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9 Big Takeaways From The 6-Hour Gun Safety Presidential Candidate Forum

While the candidates agree on many issues, there are plenty of differences on specific policy and approach

By De Elizabeth

Nine of the leading Democratic presidential candidates addressed gun policy during a 6-hour Gun Safety Forum in Las Vegas hosted by MSNBC, March for Our Lives, and Giffords on Wednesday (October 2). Each candidate had 30 minutes to answer questions from moderator MSNBC’s Craig Melvin and a variety of audience members, some of whom were survivors of gun violence themselves. The forum featured the Democratic candidates who qualified for the second debate; Representative Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) and philanthropist Tom Steyer were not in attendance, along with Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT) who canceled his appearance after undergoing an emergency heart procedure.

The town hall-style event came just a day after the two-year anniversary of the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history at a concert on the Las Vegas Strip. And with recent mass shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio on the minds of voters, as well as the staggering statistics surrounding the gun violence epidemic across the country, it’s no surprise that gun-law reform has become one of the most important topics ahead of the 2020 presidential election.

The back-to-back 30-minute interviews revealed that while the candidates agree on issues like stronger background checks or safe storage laws, there are plenty of differences on specific policy and approach. Some candidates, like Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) and former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke support a mandatory buyback program for assault weapons, while Former Housing Secretary Julián Castro and Former Vice President Joe Biden suggest voluntary buyback programs. Candidates also disagreed over the execution of a gun licensing program, with some Democrats calling for regulations at the federal level and others proposing state-regulated licensing.

But the 2020 Gun Safety Forum went beyond the inner workings of policy; several candidates spoke about everyday gun violence in their hometowns, police brutality, suicide by firearm, domestic abuse, and the disproportionate ways in which gun violence affects people of color. If you didn’t watch all six hours, don’t worry — we did. Ahead, learn about some of the key moments from each of the candidate’s time onstage.

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South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg explained that suicide is the piece of the gun violence epidemic that needs to come “out of the shadows.” 

According to EveryTown for Gun Safety, firearm suicides make up the majority of both gun deaths and suicides in the U.S., with nearly 22,000 Americans dying by firearm suicide each year. “We’ve got to make it OK to talk about it….we are more likely to lose someone to suicide if they attempt suicide with a gun,” Buttigieg said.

But the mayor made it clear that mental health care and common sense gun reform are not mutually exclusive. “We have got to discuss the mental health issue without ever allowing to be an excuse to fail to act on gun policy. We’re hearing way too much of that,” he explained, noting that common-sense regulations such as extreme risk protection orders can help save lives if someone with access to a gun is experiencing suicidal ideation. “We’ve got to do a better job in this country of delivering mental health. But if we talk about it, for example, the way this president talks about it, then you wouldn’t realize that people with mental health challenges are more likely to be a victim than a perpetrator of violent crimes.”

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Former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro reminded us that gun violence isn’t just the mass shootings that make the news — some communities see it every day.

During his segment, Castro highlighted the importance of tailoring gun violence prevention to everyday occurrences in addition to the instances of mass shootings we regularly read about. With the rates of gun violence disproportionately affecting communities of color, Castro also spoke about his plan to raise the excise tax on firearms and ammunitions and use that extra funding for public programs to help the most vulnerable neighborhoods.

“There’s no reason that our young people should ever get their hands on a weapon when they’re not supposed to,” Castro said in response to a woman from Chicago whose son was murdered on his way to choir practice. “But we also need to invest in community development programs, community youth programs, gun violence prevention programs that are rooted in our community, that are not from the outside, but from the inside. That are led from people on the ground, in those neighborhoods.”

Castro also talked about the importance of creating after-school programs for at-risk youth, explaining that he invested in similar opportunities as Mayor of San Antonio and saw positive results. “We know...between 3:00 [p.m.] and 7:00, there’s an increased likelihood that our young people will meet violence... I want to give them an enriching and nourishing environment…. I would take the 6 or 7 hundred million dollars from an excise tax from ammunition and guns, and invest them in those efforts.”

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Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) addressed the ways gun violence uniquely affects Black boys and men

Harris recounted an emotional meeting with a grieving Black mother who had lost her son to gun violence. “She would say, ‘If I lost my son to a car accident or cancer, maybe somebody would understand how deeply I mourn, but instead they’re treating the loss of my son as a statistic, and like I shouldn’t be surprised,’” Harris recalled, before emphasizing: “This is about the devaluation of human life that happens every day in America, and particularly about the devaluation of Black men and Black boys … When we talk about gun violence...we’ve got to recognize that we have to value these lives.”

Harris also spoke out against police brutality, noting that there’s “no question” the demilitarization of American police departments should be a priority for the next president. “The failure of criminal justice policy in America was to declare war on the people of our country,” she said. “To do it with the War on Drugs. To declare war on whole communities of people — who required support, who required that we would acknowledge the neglect...and then address it. So let’s start there, with acknowledging history.”

From there, Harris outlined some of her plan to reform the criminal justice system, including a proposal to end mass incarceration, legalize and decriminalize marijuana, and require strict accountability for law enforcement. “Growing up as a Black girl in America, no one had to teach me about what was not right about the system,” she said.

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Senator Cory Booker got passionate about his personal connection to the issue.

As the former mayor and a current resident of Newark, New Jersey, Booker said he’s experienced firsthand the horrors of gun violence, making this issue an emotional fight for him. “This is living with a sense of urgency,” he told moderator Craig Melvin. “As I’ve said before...this is no time for an impotency of empathy. We cannot wait until this hell visits upon your community for you to be activated in this fight…. We live in this distraught nation right now where the levels of gun violence are so high, it’s as though people in certain communities are living in war zones.”

