Senator Cory Booker speaks at the first Democratic primary debate in Miami.
New Jersey Senator Cory Booker had the break-out he needed in tonight’s debates. Lagging in the polls at around 3 percent, Booker has fared worse than many thought he initially would. But tonight, not only was he the most-searched candidate during the debate, but he neatly stitched together a substantive argument about gun control.
The majority of Americans agree with common sense gun control, he said, a position the Democratic Party has adopted writ large. But what I found even more compelling was his discussion about the low-income minority community where he lives in Newark, down the street from a drug treatment center and where more than half of all residents live below the poverty line. Although mass shootings tend to dominate the media, routine gun violence in black and brown communities should not be downplayed—and Booker made that clear on the debate stage.
Similarly, Senator Elizabeth Warren added forcefully to the conversation, calling gun violence in America a “public health crisis.” Using that rhetoric—the same that’s used for polio and measles and now opioids—reframes the debate: it’s not about taking away a hunting rifle, it’s about protecting people from preventable harm and violence. Senator Amy Klobuchar also made this point. She said Democratic proposals on gun safety, like an assault weapons ban or universal background checks, pass her litmus test: Does this proposal interfere with her state’s “proud tradition of hunting” or her personal experience hunting?
In my opinion, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s “I have a black son” response was cringe-worthy. He said it “sets him apart from everyone on the stage”—and that may be true because Booker doesn’t have children—but Booker was also, um, on the stage. And, as Booker pointed out himself, his childhood experience with housing discrimination (a cornerstone of his stump speech) and his continued experience both living as a black man in America and living in a low-income black community are truly, for want of a better term, solid street cred. “I’m the only one on this panel here—that had seven people shot in their neighborhood just last week,” he said. The relationship between these communities and police forces are often poor—for obvious reasons.
Booker, as opposed to de Blasio, actually gave us real substance on gun control—and an idea that might actually work in these communities: federal buy-backs. There hasn’t been much buzz on his proposal yet, but this is a tactical approach to a real problem: There are already so many guns in the hands of Americans that even if Democrats did implement stricter regulations on gun ownership, without a buy-back or another solution, gun violence might not meaningfully decrease. The often lauded gun buyback program in Australia led to 650,000 guns taken off the streets and a significantly reduced suicide and murder rate. It’s a tricky problem, but it’s one that candidates should focus on if they want to get serious about tackling the public health crisis of guns in America.