The 10 Democrats appearing on stage at Thursday’s 2020 presidential debate in Houston will face a row of gun safety advocates and shooting survivors who hope the candidates will put gun violence at the forefront of their campaigns.
The 11 guests that will join former Rep. Gabby Giffords ― a shooting survivor who now leads a gun violence prevention organization in her name ― include six people who survived the hate-fueled mass shooting on Aug. 3 that killed 22 people in El Paso, Texas. The debate will be Giffords’ third visit to Texas since the massacre, which was the largest attack against Latinx people in recent U.S. history.
Other guests include Texas Gun Owners for Safety founders Pat and Alan Krov; Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas), whose district includes El Paso; and gun violence prevention advocates Sandy and Lonnie Phillips, whose daughter was killed during the 2012 mass shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. HuffPost obtained a copy of the guest list Wednesday night.
“Addressing our country’s gun violence crisis is a priority for the American people and it needs to be a priority at this debate,” Giffords said in a statement. “America needs leaders who will be inspired to take on the gun lobby and make our communities safer because of advocates who raise their voices. Tonight we hope to hear moderators ask, and candidates answer, how exactly they will be the Gun Safety President our country deserves.”
Earlier this week, Giffords Courage launched its “Gun Safety President” campaign with a video of several Democratic candidates stressing the importance of keeping children and schools safe from gun violence. The now-viral video features Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.), Sen. Kamala Harris (Calif.), Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), former Vice President Joe Biden and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (Texas).
All of those candidates will be on the debate stage Thursday, and will have been informed of the shooting survivors joining Giffords in the audience.
“The American people overwhelmingly support action and leadership on gun violence prevention legislation,” Escobar said in a statement. “While we know that the Democratic presidential candidates stand with the majority of the American people, as does our House majority, we must persist until those standing in the way of safe communities relent or get replaced.”
Giffords Courage’s executive director, Peter Ambler, who is an El Paso native, told HuffPost that, although Democratic presidential candidates have agreed on a lot of aspects of gun safety, there is room for candidates to dish out the details of their plan and how exactly their proposals will reduce gun violence.
“We expect it to be front and center in terms of issues that are discussed and debated,” Ambler said. “If our candidates are not talking about it, if they’re not bringing it up … then they’re not going to ultimately have the mandate that they need when they actually get to the White House to act on this issue.”
The issue of gun control is expected to come up during the debate, with the event being held in a state that’s dealt with two mass shootings since the beginning of August, in El Paso and an Aug. 31 rampage in the Odessa area. A new HuffPost/YouGov poll also shows that most Democrats support more aggressive positions on gun control.
One candidate who is expected to speak forcefully on gun violence is O’Rourke, who used to represent his hometown of El Paso as a congressman and took time off the campaign trail to help heal the community after the mass shooting. His gun safety plan is also one of the more aggressive proposals, with a mandatory buyback program for assault rifles and a voluntary buyback for handguns.
“You’re going to see two core contrasts on stage. One is there’s going to be a contrast with the current president. And the other is going to be a contrast with the politics of the past,” Ambler said.
“At one point, this [gun safety] was considered a third rail of our politics, and even Democrats ran away from it rather than toward it,” he added. “ Today, gun violence is a kitchen table issue in this country on the same level as … issues that get a lot of attention during campaigns.”
Guns result in more than 36,000 deaths a year in the U.S. and make up the vast majority of homicides. According to a Gallup poll, 92% of Americans support universal background checks for buyers, including 83% of gun owners.
The same Democratic candidates have all said they’ll appear at an Oct. 2 presidential forum in Las Vegas on gun violence. The forum is being hosted by Giffords and March for Our Lives, a student-led gun violence prevention group that formed after the Feb. 14, 2018, mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida. Las Vegas was also the site of a mass shooting, on Oct. 1, 2017, when a gunman opened fire on thousands of people at a concert.