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Notes from the Las Vegas #2020GunSafety Forum, As It Happened

Two years ago this week, Las Vegas suffered the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history. Today, ten Democratic presidential candidates are in town to talk about what they’ll do to prevent future mass shooting attacks and address the rest of the nation’s gun violence epidemic.

Just over 18 months ago, March for Our Lives played a major role in making gun violence a top issue in the 2018 election. Now as we prepare for 2020, March for Our Lives and Giffords have teamed up to get ten of these candidates on record on one of the greatest public health crises of our time. 

“If we truly want to stop gun violence, we have to take action now [and] turn grief into action.” 
– Assembly Member Sandra Jauregui (D-Henderson)
Photo by Andrew Davey

Just after 9:30 AM, Governor Steve Sisolak (D) and Assembly Member Sandra Jauregui opened the day’s proceedings. Jauregui recalled her experience surviving 1 October, “The sheer terror of that night, and the fear, the anger, and the guilt will live with me forever, but I won’t let those feelings define me.” She continued, “If we truly want to stop gun violence, we have to take action now [and] turn grief into action.”

Jauregui then issued this challenge to the ballroom full of gun violence prevention activists, activists from groups like Giffords, March for Our Lives, and Everytown for Gun Safety. Jauregui declared, “Today, we can decide to only support candidates who are gun safety champions. We must commit to electing gun safety candidates up and down the ballot [nationwide], just as we did here in Nevada. […] Together, we will make change.”

Photo by Andrew Davey

Sisolak then spoke of his experience rallying the community together (when he was Clark County Commission Chair) to care for victims and survivors during those first few days after the shooting. As Sisolak recalled, “On October 2, I walked the site of the shooting. […] I saw cell phones on the floor, cell phones that had been ringing. I was hoping someone would pick up that phone. There was no one to pick up that phone.”

Sisolak choked up when talking about the gun violence prevention legislation (SB 143 and AB 291) he signed into law following their passage in the Nevada Legislature. For Sisolak, “We needed to act, and we needed to act decisively.” He continued, “I will always have the honor of being the Governor who signed that bill.”

“The ground is shifting underneath the Republican Party and the White House. They know it. They can no longer stand in the way of gun violence legislation in Congress.” 
– U.S. Senator Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut)
Photo by Andrew Davey

When it comes to those outside the state who consider these Nevada Democrats “brave” for passing these bills in Carson City, Sisolak retorted, “Some call what we did brave. I disagree. Brave is surviving a mass shooting and taking action, as Sandra did. Brave is surviving a rain of bullets and providing cover for other victims.” He then added, “No one policy can stop all gun deaths, but the keyword here is try. No one should stop trying to stop needless gun deaths.”

Sisolak then reminded the crowd of the very human stakes of this public health crisis: “These are not simply numbers. There is a story, there is a family, there is a life behind every one of these numbers, and we can not forget that.”

U.S. Senator Chris Murphy seemed to be on the same page as Sisolak, as he spoke at the main stage, then with reporters in the press filing room, about his drive to try to get President Donald Trump and Congressional Republican leaders to secure a bipartisan deal on background checks. As Murphy described it, “The ground is shifting underneath the Republican Party and the White House. They know it. They can no longer stand in the way of gun violence legislation in Congress.” 

Murphy continued, “If we can get them to the table, get a bipartisan deal in the near future, Congress should be able to walk and chew gum at the same time.” And yet, Senate Republican leaders continue to block the House-passed background checks bills on their side of the Capitol and top Republicans are now claiming impeaching Trump will kill any chance of any bipartisan deal (that was already going nowhere fast before last week). While Murphy stated he supports the House’s impeachment inquiry against Trump, he also stressed, “I’m ready to negotiate with this White House and these Senate Republicans on a background checks deal that can save lives.”

We have to make sure it’s not just one more chapter in the ‘culture war’, but we need the American people to come together to save lives.” 
– South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg
Photo by Andrew Davey

On one hand, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg has proposed his own gun violence action plan that includes the very leading-edge proposals, such as a new federal assault weapons ban and permit-to-purchase gun licensing, that Senators Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) embraced earlier. Yet on the other, he chided former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) today for daring to suggest a mandatory buyback program as an enforcement mechanism for his proposed assault weapons ban.

On the main stage, Buttigieg seemed to suggest O’Rourke’s recent comments on his proposed assault weapons ban and mandatory buyback program jeopardized any progress on lighter legislative lifts like background checks. Yet when pressed on what he’ll push to become law if he becomes president, Buttigieg turned around and declared, “I believe all of this is achievable, especially if we can get the Senate in Democratic hands.”

