As the Democrats running for president travel through Iowa ahead of the first-in-the-nation caucuses, they’re talking about what they would do to reduce gun violence in the U.S.
In early August, campaign trail conversations about gun control intensified. Back-to-back mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton reignited calls for lawmakers to act.
The group Everytown for Gun Safety quickly organized a forum in Des Moines in response to these tragedies, and Democratic presidential candidates showed up to answer questions about steps they would take to curb gun violence.
“So for me real change, meaningful change, starts with breaking up the corruption in Washington, breaking up the stranglehold of the gun industry and the NRA,” Massachsetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren said at the forum.
And former Vice President Joe Biden criticized the availability of high-capacity weapons.
“Who in god’s name needs a weapon that can handle 100 rounds?” Biden asked at the forum. “For god’s sake.”
And 14 more presidential candidates were there, plus a handful who joined by video message.
Mass shootings often drive conversations about gun policy, and they are becoming more frequent and more deadly. But they still make up a tiny fraction of gun deaths in the U.S.
Nearly 40,000 Americans died of gunshot wounds in 2017. Sixty percent of those deaths were suicides, and less than 1 percent were mass shooting deaths. While suicide is by far the most common type of gun death, there is one big exception: homicide is the most common type of gun death for African-Americans only.
Rep. Ako Abdul-Samad, a Democrat from Des Moines, knows that firsthand.
“I lost my son in ’97, who was shot in his chest,” Abdul-Samad said. “There’s a number of individuals that I have addressed and dealt with who have been killed in gun violence.”
He runs a nonprofit called Creative Visions, where there’s a mural listing the names of Iowans shot and killed in Des Moines.
“Every day I come up and look at this mural, every day I walk into Creative Visions, I think about my son. He's right there,” Abdul-Samad said. “But I also think about the 210 people we have listed on this wall. So when I go on Capitol Hill, it's here. It's in my mind, it's in my heart, and it's like, what can we do? Especially when I hear a candidate talk about it—it’s like okay, how far do you go?”
Abdul-Samad said he supports just about every gun control policy brought forth by the Democrats running for president.
But he also wants to hear more about helping victims of gun violence, dealing with trauma, fighting racism and white nationalism, and changing the mindset of fear he says leads many people to seek out firearms for protection.
“Gun violence is a complex issue,” said Cassandra Crifasi, deputy director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research. “If it had one solution, I’m sure we would’ve figured it out by now. So what we need to do as a country and as states is put together a suite of policies and programs that are going to help us address gun violence.”
The Democrats running for president largely agree on supporting expanded background checks, banning assault-style weapons, limiting the size of magazines, and enacting extreme risk protection orders, also known as red flag laws.
New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker was the first to call for requiring a license to purchase a gun. Now most of the candidates support some form of that.
“I’m sorry that it had to take issues coming to my neighborhood or personally affecting [former Texas U.S. Rep.] Beto [O'Rourke] to suddenly make us demand change,” Booker said at the September debate on ABC. “We are never going solve this crisis if we wait for it to personally affect us or our neighborhood or our community before we demand action.”
According to public opinion polling, 80 to 90 percent of Americans support expanding background checks, nearly three-fourths support red flag laws and licensing requirements, and high capacity magazine restrictions and a proposed assault-style weapons ban have majority support.
Crifasi said along with this broad public support, research demonstrates many gun restrictions can be effective, especially gun licensing. Iowa already has this for handguns.
“It really comes down to, how onerous is the process to apply for the license? And how well does it work to screen out people who shouldn’t have them? And what we're seeing is that it's not onerous and they're effective, they're good for public safety,” Crifasi said.
As for proposals to reinstate an assault-style weapons ban, Crifasi said the 1994 law had a lot of loopholes because it’s hard to define an assault-style weapon. She said new research shows restricting magazine size can limit the number of people killed in mass shootings.
“It’s a lot harder to skirt the rules,” Crifasi said. “A magazine will hold a certain number of rounds or not.”
The issue candidates, and Americans in general, don’t agree on is requiring gun owners to sell their assault-style weapons to the government. Supporters call this a mandatory buyback, and critics call it confiscation.
Booker, California Sen. Kamala Harris and former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke support mandatory “buybacks,” but O’Rourke is best known for talking about it.
“The people of El Paso, Texas, are the ones who gave me voice to say, hell yes, we’re gonna buy back every AR-15 and AK-47 in this country, to get those off the streets and out of our homes, so no one ever has to fear that again,” O’Rourke shouted at the Polk County Democratic Steak Fry in September, as supporters chanted “hell yes.”
Crifasi said buybacks can present a lot of logistical challenges, and getting gun owners to comply could be a problem. Any form of this policy will take funding, and estimates range from $700 million to $87 billion, because no one really knows how many assault-style weapons are out there or how they would be defined.
Australia is the only country to have fully implemented this policy. A review by Harvard University researchers found mandatory buybacks contributed to a decline in gun deaths there, but it’s not clear if that could be replicated in the U.S.
And for all the talk about assault-style weapons, handguns are used in most gun deaths.
Crifasi said policies she's not hearing enough about on the campaign trail are requiring safety training for gun owners and requiring locked storage of guns.
Overall, a majority of Americans think Congress should make gun laws stricter, and that percentage has been increasing.
But those who oppose gun control are concerned these policies will hurt their ability to protect themselves, while not doing enough to reduce gun violence.
Wayne Nosbisch, a farmer from Menlo, is an independent who voted for President Trump. He owns a handgun and a shotgun.
Nosbisch said he would rather hear candidates talk about solutions for dealing with the root causes of violence because he believes it’s about the person, not the gun.
“For them to automatically assume guns are the culprit—looking at what do we need to do to get rid of them, or like some of the presidential candidates say, ‘Let’s start confiscating.’ Well if you believe in the Second Amendment or the Constitution, to me that's a nonstarter,” Nosbisch said.
That’s generally the view of gun industry and gun rights groups, though Nosbisch said he would support expanding background checks.
Whoever wins the Democratic nomination will most likely be running against Trump. He has rolled back some gun restrictions while sometimes saying he supports others. He also directed a federal agency to ban bump stocks, which allow a semiautomatic weapon to mimic the firing rate of an automatic one.
Several Democratic candidates say they will take executive action on gun control if Congress doesn’t act. But any president will need Congress on their side to pass major gun policies, and the issue remains mired in politics.