CNN and the NY Times’ debate questions failed to touch on the reality of gun violence

During the fourth Democratic presidential primary debate on October 15, moderators spent nearly the entire time allotted to discuss gun safety on enforcing solutions to mass shootings, ignoring the reality of gun violence for the majority of Americans.

The three-hour-long debate, hosted by CNN and The New York Times, featured questions about gun violence that were discussed for nearly 15 minutes. All but one question was centered around whether candidates support a mandatory buyback of assault-style rifles commonly used in mass shootings, and whether enforcement of such a policy is feasible.

CNN moderator Anderson Cooper repeatedly asked Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke how he would take assault weapons from gun owners if he won’t send police door to door, echoing NRA talking points about gun confiscation:

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ANDERSON COOPER (MODERATOR): Congressman O’Rourke, in the last debate you said, quote, “Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47.” But when you were asked how you’d enforce a mandatory buyback, you said police wouldn’t be going door to door. So how exactly are you going to force people to give up their weapons -- you don't even know who has those weapons?

BETO O’ROURKE: Look, we're going to make sure that the priority is saving the lives of our fellow Americans. I think almost everyone on this stage agrees that it's not right and as president would seek to ban the sale of AR-15s and AK-47s. Those are weapons of war. They were designed to kill people effectively, efficiently on a battlefield. You mentioned a massacre in Dayton, nine people killed in under 40 seconds. In El Paso, Texas, 22 were killed in under three minutes. And the list goes on throughout the country. So if the logic begins with those weapons being too dangerous to sell, then it must continue by acknowledging with 16 million AR-15s and AK-47s out there, they are also too dangerous to own. Every single one of them is a potential instrument of terror. Just ask Hispanics in Texas. Univision surveyed them. More than 80% feared that they would be a victim of a mass terror attack like the one in El Paso that was targeted at Mexican Americans and immigrants -- inspired in part by this president's racism and hatred that he's directed at communities like mine in El Paso. So, I expect my fellow Americans to follow the law, the same way that we enforce any provisions, any law that we have right now. We don’t go door to door to do anything in this country to enforce the law. I expect Republicans, Democrats, gun owners, non-gun owners alike to respect and follow the law. 

COOPER: Congressman, just to follow up, your expectations aside, your website says you will fine people who don't give up their weapons. That doesn't take those weapons off the street. So to be clear, exactly how are you going to take away weapons from people who do not want to give them up and you don't know where they are?

O’ROURKE: If someone does not turn in an AR-15 or an AK-47 -- one of these weapons of war -- or brings it out in public and brandishes it in an attempt to intimidate, as we saw when we were at Kent State recently, then that weapon will be taken from them. If they persist, there will be other consequences from law enforcement. But the expectation is that Americans will follow the law.

Cooper went on to ask Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA,) Kamala Harris (D-CA), and former Vice President Joe Biden whether they support mandatory buyback policies. But rather than educate voters, this line of questioning only serves to provide fodder for right-wing, pro-gun media and the NRA to insist that any and all gun safety legislation is a “slippery-slope” toward total confiscation.

Mass shootings, while devastating, make up less than 1% of the roughly 39,000 yearly gun deaths in the United States. In reality, the majority of U.S. gun deaths are suicides -- which make up nearly two-thirds of all gun violence -- followed by gun homicides, police shootings, and unintentional shootings. And the communities hit hardest by the country’s gun violence epidemic are often marginalized communities: According to Giffords Law Center, “Black Americans are 10 times more likely than white Americans to die by gun homicide,” “Black men make up 52% of all gun homicide victims,” and gun violence is the “first-leading cause of death among black children.”

This is the reality of gun violence that needs to be reflected in questions moderators pose to candidates.

In July, several gun violence experts discussed with Media Matters the questions they’d like to see future debates tackle, including how candidates “would reduce the number of black males being killed every day in this country,” whether they view gun violence as a public health issue, and how they would work with Congress to enact new laws, including extreme risk protection orders and permit to purchase requirements.

Bills to implement universal background checks, extreme risk protection orders, a ban on high- capacity magazines, and legislation to prevent those convicted of hate crimes from purchasing a gun, are all currently sitting in Congress. The Senate also has yet to pass the Violence Against Women Act, despite the roughly 6,000 women who are fatally shot by intimate partners in the U.S. every year and the 54% of mass shootings that included a domestic violence incident.

Unfortunately, moderators of last night’s debate chose to stoke fears about gun confiscation rather than focus on finding solutions to the real issues of gun violence impacting Americans every day.