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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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.