Booker pledged that, if elected President of the United States, he would elevate the types of gun violence that don’t always get mainstream media coverage. “We don’t talk about what’s going on about the violence against transgender Americans,” he said, citing the at least 20 transgender people who are known to have been murdered in the U.S. this year. “We don’t talk about domestic violence...nearly enough. We don’t talk enough in this country about unarmed Black people being killed by police. We need to have a president who talks about this regularly, and the common sense things we could be doing.”

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Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) highlighted the importance of gun violence research.

“We need to treat gun violence like the public health emergency it is, and respond with the kind of strength it demands,” Warren emphasized, pointing out that the U.S. government does federal research on all issues that are health and safety concerns — so why should gun violence be any different? “The reason is not because there’s not any violence; we know there is. It’s just the politics. And the gun industry has managed to block any federal funding going into the research on gun violence.”

To illustrate her point, the Senator talked about car safety during the 1960s, when the rate of auto vehicle fatalities was much higher than it is today. “People were talking about ‘carnage on the roads,’” she explained, going on to say that agencies collected data to determine what types of safety features and regulations would work to reduce auto-related deaths. “I intend to do the same thing with guns.”

Warren’s gun reform platform specifies that she will reduce domestic gun violence in the U.S. by 80 percent over the course of two potential presidential terms. Right now, 100 Americans are killed by guns every day in the U.S. As Warren put it: “If 100 people were dying today from a mysterious virus, we’d be all over this.”

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Former Vice President Joe Biden reflected on how things have changed since the Obama administration.

Biden’s tenure as Vice President overlapped with the tragic 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, in which a perpetrator killed 20 children and six staff members. That same year, former President Barack Obama brought several gun control proposals to the Senate — none of which were passed into legislation. “The regulations we were able to put in by executive order, some of them were very good and provided real, positive change we could do administratively,” Biden said. “But the problem was, unless you pass them legislatively, a guy like Trump comes along and wipes them out.”

However, Biden cited a positive sea change in the overall culture of the country, noting that the cry for gun reform has gone from a cause to a movement, thanks to groups like March For Our Lives and Moms Demand Action. “In the meantime, what has changed is the maturation of the American public,” he said. “You [also] have a clear majority of gun owners, a clear majority of members of the NRA who support the positions we’ve taken.”

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Former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke doubled down (again) on his mandatory buyback program for assault weapons.

O’Rourke’s stance on assault weapons can basically be summed up with one sentence: “Hell yes, we’re gonna take your AR-15.” His gun reform platform was catapulted into the spotlight earlier this year after the mass shooting at a Walmart in his hometown of El Paso, Texas.

When asked at the Gun Safety Forum if he “still stands by” his words from the summer, O’Rourke’s response was simple and firm: “Absolutely, I do.” He went on to elaborate: “I stand with everybody here. I stand with this country. I stand with Gabby Giffords who came to El Paso, Texas, and met with victims from that August 3rd shooting, one of whom is still in the hospital, more than two months later.”

O’Rourke also refuted the idea that his proposals are “playing into the NRA’s hands,” reminding the audience that most Americans support an assault weapons ban. “The American people are with us on this issue,” he said. “It’s time to lead.”

Additionally, he addressed the common NRA talking point that gun restrictions would infringe on someone’s constitutional rights, explaining: “I want to make this very clear. We all understand our constitutionally protected second amendment rights, but we do not think that those second amendment rights trump our right to live, or our children’s right to live without fear in this country.”

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Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) spoke about the hidden horrors of everyday domestic violence.

Earlier this year, Klobuchar introduced legislation to help keep guns out of the hands of abusive dating partners, which would help close the “boyfriend loophole” — the glaring omission in our current regulations where abusive spouses are restricted from purchasing a firearm, but abusive dating partners are not. “It makes no sense at all,” Sen. Klobuchar said of the way the law currently stands.

According to EveryTown, women in the U.S. are 25 times more likely to be killed by guns than women in other countries; approximately 4.5 million American women alive today report that they have been threatened with a gun by an intimate partner. What’s more, access to a gun makes it five times more likely that an abusive partner with a gun will kill a woman will be killed by an abusive partner.

“Domestic violence is one of those day-to-day crimes that we don’t always talk about,” Sen. Klobuchar said, adding: “Domestic violence...is not just about the immediate victim, it’s about our entire community. And so when we think about this gun issue, we just can’t isolate it to the mass shootings.” She went on to cite gun violence prevention tactics such as universal background checks, Centers for Disease Control studies, and straw purchasing laws as fundamental ways to decrease gun-related deaths in domestic violence situations.

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Entrepreneur Andrew Yang addressed how school shooting drills are potentially traumatizing young people.

Yang proposed ending active shooter and lockdown drills in schools across the country, suggesting that such practices might be doing more harm than good by creating anxiety and distrust in young people. He also posed a lengthy “math” problem to the crowd to emphasize his point.

“You have to take that very real impact [multiplied by] the millions of school children in this country — and add it to their parents,” Yang explained. “And then...figure out how many lives you can reasonably expect to be saved by having these kids do these active shooter drills to prepare…. You have a certain debilitating...anxiety...over millions of Americans; that’s a certain cost. Then you have maybe...at the margins, someone get out of harm’s way…. So to me, if you have that certain cost and a very uncertain benefit, you have to give your kids a chance to go to school and not worry about getting shot.”

According to the National Association of School Psychologists, some drills, depending upon the circumstances, have the potential to produce “anxiety, stress, and traumatic symptoms” in both students and staff. As Yang said: “If you can’t be secure in your own classroom...your entire sense of the world is shaken.”