Nine of the leading Democratic presidential contenders discussed gun safety Wednesday at a policy forum in Las Vegas organized by advocacy groups March For Our Lives and Giffords and moderated by "MSNBC Live" anchor Craig Melvin.
Candidates clashed over gun buyback and licensing plans while discussing how to address the causes of gun violence during the six-hour forum.
The event came a day after the second anniversary of the Route 91 Harvest music festival mass shooting — the deadliest in recent U.S. history.
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Harris says she would push to demilitarize law enforcement
Answering a question about the prospect of demilitarizing police forces, Harris said she would stop supplying military surplus equipment to law enforcement. She also said that she would work to end mass incarceration, decriminalize and legalize marijuana and work aggressively on exonerations. As president, Harris said, she would use her experience as a former prosecutor to increase accountability in the criminal justice system for police and prosecutors for misconduct.
Harris: ‘I support a mandatory buyback program’
Harris reiterated her support for the mandatory buyback of assault weapons, joining Beto O’Rourke and fellow Sen. Cory Booker in backing the approach from the forum stage.
“We have to have a buyback program, and I support a mandatory gun buyback program,” she said. “It’s got to be smart, we got to do it the right way. But there are 5 million [assault weapons] at least, some estimate as many as 10 million, and we’re going to have to have smart public policy that’s about taking those off the streets, but doing it the right way.”
Harris addresses gun suicides
Harris answered a question from Dr. Joseph Sakran, a trauma surgeon from Baltimore who has cared for hundreds of victims of gun violence.
To combat gun suicides, Harris said she would prevent those who a court has said should not have a gun from obtaining a firearm through expanded background checks.
She added that she would also strengthen gun safety laws and increase access to mental health services, saying "we have need do both."
Harris also said she would take executive action on her first day as president to ban the importation of assault weapons and expand background checks.
Harris says 'devaluation of human life' contributes to gun violence
Harris opened up about her first-hand experience as San Francisco's district attorney dealing with black mothers whose sons were victims of gun violence, noting that black men and boys more likely to die from gun violence than their white peers.
"This is not something I've just realized," she said. "It is an issue I've dealt with this my entire career."
Harris said part of the problem is the "devaluation of human life" and the "devaluation of black men and black boys."
"The goal should be safe and healthy communities," she said, adding that putting resources back into the local economy of many of these communities — such as schools and social services — is needed to improve outcomes.
Yang talks divesting from policing and prisons and reinvesting in communities hit by gun violence, calls for ending school shooting drills
Yang answered a question from Taylor Martin and Jesse Holmes — two high school students from Washington, D.C. — about making gun violence a public health issue and reallocating resources form policing and incarceration to communities that have been harmed by it.
Yang called the criminal justice system “inhumane” and called for the end of private prisons. He said that money should go to families and communities that can create small businesses and increase the buying power of black consumers to improve neighborhoods.
We pay a “higher and darker price” by putting money towards prisons and over-policing minority communities, he said, adding, “We need to treat gun violence like a public health crisis."
Ending active shooter drills
Yang, a father of two, also called for an end to school shooting drills, saying they do more harm than good.
"I was talking to parents and children who were very anxious, understandably" because they were being made to to imagine what they'd do if someone came into their school to try to kill them and their classmates, he said.
"It gives rise to a real sense of uncertainty — if you can't be secure in your own classroom and you're a child, your entire sense of the world gets shaken," Yang said, adding that any benefits of the drills are "speculative," while their emotional toll has a "real impact" in terms of anxiety and depression.
"You have to give your kids a chance to go to school and not worry about getting shot, in my opinion. Let the adults worry about them getting shot and let the kids go to school," he said.
Yang: $1,000 'Freedom Dividend' could help reduce gun violence
Andrew Yang made the case his signature proposal to give residents a “Freedom Dividend” of $1,000 a month would help reduce gun violence by reducing economic pressure on households.
“If you’ve heard anything about me, you know that I want to give every American $1,000 a month," he said, responding to a a question about his cash proposal. "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 leads to gun violence, what do we talk about? We’re talking about the composition and stress levels in homes and the family. We’re talking about what’s happening in our school systems.”
Yang has also proposed a variety of new gun laws, including a three-tiered licensing requirement that would mandate that purchasers meet higher standards before purchasing more advanced firearms.
Yang says his 'democracy dollars' plan would counter gun lobby influence
Yang proposed using his "democracy dollars" plan to counter the influence of the gun lobby in Washington.
