Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke’s hometown was struck with tragedy this weekend, after a mass shooting inside an El Paso, Texas, Walmart left 20 people dead and at least 26 wounded Saturday.
On the campaign trail in Las Vegas with nine other candidates, O’Rourke, visibly emotional, said he was cutting his trip short to fly back to El Paso, which he represented while in Congress. He went on to deliver a message that has been echoed by the wide field of 2020 candidates, all of whom decried political inaction on gun reform following the attack.
“There is no luxury in this democracy of sitting this one out, whether it is gun violence, whether it is many of the issues we discuss today,” O’Rourke said at a trade union forum. “Universal background checks, a stop to all sales of weapons of wars. Some initial reports were that it was a military-style weapon or weapons used in Cielo Vista Mall — keep that shit on the battlefield, do not bring it into our communities, I don’t want to see it in our malls or in our schools or in our churches or in our synagogues.”
Just hours later, nine more died in a mass shooting in Dayton, Ohio, early Sunday morning; more than two dozen others were injured. The weekend of violence has reinvigorated the national conversation around gun violence in America, particularly among Democratic presidential candidates.
But the focus hasn’t only been on inaction in Congress. As law enforcement investigates reports that the El Paso shooter published an anti-immigrant manifesto online before carrying out the attack, Democratic candidates are also calling out President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly used racist and anti-immigrant rhetoric and has courted support among white nationalist groups.
“Multiple news organizations have reported the gunman shared a racist, anti-immigrant manifesto,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) tweeted. “If true, let us be clear: this would be yet another white nationalist domestic terror attack. After every tragedy the Senate, intimidated by the NRA’s power, does nothing. ... We must treat this violent racism like the security threat that it is. That means investing in law enforcement resources to combat the growing population of white nationalists who are engaging in violence.”
2020 Democratic candidates called out Republican inaction on gun control
In responding to the mass shootings, 2020 Democrats decried inaction on gun control. Candidates currently in Congress say these tragedies are followed with an all-too-common cycle: an outpouring of “thoughts and prayers,” and then a short-lived debate on gun control that has never amounted to real change.
“We are in this unimaginably just distraught moment in this country, where we seem to be almost accepting this idea that these are going to be a regular occurrence,” Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) told reporters in Las Vegas. “And so I have had enough of this, especially living in a community where gunshots are all too regular.”
“Far too many communities have suffered through tragedies like this already,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) tweeted. “We must act now to end our country’s gun violence epidemic.”
Democratic candidates also pointed to the National Rifle Association, a powerful gun lobby that has been known to oppose any gun control measure, no matter how small, as part of the problem.
“This is not just about what policy works better,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) said. “This is about the power of an outside group, and people who are too afraid to act. And it’s not just about mass shootings; it’s about every single day in America, in neighborhoods across the country.”
Last year, Congress passed the Fix NICS Act to increase enforcement of a federal law that requires state law enforcement agencies to report criminal records to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). The act’s goal was to ensure firearms aren’t sold to people with criminal records.
It was an extremely modest change to current gun laws, but even that got pushback from the most conservative lawmakers in Congress. House Democrats have passed a bill that would institute universal background checks, but Senate Republican leadership has not brought that bill up for a vote. Candidates called for that sort of impasse to change.
“This attack is a tragic reminder of our government’s failure to do its most basic duty: to protect American lives. We need gun reform now,” Julián Castro, the former Obama Cabinet secretary and San Antonio, Texas, mayor, tweeted.
Former Vice President Joe Biden also made a call to action.
“Heartbroken to hear the news from El Paso,” Biden’s campaign tweeted. “Our thoughts are with those impacted by yet another senseless act of gun violence in America. How many lives must be cut short? How many communities must be torn apart? It’s past time we take action and end our gun violence epidemic.”
The shooting in El Paso, notably, also raises another debate Democrats on the presidential campaign trail have been grappling with: how to address the rise in white nationalist rhetoric seemingly empowered by the Trump administration. O’Rourke placed some of the blame for the El Paso shooting at Trump’s feet as he referenced the hateful and xenophobic document that has been attributed to the shooter, saying, “Though Mexican immigrants commit crimes at a far lower rate than those born here in the country, [Trump] has tried to make us afraid of them to some real effect and consequence.”
On the debate stage last week, Warren said, “We need to call out white supremacy for what it is: domestic terrorism. And it poses a threat to the United States of America.”
South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg echoed that sentiment after the El Paso shooting, calling the shooter’s actions “homegrown white nationalist terrorism.”
“America is under attack from homegrown white nationalist terrorism,” Buttigieg said. “And we have to talk and act about two things in this country. First of all, we are the only country in the world with more guns than we have people. We can respect the Second Amendment and not allow it to be a death sentence for thousands of Americans. And two, white nationalism is evil.”