At Las Vegas gun safety forum, Democrats renew call for stricter measures

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Christopher DeVargas

Former Congresswoman Gabby Gifford asks Joe Biden a question on gun control at the 2020 Presidential Gun Safety Forum in Las Vegas, Wednesday Oct. 2, 2019.

Wed, Oct 2, 2019 (7:15 p.m.)

Gov. Steve Sisolak remembered the constant ringing of cellphones. Sadly, he knew they wouldn’t be picked up.

Sisolak arrived on the Strip shortly after the Oct. 1, 2017, mass shooting had ended. Of all the sights and sounds stuck in his memory from that night, the one that stands out among the carnage was the nonstop ringing. It was loved ones calling to check on family and friends at the music festival where the shooting occurred. 

“I’ll never forget the sound of those cellphones ringing, many of which were never answered,” Sisolak said Wednesday while becoming emotional.

Sisolak was one of the speakers Wednesday at the 2020 Gun Safety Presidential Forum, which was sponsored by the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence and March For Our Lives. The event, one day after the two-year anniversary of the massacre, was a gathering of nine presidential candidates to discuss their policies on gun control and gun violence prevention. 

The candidates who attended included Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Kamala Harris, D-Calif., former Vice President Joe Biden, former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg and businessman Andrew Yang. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, who underwent an operation Tuesday for a blocked artery, was scheduled to participate. 

“We are part of a great social change movement in this country. That is what the history books are going to say about us,” said Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy, who spoke at the event. “But the great social change movement that we read about are not those that meet success right off the bat. The history books write about the movements that encounter obstacle after obstacle, failure after failure, but are so confident of the righteousness of their cause that they refuse to give up.”

Murphy has advocated for stricter gun laws since the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in his state. Multiple mass shootings this summer — namely in Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas — have led to renewed calls for action on gun control.

O’Rourke was in Las Vegas in August when news broke of the El Paso shooting, and he suspended his campaign to spend time in his hometown. In the Houston debates after the tragedy, he said he would enact a mandatory buyback program for assault weaponry. He doubled down on his stance Wednesday.

“What we expect of our fellow Americans is that when something like this comes into law, they will follow the law,” O’Rourke said.

Booker and Harris also back a mandatory buyback program. Others, such as Biden and Klobuchar, support a voluntary program.

“We’re going to have to have smart public policy in taking those off the streets,” Harris said. 

In response to concerns from gun advocacy groups, Booker said that a buyback program doesn’t mean federal agents would show up at a citizen’s home demanding their weapon. 

The candidates pushed for more research on gun violence, including Warren, who has proposed capping firearm purchases at one per month. Congress has long blocked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from studying gun violence as a public health problem. 

“The one area where, by and large, we put no federal money into researching is gun violence,” Warren said.

Biden proposed investing $900 million into the 20 cities with the highest rates of gun violence to study how to make them safer.

Many candidates also pushed back against the influence of the NRA, with Buttigieg stressing that the NRA’s position on universal background checks is not indicative of the larger population’s views.

“When you have the NRA fighting it tooth and nail, they’re not speaking for gun owners — they’re speaking for gun company executives,” Buttigieg said.

Added Warren, “My responsibility is to show a little courage. Be willing to stand up to the NRA, be willing to stand up to the gun industry and say, ‘enough is enough, you’re not going to call all the shots around here.’”

Castro said that the common pro-gun argument that the presence of responsible gun owners would dissuade violent shooters is a myth. The El Paso shooter, he said, was obviously not deterred by the presence of guns. Texas has one of the highest gun ownership rates in the country.

“That shooter knew he was walking into a place where a lot of people were carrying. That didn’t make a difference. He also knew that they had armed security there and that didn’t end up making a difference,” Castro said.

Each candidate stressed the need for action. Booker said that people should not wait for the problem to hit their community to care.

“We cannot wait in this country — 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,” Booker said.

Sisolak, in his remarks about the Oct. 1 shooting, said that it is important to remember there are humans beyond the statistics.

“I want to reemphasize that while we lost 58 lives in Las Vegas — we lost lives in Parkland, Sandy Hook, El Paso and all the other mass shootings — these are not simply numbers,” Sisolak said. "There is a story, there is a family, there is a life behind every single one of those numbers and we cannot forget that.”

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