The plan is to give each American voter $100 in publicly funded vouchers — earmarked for campaign donations only. He said that putting money in the hands of voters would shift the perspective of lawmakers on gun safety legislation who rely on campaign donations from industry lobbyists.
"That's how we override the stranglehold the gun lobby has over our lives," he said.
Amy Klobuchar says she'd focus on limiting magazine sizes
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said she'd rather focus on limiting the size of gun magazines than gun sales.
Asked if she was in favor of restricting the number of guns a person could purchase to one a month, Klobuchar said she was "open" to the idea, but had other priorities, including universal background checks and a ban on assault weapons.
"One of the things I think is a great idea that just we haven't talked about a lot is the magazine limitations. I think the public is very open to this," she said, adding that it's one of the measures that passes her "Uncle Dick" test: "Does this hurt my Uncle Dick in his deer stand?"
"These ideas we've talked about" — background checks, red flag laws, closing the so-called boyfriend loophole and putting limits on magazine sizes — "they don't hurt him in his deer stand, they don't hurt other hunters in their deer stands," she said. "I would focus more on that than limits on the numbers of guns."
Buttigieg visits Las Vegas hospital that treated mass shooting victims
After speaking at today’s forum, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg made a stop at the University Medical Center of Southern Nevada, which treated more than 100 victims of the 2017 Las Vegas shooting, where he joined medical staff for a roundtable discussion.
Amy Klobuchar on the ‘boyfriend loophole’
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn. talked about her work to try to close the so-called “boyfriend loophole,” which allows people convicted of domestic abuse or stalking charges against dating partners to retain a gun in some cases.
Arguing the issue affected more than just individual families, Klobuchar recalled a case in Minnesota in which a police officer was killed responding responding to a domestic violence case.
“Domestic violence and domestic violence homicides with guns are not just about the immediate victim, they’re about our entire community,” she said. “When we think about this gun issue, we can’t just isolate it to the mass shootings.”
Under current federal law, people can lose their guns, or be barred from buying guns, over misdemeanor domestic violence. But the law doesn’t cover every type of relationship — it’s limited to current or former spouses, live-in partners or people with whom the perpetrator has a child.
Democrats in the House passed a reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act in April that expanded the law to cover more types of domestic abuse, including stalkers and current and former dating partners. As Klobuchar noted, the Senate has not brought it forward yet. The NRA opposes the expanded definition, arguing it’s too broad and could include nonviolent offenses.
Biden says he's astonished at Trump attacks
Earlier Wednesday, while addressing what moderator Craig Melvin called the "elephant in the room," Biden took a moment to talk about the allegations that President Donald Trump has been hurling against him and his son Hunter.
"It is way beyond anything that I, quite frankly, thought he would do," Biden said, speaking shortly after Trump called him "stone cold crooked" at a press conference with Finland's president.
"Nobody has ever asserted that I did anything wrong except he and what's that fella's name? Rudy 'Hudy' or whatever his name — Guiliani, that's it," Biden quipped.
He also took aim at Trump's inaction on guns after he'd vowed to make changes, including tougher background checks.
"I want to talk about guns and what this guy has done with regard to lack of doing anything rational relating to guns," Biden said. "I know he did have time for one meeting, [National Rifle Association head] Wayne LaPierre spent some time with him in return, I suspect, for help in his impeachment proceeding, but as my mother would say, good luck, Mr. President."
The New York Times reported last week that Trump and LaPierre met at the White House on Friday and discussed gun measures and whether the NRA "could provide support for the president as he faces impeachment and a more difficult re-election campaign."
Beto O’Rourke: Buttigieg ‘afraid of doing the right thing’ on assault weapon buybacks; jabs Booker on licensing
Beto O’Rourke defended himself from criticism by Democrats that his call for a mandatory buyback of assault weapons is making it harder to build support for gun reform, throwing a pointed jab at South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg in particular.
“I heard some of the comments made today on his stage, those who are worried about the polls and want to triangulate or talk to the consultants or listen to the focus groups — and I'm thinking about Mayor Pete on this one, who I think probably wants to get to the right place, but is afraid of doing the right thing right now,” O’Rourke said. “To those who need a weatherman, let me tell you that in this country, mandatory buybacks are supported by a majority of Americans.”
Earlier at the forum, Buttigieg said mandatory buyback proposals were a “shiny object” that distracted Democrats from progress on more established policies like red flag laws and universal background checks.
O’Rourke also responded to comments from Sen. Cory Booker, who had noted that O’Rourke criticized his plan for gun licensing only to adopt a similar one after the El Paso shooting.
“I will say this: I want to give Senator Booker all the credit in the world for being a leader on this,” he said. “This is not a moment to seek division.”
