Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) made an impassioned call for stricter gun controls at a presidential candidate forum on Wednesday, specifically calling out former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) for only coming around to supporting national gun licensing after the mass shooting in El Paso, Texas.
“You should not be a nominee from our party … if you don’t believe in gun licensing,” Booker said at the Las Vegas event, which was hosted by gun safety groups Giffords and March for Our Lives. It took place one day after the two-year anniversary of the 2017 Las Vegas massacre, which claimed 58 lives.
Nine Democratic candidates were expected to speak at the 2020 Gun Safety Forum, including former Vice President Joe Biden, former Obama housing chief Julián Castro, Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
Booker pointed out that some of his fellow candidates don’t support federal gun licensing while he was the first to make it part of his campaign platform. Warren, who spoke after Booker, released a gun reform plan in August that includes federal gun licensing. Biden’s plan, released on Wednesday before the forum, doesn’t go as far, instead calling for incentives for states to enact gun licensing programs.
“When I came out as the first person saying that, people told me it was too bold and too far,” Booker said Wednesday of federal licensing. “But I’m grateful now many have come out in support of my position.”
“Beto O’Rourke was not for gun licensing ― criticized me when I came out for it,” the New Jersey senator added. “He saw the horrors visiting his community. Are we going to have to wait until hell’s lottery comes to your community? No, we are a better country.”
Among the spate of mass shootings in the U.S. over the summer, a gunman killed 22 people in El Paso after posting a racist, anti-immigrant manifesto online. In May, O’Rourke had said that Booker’s plan for national gun licensing might go “too far.” After the El Paso shooting in August, O’Rourke released an ambitious gun control plan of his own, including a mandatory assault weapons buyback and federal gun licensing.
In Las Vegas on Wednesday, O’Rourke responded to Booker’s comments.
“I want to give Senator Booker all the credit in the world for being a leader on this. This is not a moment to seek division,” O’Rourke said. “The fact that he has joined ― really, I was gonna say ‘our’ ― but March for Our Lives’ leadership on a mandatory buyback on AR-15s and AK-47s, that’s a really good thing.”
“To me ... it doesn’t matter how soon you get to a given position, as long as you’re in the right place,” he added.
In September’s Democratic primary debate, O’Rourke made headlines calling for a mandatory buyback program for semi-automatic weapons, telling gun owners: “Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15.”
Rival candidates Booker and Harris have since expressed support for the idea. Buttigieg and Biden have said they think buybacks should be voluntary.
On Wednesday, Booker repeated that he supports such a program and suggested that questioning whether the U.S. should have a mandatory buyback of assault weapons is “absurd.”
The senator released a sweeping plan to combat gun violence in May, calling for a national gun licensing program, bans on assault weapons, high-capacity magazines and bump stocks, and an increase in federal funding for violence intervention programs.
Ending gun violence is a major priority for Democratic primary voters, who widely support reforms like gun licensing and voluntary buybacks of assault weapons. More than 70% of American voters overall support requiring people to obtain a license before being able to purchase a gun, according to a late August HuffPost/YouGov poll.
Some form of gun licensing, which currently requires a person to obtain a permit from local or state authorities before buying a weapon, is the law in 15 states.
On Wednesday, Booker pointed to the effects of Connecticut’s 1995 gun licensing law. Research has shown that over the first 10 years of that law, the state’s firearm homicide rate fell by 40% and its firearm suicide rate decreased by 15% from what they were otherwise predicted to be.
Booker also noted how the epidemic of daily gun violence disproportionately impacts poor communities of color.
“Nobody will go to the White House with more of a sense of urgency to end this scourge than me,” he said.