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Government

Democratic hopefuls demand action on gun control

Candidates hastily veer from script to address gun violence

Minnesota U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar speaks July 15 in Des Moines during the first of a series of presidential candidate forums around the state sponsored by AARP and the Des Moines Register. In a quickly arranged forum Saturday on gun control policy, she and other Democratic candidates said they believe the debate on gun violence in America was shifting in favor of stronger restrictions. “The heat’s been on like it’s never been on before,” Klobuchar said. (Pool photo by Des Moines Register)
Minnesota U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar speaks July 15 in Des Moines during the first of a series of presidential candidate forums around the state sponsored by AARP and the Des Moines Register. In a quickly arranged forum Saturday on gun control policy, she and other Democratic candidates said they believe the debate on gun violence in America was shifting in favor of stronger restrictions. “The heat’s been on like it’s never been on before,” Klobuchar said. (Pool photo by Des Moines Register)

DES MOINES — Democratic presidential contenders, changing schedules to participate in a hastily arranged forum Saturday on gun policy, urged Congress to take action to curb gun violence in the wake of mass shootings last weekend in Texas and Ohio that left 31 dead.

At forum in Des Moines that drew 17 of the Democratic candidates, they called for the imposition of universal background checks on gun buyers, “red flag” laws that establish a legal process for at least temporarily taking guns away from individuals determined to pose a threat, and ultimately a ban on military-style assault weapons.

They said they believed the long debate on gun violence in America was shifting in favor of stronger restrictions.

“The heat’s been on like it’s never been on before,” said U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota.

The candidates took questions from gun-control advocates and shooting survivors at a forum sponsored by Everytown for Gun Safety, an advocacy group founded by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

In the mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, the gunmen used semi-automatic weapons with high-volume magazines.

Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., called for those weapons to be taken off the streets.

“They have no basis in our neighborhoods in peacetime in the United States of America,” Buttigieg said.

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U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts said if she wins the White House she would use executive powers to impose increased background check requirements and more reporting on multiple gun purchases, and expand age restrictions to limit teenagers’ access to weapons.

Many of the Democratic candidates already were in Iowa to give speeches at the Iowa State Fair and participate in other forums and campaign rallies. But with mounting pressure to address the latest mass shootings, some veered from their typical stump speeches to talk about their plans for gun control and changed travel plans to be at Saturday morning’s forum.

Iowans go to the first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses less than six months from now.

Many of the candidates have called for measures such as an assault weapon ban, universal background checks and other gun control reforms long stymied by partisan fighting in Washington.

Democrats have criticized Republican President Donald Trump’s mixed messaging this week on possible support for some measures.

Trump suggested Friday he could sway the powerful gun lobby, the National Rifle Association, to drop its opposition to restrictions.

But Klobuchar suggested Trump would not take on the group.

“We have a guy in the White House who is afraid, afraid of the NRA,” she said.

At a Friday forum in Fort Dodge about raising teacher pay, U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California, another presidential contender, said for children in school “half of their brains are worried about who might be entering the door at the back of the classroom in a way that might threaten their safety.”

Harris reiterated her plan to give Congress 100 days to send a gun control bill to her desk and if not, she’d take executive action to establish a comprehensive background check system, revoke the licenses of dealers who violate the law and ban the importation of assault-style weapons.

“It is terrifying our children,” Harris said to applause. “There are supposed leaders in Washington, D.C., who have failed to have the courage to act.”

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Democrats have criticized Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, for refusing to bring a background check bill and other legislation to the floor for a vote.

“Red flag” laws would allow the police to temporarily confiscate guns from people deemed by a judge to be a threat to themselves or others.

Last Monday, Iowa Republican U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley told a firearms-themed fundraiser in Denison that gun owners should back “red flag” laws and other measures to help prevent mass shootings.

“I’m calling on law-abiding gun owners to lead the charge in the effort to keep dangerous individuals from purchasing guns and to expand access to mental health resources,” Grassley told the audience.

But at the state level, Republican state Sen. Jake Chapman of Adel took to the opposite view.

“The idea of a court issuing a seizure order and suspending someone’s Second Amendment rights before that person has ever been convicted of a crime is a dangerous precedent to set,” Chapman said in a statement.

Chapman noted the legislation being proposed in Washington would not be a federal law, but rather establish a funding incentive for state lawmakers to pass the bill. In 2017, the GOP-controlled Iowa Legislature expanded gun rights in the state.

Red-flag laws, which Grassley said Trump was open to talking about, may have only incremental affects on gun violence, according to an analysis by the Washington Post of the experiences of the 17 states that have versions of the law.

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The effects have been widely uneven, depending on legislative fine print and the energy with which front-line law enforcement officials implement them, the Post’s review showed.

Of the states that have adopted such legislation, in addition to the District of Columbia, some are seeing hundreds of firearms removed annually from people who have threatened suicide or homicide.

But others have seen underwhelming results.

California’s law, for example, went nearly unused for two years after its passage in 2016. And not a single request for a gun to be removed has been filed under the D.C. measure, which took effect early this year.

That history suggests a national policy that spurs more states to take away guns from those who present a risk could yield incremental, rather than sweeping, results — and that success could hinge on the enthusiasm with which local officials embrace the measure.

Reuters and the Washington Post contributed to this report.

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