But then again, Buttigieg cautioned, “I think it’s important to engage the American majority. We need to let responsible gun owners know that they are not the enemy.” And as he continued answering reporters’ questions, he seemed to revert to his main stage remarks when he said, “A majority of gun owners support universal background checks. We’re open to licensing [requirements]. We have to make sure it’s not just one more chapter in the ‘culture war’, but we need the American people to come together to save lives.”

“Our politics has to be about doing the right thing, saying the right thing, saying it clearly, saying it honestly, and acting decisively.” 
– Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas)
Photo by Andrew Davey

Later in the day, O’Rourke came to press filing to issue his rebuttal: “We the people decide what is possible, what is practical.” O’Rourke later chided Buttigieg for sticking with his usual “values talks”, rather than going deeper.

As O’Rourke saw it, “How can you say that to March for Our Lives? How can you say that to gun violence survivors? How can you say that to the majority of Hispanics who fear they will be the next victim of a mass shooting motivated by racial hatred?”

O’Rourke continued, “I was really offended by those comments. I think he represents a kind of politics that’s centered on poll testing and focus grouping and listening to consultants before you arrive at a position.” He then added, “Our politics has to be about doing the right thing, saying the right thing, saying it clearly, saying it honestly, and acting decisively.” 

“There are tools available for the president to reduce gun violence immediately, to reduce the availability of guns. My next priority is to attack the corruption head-on, corruption that keeps Congress from doing the people’s work.” 
– U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts)
Photo by Andrew Davey

Up until recently, O’Rourke has generally been viewed as one of the centrist candidates who Democratic establishment leaders would feel more comfortable with as the nominee. But in the last two months, he’s been grouped more often with progressive firebrands like Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) due to his “come to Jesus moment” on guns. 

Speaking of Warren, she also had some choice words on both gun violence and the overall state of the race. When I asked her about health care in August, she led with a “big picture” talk on corruption. When I asked her about gun violence today, Warren returned to the central issue of her platform as she touted her own plan of action on gun violence.

In response to my question on what she envisions accomplishing on gun violence during her first two years as president, she declared, “My first priority […] is to do what a president can do all by herself. There are tools available for the president to reduce gun violence immediately, to reduce the availability of guns. My next priority is to attack the corruption head-on, corruption that keeps Congress from doing the people’s work.”

Though Warren suggested she’d first use executive action to achieve many of her goals, such as expanding background checks and cracking down on gun dealers who have already violated existing law, she also suggested her anti-corruption platform is needed to pass the legislation she and gun safety activists want. According to Warren, “We have 93% of Americans who support universal background checks, and a majority of Americans who support removing weapons of war from our streets, yet Congress is not passing [such legislation]. The reason is corruption, pure and simple. We need to stand up to the corruption and do the people’s business.”

“We need people to go out and vote for these issues, not for Democrats and not for Republicans, but for morally just leaders who will protect our children and the future of the United States of America.” 
– David Hogg, March for Our Lives
Photo by Andrew Davey

While the audience heard plenty from plenty of politicians, it’s also important for us to remember why this even happened today. Some 19 months after “turning grief into action,” March for Our Lives national leaders David Hogg and Ariel Hobbs spoke with reporters about the need for activists to keep working to push elected officials to do better, and to elect more leaders amenable to taking the action they seek.

As some of the candidates were promoting their own respective plans, Hogg touted their own: “Look for the March for Our Lives Peace Plan. Our plan has proposals in there that we know can reduce gun violence by 50% in the next decade if it were implemented today. We have politicians who lack the courage to protect our children and the future of the United States of America.” Thus far only O’Rourke has specifically endorsed the March for Our Lives Peace Plan, which includes everything from declaring gun violence a national emergency to generating “community-based solutions” on both gun violence and related societal problems like mental health care and domestic violence.

Ultimately, Hogg and Hobbs called upon the other activists in the hall to stand tall and get the job done: “We need people to go out and vote for these issues, not for Democrats and not for Republicans, but for morally just leaders who will protect our children and the future of the United States of America.”

As this election cycle and “raucous rush to caucus” keep bumbling on, it’s important for us to remember what this is all supposed to be about. Even amidst the occasional squabbling over who says what about whom, today’s big event still serves as a critical reminder of how and why any of this matters.

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