But O’Rourke also noted that it’s “a really good thing” that Booker endorsed calls for a mandatory buyback of assault weapons after O’Rourke had backed the idea.
Biden defends state-based plan for gun licenses
Biden defended his new gun plan, out Wednesday, that would provide grants to states to set up a license requirement for residents to obtain a license before they buy a gun.
While Biden’s plan encourages others to join, it doesn’t go as far as some proposals in the field that would set up a national licensing program, like Booker has proposed.
“The comparison’s always made, you need a license to drive a car,” Biden said. “They’re state licenses. You don’t need a federal license to drive a car.”
Booker, without naming Biden, criticized the voluntary state approach in his appearance at the forum earlier Wednesday and said it would enable criminals to exploit states with looser gun laws.
Biden says gun fears in school 'significantly more real' than Cold War nuclear fears
Answering a question from former Arizona congresswoman and shooting survivor Gabby Giffords, Biden compared the safety drills students have to do now to prepare for a possible mass shooting to the "duck and cover" drills in case of a nuclear attack during the Cold War.
He said his own grandchildren are scared of going to school.
"When I was a kid you ducked and covered for the Soviet Union maybe dropping a thermonuclear device. This is significantly more real," he said. "What a hell of a way to raise a child."
He also offered warm words for Giffords for launching her own gun safety organization. "God love you — you're incredible. You started something that didn't exist before," he said.
Biden’s plan to track assault weapons
Biden came out on Wednesday for a plan to require owners of assault weapons to register their firearms and pass a background check, similar to the way machine guns are currently regulated.
“I want that for all assault weapons, I want that for [high-capacity] magazines,” Biden said. “Because what happens is if we know you have one, the likelihood that it ever is used in the commission of a crime, after a voluntary buyback, is highly unlikely.”
Machine guns are still legal to own after their manufacture for civilian use was banned, but are used in crimes extremely rarely. Some gun safety groups have called for regulating assault weapons bans in this way, and Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have signed on to the idea.
March For Our lives, which helped organize the forum, has called for a mandatory buyback program to remove existing assault weapons instead of a registration system, which Beto O’Rourke and Sen. Cory Booker support. Biden has called for a voluntary buyback program.
Biden says he'd take gun control fight to manufacturers, touts $900 million urban gun violence plan
Former Vice President Joe Biden said he'd take the battle for gun control directly to gun manufacturers, vowing to push to have a law protecting them from civil liability repealed and get them to focus on safety measures like more smart guns.
Lifting legal protections would give the gun manufacturers "an epiphany," Biden said. The smart gun would require biometric markers to fire, meaning they could only be used by the gun's owners. That technology already exists, but gun manufacturers have been lax in promoting it, Biden said.
He also touted his plan to combat urban gun violence with an eight-year, $900 million program that would go toward efforts to combat shootings in 40 cities with the highest rates of gun violence. It would include investments in education, psychiatric care and social workers, he said.
Booker gets emotional during exchange with grieving mother
Booker became noticeably choked up earlier today during an exchange with Kristin Song, whose son, 15-year-old Ethan, was killed in an accident involving an unsecured firearm.
“I’m so sorry for your loss,” Booker told her. “I hear these stories a lot. … I can’t tell you how many parents I’ve had to sit with who’ve lost children, and it’s a world-shattering reality.”
Booker then called for “federal accountability” on the safe storage of firearms rather than the implementation of safety laws by “a patchwork of states.”
“It’s a part of my conviction never to have this conversation with a parent again,” Booker said.
Warren links stalled gun legislation to corruption, talks idea of one gun purchase per month
Warren, who has focused her 2020 campaign on rooting out corruption and making “big structural change” in Washington, linked inaction on gun legislation to influential lobbyists.
"People talk about Washington being in gridlock, and that's why we don't get anything done," she said. "That's not the problem at all."
She added, "inaction in Washington is a deliberate strategy from those who make money by a handcuffed government, and that's what we have right now — a government that works really well for the gun industry and not for your family, and we've got to change that in 2020."
Limiting number of gun purchases
Warren was also asked about her proposal to enact a law limiting sales of firearms to one purchase per month, which she said was designed to prevent would-be shooters from rapidly arming themselves.
“One of the things that it helps accomplish, at least as best we can understand the data, is that it keeps people from bulking up in the middle of a crisis and serves as a flag,” she said. “Look at some of these folks who’ve gone out and bought a whole lot of guns at once. I’d kind of like to know about that and say there’s actually going to be a federal limit on this. Is it going to solve the problem all by itself? No.”
