In the midst of one of the busiest weekends of the Iowa caucus season to date, more than a dozen candidates carved out time in their packed schedules to attend the Presidential Gun Sense Forum.
Organized by Everytown for Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action, 16 candidates answered questions from a two-person panel and members of the audience.
Several candidates submitted video messages, including Beto O’Rourke, the former Texas congressman who represented El Paso, Texas, the site of an Aug. 3 mass shooting.
The other presidential candidates included: Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan; Montana Gov. Steve Bullock; New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand; Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana; Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar; John Hickenlooper, the former governor of Colorado; Julian Castro, the former secretary of housing and urban development; Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren; former Vice President Joe Biden; Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders; Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet; California Sen. Kamala Harris; Washington Gov. Jay Inslee; New York Mayor Bill de Blasio; Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard; and Andrew Yang, a New York entrepreneur.
Bullock, the governor of a rural state with an active gun culture, was the second candidate on stage Saturday morning.
As he told the story of his 11-year-old nephew’s shooting death, the large event space fell silent.
“Jeremey and Josh were lined up for school to go in, backpacks were heavy with books, when a 10-year-old, who had been bullied, ended up shooting,” said Bullock, describing the shooting that involved his twin nephews. “My nephew was the unintended victim. At the time , that was the youngest schoolyard shooting in the country. Now, if a 10-year-old shot an 11-year-old, it wouldn’t even make national news.”
Gillibrand, the junior senator from New York, said she would “pass universal background checks” and “pass a federal anti-gun trafficking law, and I will ban the assault rifles and the large magazines that are resulting in all of this death.”
In response to a question from a member of the audience who was shot five times by her boyfriend, Gillibrand pointed to legislation in the U.S. Senate to close the so-called “boyfriend loophole” in the Violence Against Women Act.
“I have legislation to mandate, on the federal level, that any intimate partner who feels they are at risk can actually get a protective order and actually have the guns taken away from the person who is threatening them,” said Gillibrand, who has made advocacy for women a central part of her presidential campaign. “That has to be done.”
Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a sponsor of the Senate legislation, told the audience the bill currently was awaiting a vote in the Republican-controlled Senate.
“Whose doorstep is it on?” Klobuchar asked, as the crowd replied “Mitch McConnell!”
“You got to put the responsibility where it is. It’s there, and we’re awaiting action. I think this, in addition to pushing for the votes on the background checks and other bills, we got to make sure people understand that this is hanging out there, too. It’s the entire Violence Against Women Act.”
Nancy Kleeger of Altoona, dressed in her red “Moms Demand Action” t-shirt, noted the hundreds of people in the audience as a sign of how much the activism around gun safety has grown.
“I’m beyond grateful that the candidates took time out of their super busy days to come here on short notice, but this is so, so important,” said Kleeger. “While it’s important for people running for president to share their ideas, like many of them have said today, it’s the activists who work to bring them to the table and get these issues on their minds.”
For Tony Emery of West Des Moines, the uncomfortable conversations he has had with his 5-year-old son prompted him to become more active in advocating for gun safety legislation at the state and federal level.
“When I have to explain to my young son over and over again why people are being murdered in public places, that’s a conversation I’m sick of having,” said Emery, during a break in the slew of candidate speeches. “I decided that I can’t just complain anymore, I need to be involved and try and make a change.”
Sen. Warren, and several others speaking Saturday to the crowd at the Iowa Events Center, noted the importance of using executive orders to achieve reform.
“I will take executive action at every corner, with the Department of Justice, with ATF [Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives] to move as much as I can,” said Warren. “But, there’s much that must go through Congress.”
Though a vast majority of Americans support gun safety legislation, Warren said, significant reform has not happened in decades.
“Why did they not happen? I’ll tell you why it doesn’t happen — corruption, plain and simple. The gun industry controls Washington. And we have to fight back against that corruption.”
Biden, also a former U.S. senator, was representing Delaware in the 1990’s when Democratic president Bill Clinton’s administration instituted the 10-year assault weapons ban.
“The biggest and most important thing we should do right away is get assault weapons off the street again,” said Biden, Saturday in Des Moines.
Biden, however, said he did not support abolishing the Senate filibuster as a way to enact gun safety reforms, as other presidential candidates have suggested.
“The way to get it passed is, you have to make sure that it’s a part of something that is larger than just the gun, larger than just that issue,” said Biden, speaking to reporters after his speech at the gun safety forum. “We could attach it to an appropriations bill — there’s a lot of things you can do without giving away what is ultimately a protection for minorities, which is the filibuster.
“The fact of the matter is, I’m not for changing the filibuster.”
By Elizabeth Meyer