By Joseph Ax
LAS VEGAS (Reuters) - Democratic presidential contenders on Wednesday vowed to pursue far-reaching limits on guns, tackling an issue that has become a top concern for their party's voters.
Nine of the leading candidates gathered in Las Vegas for an all-day forum on gun safety, a day after the city marked two years since it suffered the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history, which killed 58 people.
The event - co-hosted by the gun safety advocacy groups Giffords and the student-led March For Our Lives - represented an effort to keep gun violence at the forefront of the campaign, despite the looming specter of an impeachment inquiry into U.S. President Donald Trump's dealings with Ukraine.
"We cannot wait for this hell to be visited upon your community for you to be activated for this fight," said U.S. Senator Cory Booker, who spoke passionately about witnessing firsthand the scourge of gun violence in his low-income, neighborhood in Newark, New Jersey. "It is a life-and-death issue for people in communities like mine."
The candidates' forceful words provided the latest evidence that the politics around gun control have shifted following a spate of high-profile mass shootings in recent years.
Most of the Democrats were broadly in agreement on certain policies, including universal background checks, "red flag" laws that allow courts to remove guns from dangerous people and an assault-style weapons ban. But the back-to-back appearances also exposed some fissures among the Democrats over other ideas.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, who is leading most public polls, released a gun reform proposal hours before the event that called for banning online sales and repealing a law that gives gun makers special protections against civil liability.
"Imagine if the same law existed for drug companies that existed for gun companies," Biden said.
But Biden does not support some other candidates' proposals, such as a mandatory buyback program for assault-style weapons or a national licensing requirement.
In his remarks, Booker - the first presidential candidate to call for licensing earlier this year - noted most people already support the concept.
"You should not be a nominee from our party that can seriously stand in front of urban places and say, 'I will protect you,' if you don't believe in gun licensing," Booker said.
Former U.S. Representative Beto O'Rourke, who has made gun safety the central cause of his campaign since a gunman murdered 22 people in his hometown of El Paso, Texas, two months ago, echoed his vow to force people to give up "weapons of war" through buybacks.
Several candidates spoke about the particular toll gun violence has on communities of color, as well as the psychological damage done to children fearful of school shootings.
U.S. Senator Kamala Harris said teachers had told her they have lollipops on hand to keep the youngest students quiet in the event of an attack.
"This is traumatizing our children," she said.
In Washington, the Republican majority in the U.S. Senate has shown little appetite for new limits. Trump, whose 2016 campaign was bolstered by millions of dollars from the National Rifle Association, has offered mixed signals.
On Wednesday, Trump blamed the Democrats' impeachment investigation for a lack of progress on gun safety, a claim that U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren decried as an "alternative reality."
Several candidates sought to tie gun safety to the broader themes of their campaigns.
Warren said gun violence has gone unchecked for the same reason that climate change and drug prices remained unaddressed in Washington: powerful companies have bought off politicians.
"You have to stop and ask yourself the question: What is so badly broken in this democracy that something that the overwhelming majority of Americans want to see done doesn't get done," she said. "And the answer is, there's too much power in the hands of the gun industry and the gun lobby."
Biden, who has argued that defeating Trump is the most important thing for Democrats to accomplish, said he expected new laws would pass easily once "we get this guy out of office."
Andrew Yang, the entrepreneur whose signature proposal is giving every American $1,000 a month, argued that universal basic income would help ameliorate much of the economic distress that contributes to gun violence.
The forum also gave candidates an opportunity to push back against arguments that their positions are impractical or politically untenable.
Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, said the country has already established that some limits on weapons are legal and appropriate.
"Anybody can have a water balloon; nobody can have a Predator drone," he said. "Somewhere we're going to draw a line. And all we're saying ... is that we need to draw the line a lot tighter."
U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, who had been scheduled to appear, was forced to cancel after his hospitalization for a procedure to clear a blocked artery.
(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Colleen Jenkins, Leslie Adler, Jonathan Oatis and Lincoln Feast.)