Gun safety activists have called for limits and stricter reporting requirements on multiple sales to reduce gun trafficking across state and national borders, arguing it makes it harder for traffickers to acquire stock.
Three states currently limit most purchases of some types of firearms, like handguns or assault weapons, to once every 30 days, according to Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
Warren says she would address gun violence on Day 1 of presidency
Warren said that on the first day of her administration she would swiftly roll back President Donald Trump's actions to loosen restrictions on guns.
The Massachusetts senator also said she would expand the number of gun dealerships subject to federal and state scrutiny to make sure they follow the law. She called for using the Justice Department to hold dealers liable for breaking the law, with punishments that could include loss of licenses, fines or jail time.
"We can make a difference on one day," she said.
Warren pledges to reduce gun violence by 80 percent
Warren compared her efforts to reduce gun violence in America to the work done in the 1960s to reduce fatal car accidents. She said car safety was done piecemeal — seat belts, airbags, braking systems — and significantly reduced accidents. She called for expanding background checks, limiting gun ownership and banning assault weapons, among other proposals.
“We studied what worked and we studied what didn't work,” she said, adding that she's committed to reducing gun violence by 80 percent over time.
She also called for reversing a decades-old federal prohibition on funding for research into the problem. Since 1996, Congress has added a little-known amendment to spending legislation that prohibits the use of federal funds to advocate or promote gun control.
Booker answers questions about domestic violence
Booker was asked a question by Ruth Glenn, a domestic violence survivor and the president and CEO of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, about closing loopholes for spouses who stalk or assault their significant other — called the "boyfriend loophole."
Booker said he would use his "bully pulpit" as president to bring the topic out of the shadows. He also vowed to expand visas to protect undocumented immigrant women who are fearful of reporting domestic abuse because they do not want to risk deportation.
Booker elbows Biden and Beto on gun licensing
Setting up a conflict with Biden, Booker decried Democratic proposals on gun licensing that don’t require all states to participate, saying not having a national standard would make it too easy for guns to illegally travel between states.
“We’ve created a system where you’re only as safe as the state near you with the least restrictive gun laws,” Booker said.
Biden released a plan Wednesday that would provide grants to states to set up licensing requirements but would not require them to do so. Booker did not mention Biden, but his own plan would create a federal licensing program that requires prospective purchasers to get fingerprinted, undergo a background check and participate in safety training.
“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 also noted that Beto O’Rourke criticized gun licensing until adopting the idea after the El Paso shooting and said candidates should not have mass shootings in their hometowns before coming out for stronger gun laws.
“Beto O’Rourke was not for gun licensing, criticized me when I came out for it,” Booker said. “He saw the horrors visiting his community. Are we going to have to wait until Hell’s lottery comes to your community?”
Fourteen states and the District of Columbia already have a form of licensing for at least some categories of firearms, like handguns, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. As Booker noted, a study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University attributed a 40 percent drop in gun homicides and 15 percent drop in gun suicides in Connecticut to their adoption of licensing.
Booker touts experience as mayor of Newark, N.J., to tackle gun violence
Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., tapped into his past experience as mayor of Newark, New Jersey, to answer the question about how he would address gun violence. He said he has seen first-hand the effects of gun violence on low-income, minority communities.
“People in certain cities are living in war zones,” he said.
Castro would back federal 'red flag' law
Castro said he would support a federal "red flag" law, which would allow people to petition courts to remove guns from individuals they fear are a danger to themselves or others.
Red flag laws have some bipartisan support and have passed in 17 states, but there are different national bills related to them, some of which focus on encouraging more states to pass them and others that propose enacting a national version.
Castro calls for better funding mental health counseling in schools
Castro called for better funding mental health counseling in schools and said it's important to also "raise a generation of young people who don't see violence as a first resort."
The 2020 Democratic candidate also said he seeks to change stigmas around mental health care.
Asked about video game and movie violence, Castro said there are other areas that have a stronger correlation with gun violence than games and movies. He said in Japan and Europe, kids are playing the same games, and the gun violence numbers are nowhere near the same as in the U.S.
Castro talks ways to deal with ammunition
Julián Castro discussed his plan to change the laws around ammunition, including doubling excise taxes to 20 percent and putting the money toward violence prevention programs. He has also called for banning high-capacity magazines that can accept more than 10 rounds, which virtually all Democrats running for president support, and making ammunition easier to trace.
“We talk a lot about guns, but what we do with ammunition, just physically and also the way we tax it, is also part of the solution,” Castro said.
