“It’s not like we are waiting for a good idea,” said Senator Kamala Harris during a gun control forum in Iowa on Saturday. “What we lack is the United States Congress to act.”
Harris’s comment sums up the sense of unity in the Democratic party on gun law reform felt after presidential candidates shared their plans to combat gun violence following mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio.
Saturday morning, survivors and advocates from all over the country came together in Iowa’s capital Des Moines — the state holds the first caucus ahead of presidential primaries, and thus is a crucial battleground for any candidate hoping to advance to the next round. Here, voters hoped to hear how their future president would protect them from the wreckage of gun violence, some waking as early as 2:30 a.m. to make the drive. For eight hours, 600 concerned mothers, fathers, grandparents, sisters, brothers, and their children asked the hard questions. And listened as 16 candidates laid out a similar set of proposals: Implement universal background checks, pass “red flag” laws that allow guns to be taken from people deemed dangerous, and ban assault weapons.
Another point of agreement: Cutting off the NRA’s influence on Washington.
“Real change, meaningful change, starts with breaking up the corruption in Washington. Breaking the stranglehold of the gun industry and the NRA,” said Senator Elizabeth Warren, who released her gun control plan hours before speaking at the forum, with which she said she aims to decrease gun deaths by 80% — a statement as bold as the bright red jacket she wore that day. Local progress will not cut it, she said. “For guns, it’s not enough to simply fix the laws in your state. We must fix them at the federal level.”
Former Vice President Joe Biden, countering the conservative argument that stricter gun regulation would violate Second Amendment rights, reminded attendees that “no amendment is absolute. You cannot stand up in this hall and yell, ‘Fire!’ That’s not freedom of speech.”
Six other candidates sent video messages, including former Representative Beto O’Rourke, who’s suspended his campaign to grieve with his hometown of El Paso.
Later, Entrepreneur Andrew Yang, donning his signature navy blazer-and-no-tie look, proposed a buy-back program with an option for gun owners to trade their weapons for models only they can fire — using technology that detects grip.
Just moments before, Yang covered his eyes, sobbing, after an attendee shared that her 4-year-old daughter had been killed by a stray bullet.
This was a point repeatedly underscored by attendees: People die from firearms every day. Advocates shared their stories, one after another, of losing a loved one. To suicide. To domestic violence. To hate. To robbery. To senseless acts of violence. Together, these single incidents of gun violence equate to a mass shooting every single day — 100 deaths in the U.S. daily, to be exact, according to Everytown, one of the organizations that hosted Saturday's event.
They are no less traumatizing. They just don’t typically make national headlines.
“It’s really insane how this is the first time ever that gun violence prevention is a hot button topic,” says Jovanna Liuzzo, an 18-year-old from Florida who started a Students Demand Action chapter after the Parkland shootings. “A lot of [candidates] have reiterated very similar things, but I especially appreciate any candidate that’s going to talk about police-led violence and the daily toll of inner-city violence.”
The devastation of inner-city violence is a story Sharon McMahan, a Moms Demand Action member from Baltimore, knows too well. She survived a shooting when she was 15 years old. That was 35 years ago. Since then, she’s lost six loved ones to gun violence, including her son.
“The guns are getting into too many young people’s hands. They’re not even old enough to buy a gun,” she says. “How are those guns so easily accessible in our community?”
Advocating for stricter gun laws is what helps McMahan get through the pain. “If I wasn’t taking action,” she says, “I’d still be stuck.”
Candidates addressed preventing these issues at varying degrees. Many want to close the “boyfriend-loophole” that allows people who’ve been charged with domestic violence or stalking to purchase guns. Increasing access to mental health resources and ending the stigma around those needs was another hot topic.
Both Biden and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio highlighted community policing, which builds relationships between law enforcement and the people living and working in a neighborhood.
Other solutions involved providing after school programs to keep kids off the street, and treating little ones who’ve experienced trauma.
“You should judge a society on how it treats its children,” Senator Harris said. “And on this issue, we are failing.”
Though Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and President Trump are under increasing pressure to do something about gun violence, history tells us to expect little from them on this issue. After the Parkland shooting, Trump said stronger background checks would be backed by the White House, only to later threaten to veto a background check bill after meeting with the NRA. And McConnell has refused to bring the Senate back early from its August recess, even as constituents are pleading for the government to take action as soon as possible.
During Saturday’s event, Senator Michael Bennet said he’d be surprised if McConnell brought gun legislation up for a vote. Advocates, still, feel hopeful.
“I call my senators on a daily basis, but both get money from the NRA,” says Brenda Schumann of Des Moines, a Moms Demand Action member, who inked the words "disarm hate" down her left arm at age 76. “We need somebody who will do something. And I think all our Democratic candidates will do something.”
Candidates urged advocates to keep sharing their stories, knocking on doors, making calls, and electing people into office who share their values.
“The fight doesn’t end when we leave these rooms. We have to keep doing this to honor every single victim,” Liuzzo says. “The faces and the names aren’t just numbers and statistics. They’re real people. They’re real loved ones.”