Democratic debate inches towards better gun violence prevention questions, but we have a ways to go

During Tuesday's Democratic presidential primary debate, CBS’ Gayle King and Norah O’Donnell made marked improvements in the way debate moderators typically ask candidates about gun violence, proving it is possible to frame the questions around the public health crisis as opposed to repeating sensationalized right-wing talking points.

King and O’Donnell co-moderated the 10th Democratic presidential debate in South Carolina on February 25, four days ahead of the state’s primary election. While critics called out the moderators on their overall failure to control the debate, King posed the first question on gun violence to former Vice President Joe Biden, which sparked a discussion that lasted approximately 9 minutes and 20 seconds. King introduced her question by mentioning the 2015 hate crime mass shooting at Mother Emanuel church in Charleston, South Carolina, noting that 100 people are fatally shot each day nationwide. She then asked Biden, “Why should anyone have faith you’re the one who can get this done now?” Biden responded by touting his work on background check and assault weapon ban legislation during the 1990s.

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Citation From the February 25, 2020, CBS News Democratic presidential primary debate:

GAYLE KING (DEBATE MODERATOR): We’re going to begin with you, Vice President Biden, for this part. Just across the street, as you mentioned at the top of the debate, is where nine people were shot and killed inside the Mother Emanuel Church, we all remember that day back in 2015. And every day in our country, more than 100 people die from gun violence. You all have plans on this stage to address the gun crisis, but Congress has not been able to pass a major gun legislation in a quarter of a century. Just think about this, in those 25 years we had Columbine, Newtown, Parkland, Las Vegas, we could go on and on. Vice President Biden, I want to start with you, why should anyone have faith you’re the one who can get this done now? 

O’Donnell posed the only other gun violence question during the debate, and zeroed in on the 2005 Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which grants gun manufacturers and sellers special civil immunity if a firearm they made or sold is used in a crime. O’Donnell asked Sen. Bernie Sanders about his vote for the PLCAA and why he has “repeatedly voted to give gun manufacturers a pass.” Sanders said that his position on PLCAA was a “bad vote.”

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Citation From the February 25, 2020, CBS News Democratic presidential primary debate:

NORAH O’DONNELL (DEBATE MODERATOR): You’ve gone after the insurance industry, you’ve taken on pharmaceutical companies, and you’ve taken on big tech. Why did you vote repeatedly to give gun manufacturers a pass?

These questions show significant improvement from the first Democratic presidential debate, when NBC host and moderator Chuck Todd took a page straight out of the National Rifle Association’s playbook by asking then-candidate Beto O’Rourke if he would confiscate firearms and how he’d talk to voters who are afraid he’s going to “take my gun away.” This line of questioning forces candidates to use their limited time to defend themselves from a false charge about gun confiscation rather than explain their policies to viewers.

During the second round of debates in July, CNN moderator Don Lemon took a step in the right direction by asking candidate Pete Buttigieg an open-ended question: What would he do to end the “epidemic of gun violence” in the United States? This gave Buttigieg and other candidates an opportunity to highlight the specifics of their gun safety plans, including disarming domestic abusers, implementing extreme risk protection orders, and reversing the restrictions imposed on gun violence research at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

In addition to asking a similarly open-ended question during Tuesday's debate, King also benefited both the viewers and the candidates by putting it into a broader context and mentioning the staggering number of Americans who are killed every day by a bullet. While not framing her question in the same way, O’Donnell still showed future moderators it’s possible to challenge candidates on their gun safety positions by asking about their support for a specific law.

These questions show an effort on part the of the moderators to accurately reflect the reality of gun violence and give the candidates a chance to explain their positions. While this is heartening progress, viewers would benefit more if the moderators asked policy-based questions that acknowledge gun violence is a public health crisis and explore the candidates’ plans to address firearm suicides, domestic violence, and gun violence in communities of color, which are disproportionately affected. 

Last July, Media Matters spoke to a number experts on gun violence prevention about how moderators can work these evidence-based questions into upcoming debates. Maybe they can start from there.