Asked by moderator Craig Melvin whether he wants to make ammunition more expensive, Castro was straightforward: “I do,” he said. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., has also called for raising excise taxes on ammunition to 30 percent.
Castro explains why he is not for a mandatory gun buyback
Former Housing Secretary Julián Castro explained why he does not support a mandatory buyback of semi-automatic weapons akin to former Rep. Beto O'Rourke's proposal.
Castro credited O'Rourke for having a strong response to gun violence — prominently, a mass shooting that took place in his hometown of El Paso. But Castro said that, for him at the moment, a voluntary gun buyback is the best approach. He also highlighted a "split" in the gun reform advocacy community over whether a voluntary or mandatory program is the best option.
Buttigieg on combating urban gun violence
Asked what he would do to combat urban gun violence, Buttigieg said the government must ensure there are fewer guns on the street, change societal expectations for youths of color, and improve the relationship between urban minority communities and the police.
On that second point, Buttigieg said society must change the "signals" being sent toward urban youth, which he said places the expectation that they are more likely "to wind up in the criminal justice system" than earn a college degree.
Buttigieg skeptical about gun buybacks
Buttigieg sounded a skeptical note on gun buybacks for assault weapons, saying that voluntary buyback programs for firearms “had mixed results” when tried in states and cities and that the mandatory buyback issue could distract from policies where Democrats are better positioned to make progress.
Beto O’Rourke has called for a mandatory buyback of existing assault weapons, and Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., has also expressed his support. Others like former Vice President Joe Biden have suggested a voluntary buyback program and alternative ways to deal with existing assault weapons, like requiring them to be registered with the government.
Buttigieg pledges $1 billion more to combat online extremism
South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg was first up at the gun safety forum and kicked off the day by pledging to spend $1 billion to further fund combating online extremism
"Not all terrorist threats come from abroad," he said in criticizing the Trump administration's efforts on combating white-identity extremists, some of whom have accounted for a number of the most deadly recent mass shootings.
There is no law that covers 'domestic terrorism.' What would one look like?
Although "domestic terrorism" is defined in the Patriot Act of 2001, there is no specific federal crime covering acts of terrorism inside the U.S. that are not connected to al Qaeda, ISIS, other officially designated international terror groups or their sympathizers.
Red flag laws often have bipartisan support. But do they stop mass shootings?
Measures to take guns out of the hands of people deemed at risk of hurting others, known as red flag laws, have been passed in more than a dozen states in recent years, often in the aftermath of a gun massacre and often with bipartisan support.
But while researchers say the laws hold promise, particularly in preventing suicides, there isn’t enough research being done to understand their effect on homicides ─ let alone mass shootings. Read more about red flag laws.
School Shooting Tracker: Counting school shootings since 2013
Since 2013, 64 people have been killed and 103 injured in 41 school shootings, according to a school shooting tracker NBC News is making public. As of October 2, 2019, it has been 148 days since the last school shooting.
NBC's tracker is an ongoing effort to identify and contextualize shootings in all types of schools, from kindergarten to college, across the U.S.
Active shooter drills are scaring kids and may not protect them. Some schools are taking a new approach.
Active shooter drills have become more common as school gun massacre after massacre has made headlines. The drills give teachers and students a blueprint to follow during emergencies, which may save lives.
Forty-two states have laws requiring some sort of emergency or safety drills in schools, many of which are designed to protect against active shooters, according to the nonprofit Education Commission of the States.
But there is hardly any research on the drills’ effectiveness, and while there are some federal recommendations, there is no standard template for schools to follow in terms of how to do them, how often to conduct them and how to explain them to students of different ages. Read more.
The 2020 Democrats’ gun proposals
Democrats have reached near-consensus on some gun proposals, but the presidential campaign has also brought forth new ideas and unearthed some dormant plans that are splitting the 2020 field.
Many of the candidates support banning assault weapons and expanding background checks on firearms to cover more sales. Here’s the rundown on their plans.
2020 Gun Safety Forum candidates schedule
Here are the expected time slots (Eastern Time) for each of the nine candidates. (Programming note: Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., will not be appearing after undergoing a heart stent procedure.)
- 1-1:30 p.m.: South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg
- 1:30-2 p.m. Former Housing Secretary Julián Castro
- 2-2:30 p.m.: Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J.
- 2:30-3-p.m.: Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.
- 4-4:30 p.m.: Former Vice President Joe Biden
- 4:30-5 p.m.: Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas
- 5-5:30p.m.: Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.
- 5:45-6:15 p.m. Entrepreneur Andrew Yang
- 6:15-6:45 p.m. Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif.
- FORUM ENDS