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Iowa Gun Forum Draws 2020 Presidential Candidates

Aug 10, 2019
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Presidential candidates are also taking on the issue of gun control. Many of the 2020 Democratic hopefuls are in Iowa this week for town halls, fundraisers and, of course, the state fair. And as NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben reports, the issue was front and center today at a forum sponsored by gun control advocates.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: Sue Body is a retired teacher from Osceola, Iowa. She hasn't personally been affected by mass shootings, but she feels deeply that America has a problem.

SUE BODY: And I am fortunate to live in a small town in Iowa. We haven't been touched by gun violence yet. But I know as a nation, we're really struggling.

KURTZLEBEN: She came down to Des Moines today for a forum sponsored by Every Town For Gun Safety. The event was announced just four days ago, and it drew 16 candidates and a crowd of hundreds. The all-day event was often somber. One woman referenced South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg's military service as she tearfully asked him about assault-style weapons.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: When you served, you carried a rifle that's similar to the weapons used in so many mass shootings - like the weapon that killed my niece.

KURTZLEBEN: Buttigieg told her that he wants a ban on those weapons.

PETE BUTTIGIEG: AKs, ARs - they have no business in our neighborhoods in peacetime in the United States of America. They are for war zones.

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KURTZLEBEN: The Democratic field broadly agrees on wanting more gun control measures. And today, many of the candidates on stage voiced support for particular measures like banning assault-style weapons and universal background checks. The crowd applauded those sorts of proposals. But some, like Lisa Vaknin, weren't satisfied with all the messages they heard.

LISA VAKNIN: It's easy to be empathetic, especially here among these people.

KURTZLEBEN: Yeah.

VAKNIN: You know, that's simple. But I didn't feel like sometimes they got out beyond that - the easy part.

KURTZLEBEN: She said the hard part is proposing policies that will work, and to her, that means proposals that go beyond gun restrictions.

VAKNIN: Whenever you, for instance, get back to the NRA, that's still all about money. And I did hear one or two of them say money in politics, and that is really the root of all evil. It's connected to everything that we care about.

KURTZLEBEN: Along with the NRA, Republicans were a common target today. Many candidates criticized the GOP for not passing gun control measures. And California senator Kamala Harris took sharp aim at President Trump, tying his rhetoric to recent deaths.

KAMALA HARRIS: People say to me, did Donald Trump cause those folks to be killed? Well, no. Of course he didn't pull the trigger, but he's certainly been tweeting out the ammunition.

KURTZLEBEN: While the candidates were bringing the fight to Republicans, Body noted that they were also largely laying off each other.

BODY: You're not hearing the bickering and the - how I'm better than the other guy, why you should vote for me over the other guy.

KURTZLEBEN: To her, a forum like this isn't entirely about candidates winning voters, though. It's also about activists like her convincing candidates to keep caring.

BODY: I hope that in return, they are feeling our passion. There's so many things they're dealing with - with health care and immigration and climate change and all of those things. We don't want gun control to slip down the radar screen too much.

KURTZLEBEN: She and her fellow activists hope that they and not yet another tragedy will keep candidates focused on the issue.

Danielle Kurtzleben, NPR News, Des Moines.

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