Democratic candidates blame Trump and NRA for inaction on guns, offering their own plans

Election 2020 Elizabeth Warren
Elizabeth Warren, speaking at the Presidential Gun Sense Forum in Des Moines, says her goal is to cut the number of U.S. firearms deaths by 80%.
(Charlie Neibergall / Associated Press)

Democratic presidential candidates on Saturday placed responsibility for inaction on gun violence in the hands of President Trump and the National Rifle Assn., in the face of broad national support for some gun control measures.

“If most Americans insist that something be done and it doesn’t happen, it means we need fundamental reform,” Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., said at a presidential forum on gun violence in downtown Des Moines.

The forum comes after mass shootings over eight days in Gilroy, Calif., El Paso and Dayton, Ohio, shook the nation and reignited a debate surrounding gun control in the U.S.

Sixteen candidates spoke and answered questions from members of the gun control group Moms Demand Action in the crowd, some of whom teared up while describing the ways gun violence had affected their families.


New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, in response to a question on how to avoid stigmatizing mental illness when the president has repeatedly highlighted that issue in response to mass shootings, called Trump a liar, saying that m ost people with a mental illness are not violent.

“It’s just President Trump lying to the American people again, being inauthentic about what the problem is ... trying to distract, and trying not to take responsibility for what is happening in this nation,” she said.

California Sen. Kamala Harris also put some of the blame on Trump’s shoulders, saying that the president “didn’t pull the trigger, but he’s tweeting out the ammunition.”

Trump, in tweets, rallies and campaign ads, has referred to an “invasion” of immigrants in the U.S., a theme included a so-called manifesto authorities say the El Paso shooting suspect posted online just before the massacre there .


Harris also suggested Trump could push for gun control legislation by encouraging the Senate majority leader to bring to the floor measures that have passed the House.

“If he said, ‘H ey, Mitch McConnell, bring that House bill over here’ ... it would happen,” she said.

A number of candidates have released gun control policies following the shootings. On Saturday, the Democrats largely agreed on the broad contours of the policy debate, emphasizing the need to close background check loopholes, ban assault weapons and fund research into gun violence. Most of the candidates also called on campaign finance reform as a solution to combat the NRA‘s influence on elections.

Democratic presidential candidates speak at the Wing Ding fundraiser in Clear Lake, Iowa

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren released a sweeping gun control agenda before the event, starting with a trio of actions she vowed to immediately take if elected — including an expansion of background checks by redefining the federal standard for those “engaged in the business” of gun sales — and continuing with a long list of legislative priorities.

Chief among Warren’s longer-term gun control goals, she explained in a post on the website Medium, are the creation of a federal license for any firearm purchase, exponentially higher taxes on guns and ammunition sales, and a one-gun-per-month purchasing limit.

She said her goal would be to cut the number of firearms deaths in the U.S. — almost 40,000 a year — by 80%, matching the decline in the number of people killed in vehicle crashes over the past half-century.


Former Vice President Joe Biden proposed putting biometric scanners on guns so that only the owner could use them, and said laws should be changed to allow individuals to sue gun manufacturers.

Sen. Kamala Harris
Kamala Harris embraces a member of the crowd who asked a question Saturday at the gun safety forum in Des Moines.
(Stephen Maturen / Getty Images)

Harris has pledged to pursue executive actions to combat gun violence if Congress doesn’t move on legislation within her first 100 days in office, including closing the loophole that allows domestic abusers to buy guns and requiring background checks for customers of any gun dealer that sells more than five guns a year.

The California senator added her voice to the growing number of candidates calling on Walmart to stop selling guns. Walmart is one of the biggest retailers of firearms in the United States, and the El Paso shooting occurred at one of its stores.

Harris joined Warren, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and former Housing Secretary Julián Castro in calling for the big-box store to end its gun sales. Warren, who called a day earlier for Walmart to stop selling guns, suggested Saturday that consumers put pressure on the company by taking their business elsewhere.

“It’s up to every Walmart customer who worries about the safety of her children, of her neighbors, of her friends, of people across this country to say, ‘I’ve got choices on where I spend my money,’” she said.

A Walmart spokesman has said the company is conducting “a thorough review” of its policies.

A trio of more moderate candidates — Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar — called on gun owners to get involved in the gun control effort.

Joe Biden lost Iowa badly when he ran for president in 2008. He’s working hard to make sure it doesn’t happen again in 2020 — and having been Obama’s vice president helps a lot.

“If we can ever look at this issue as not a political issue but a public health issue, we know what to do. The majority of gun owners, the majority of NRA members — all of us think universal background checks make a heck of a lot of sense,” Bullock said, noting he uses guns and has taken his son hunting.

A 2017 Pew Research Center poll showed a slight majority of NRA members — and more than three-fourths of gun owners polled — support stronger background checks.

Buttigieg, who recently dealt with the fatal police shooting of a black man in his home city, was asked how he’d address the issue of police shootings. He proposed deescalation training, equipping police officers with nonlethal weapons and demanding more accountability so that “officers who do the wrong thing live with justice.”

Buttigieg and Biden criticized what they described as absolutism on gun rights from 2nd Amendment proponents.

“Anyone can have a slingshot. No one can have a nuclear weapon.... Somewhere between a water balloon and a Predator drone, America gets to draw a line in order to keep ourselves safe,” Buttigieg said.

But a number of the candidates expressed optimism that there was momentum in favor of gun reform because of the growing pressure from the public on lawmakers to act.

“There’s a tipping point that’s been reached,” Klobuchar said. “I feel it out there.”