues through Congress. There are things I can do through executive order, but, ultimately to end the epidemic of gun violence, we have to have a president who's willing to lead on this issue. ... This is not a secondary or third issue for me. The protection of our country, the protection of our children, the reclaiming of our freedom from fear and violence is going to be a primary purpose of my presidency — and we will win this fight, because I'm going to bring the fight. It starts with a prioritization. It starts with a sense of urgency. It starts with taking action on day one.

MTV News: What can you tell us about your proposed gun licensing program? 

Sen. Booker: We have models that are working in the country right now. Connecticut has a gun licensing program. It resulted in a 40 percent drop in shootings in their state, and it's something that is functional. It's not, in any way, inhibiting the ability for law-abiding citizens to get a gun. What it is doing is preventing people who shouldn't have them from getting them. We have the capability to facilitate a licensing program that can work in our nation. We know it because states with significant populations do it already.

MTV News: Your platform includes an assault weapons ban. Would that include a buyback program?

Sen. Booker: Absolutely. I think we should have a mandatory buyback program in the country to get these weapons off our streets and out of our communities. And, again, this is another thing that's not new. Other nations have done this. We did this with machine guns back in the 1980s. We decided to ban a certain type of weapon and we were able to get them off of our streets. This is something that we're fully capable of. It's not a matter of ‘can we?’ It's: ‘Do we have the political will to get it done?’ I will bring that political will to make sure we get these things done.

MTV News: Your plan also talks about limiting gun purchases and mandating that owners report lost or stolen guns. In your opinion, why do you think that there's currently an absence of such common-sense regulations?

Sen. Booker: The power of the corporate gun lobby and the NRA is working against the best interests and the safety and security of our nation. These organizations … are really undermining common sense, and we know this because gun licensing is supported by over 80 percent of Americans. Universal background checks are supported by over 90 percent of Americans. These are common-sense laws supported by gun owners, even the majority of NRA members. I really do believe it's these nefarious forces; it is the corporate gun lobby and the NRA that are working against the … well-being of our country.

MTV News: You also talk about closing the “boyfriend loophole,” which would extend current legislation that prohibits abusive spouses from acquiring a firearm to include protection against abusive dating partners. Can you explain how that’s important to ending gun violence?

Sen. Booker: I don't think Americans fully appreciate the level of partner-based violence, domestic violence, and murders there are every week in America. We have taken some steps to say that someone convicted of felony domestic violence can't buy a weapon, but there's a glaring loophole... If you are a boyfriend convicted of non-felony stalking of a girlfriend, that doesn't preclude you from buying a weapon, and that's outrageous. This loophole is being exploited by folks who are carrying out partner violence, and it must be closed.

MTV News: What message would you like to send to students and teachers who might be fearful of returning to school this year?

Sen. Booker: You can't have real courage without being vulnerable, and what we need is for folks who are fearful now … to turn that worry into work. All the great leaps in social change in our nation, from the Suffrage Movement to the Civil Rights Movement, that change doesn’t come from Washington. It comes to Washington by active citizens who demand the change — and the voices of young people are powerful. They have an extraordinary power to shape the culture of our country and to affect the policies that ultimately prevail.

I'm hoping that more and more people will recognize how powerful they are, join this fight, and let their voices be heard. In this tragic reality where we live, there's no neutrality, there's no sideline sitters. Either you're helping to solve the problem, or you're part of the problem. I really hope that more people will get involved and do something in this fight, even small actions:  attending protests, supporting organizations, lifting your voice and demanding a change. That's how it's going to happen.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.