LAS VEGAS - Democratic presidential contenders on Wednesday vowed to pursue far-reaching limits on guns while standing up to the gun lobby, tackling an issue that has increasingly become a chief concern for their party's voters.
Nine of the leading candidates gathered in Las Vegas for an all-day forum on gun safety, one day after the city marked two years since it suffered the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history, which killed 58 people.
The candidates offered details of various policies they have championed, including universal background checks, banning assault-style weapons and requiring gun owners to obtain licenses.
But they also urged the hundreds of gathered activists to continue pressing the issue, arguing that their movement already has the power to prevail over the National Rifle Association.
"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 everyday 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."
But the specter of the impeachment inquiry into U.S. President Donald Trump's dealings with Ukraine could overshadow policy debates on the campaign trail, while threatening to imperil negotiations between the White House and lawmakers on legislation to expand background checks for firearm purchases.
U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who has ascended to the second spot in public opinion polling behind former Vice President Joe Biden, rejected Trump's assertion on Wednesday that the Democratic impeachment inquiry is to blame for inaction on gun safety, calling it an "alternative reality."
"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."
Democratic U.S. Senator Chris Murphy, who has been one of his party's leading voices on gun safety since 20 schoolchildren were massacred in 2012 in his home state of Connecticut, has been negotiating with the White House on background checks.
In an interview with Reuters on Tuesday, he conceded the impeachment inquiry could prove an obstacle but also said Trump may be more inclined to support legislation to demonstrate that the investigation is not "the functional end of his presidency."
The forum, hosted by the gun safety advocacy group Giffords and the student-led organization March For Our Lives, is the latest evidence that the politics around gun control have shifted following a spate of high-profile mass shootings in recent years.
But in Washington, the Republican majority in the U.S. Senate has shown little appetite for new limits for fear of angering the gun lobby. Trump, whose election campaign in 2016 was bolstered by millions of dollars from the National Rifle Association, has offered mixed signals.
Biden, who was scheduled to appear at the forum later on Wednesday, released a gun reform plan ahead of the event that would ban assault-style rifles but does not go as far as some other proposals.
Both Booker and former U.S. Representative Beto O'Rourke of Texas, for instance, have called for mandatory buyback programs to remove assault-style weapons from circulation, a move Biden did not endorse.
Biden also did not call for a national licensing program, which has drawn support from several other candidates. In his remarks, Booker noted that large majorities already support licensing.
"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. "This is not about leadership. It's about standing with the overwhelming majority of Americans on gun licensing."
The forum gave candidates an opportunity to push back against arguments that their positions are either impractical or politically untenable.
Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, rejected the notion that the U.S. Constitution's Second Amendment guarantee of a right to bear arms would be violated by banning assault-style weapons.
"Anybody can have a water balloon; nobody can have a Predator drone," said Buttigieg, who does not support mandatory buybacks of assault-style weapons. "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.
Former congresswoman Gabby Giffords, whose eponymous nonprofit co-hosted the event, made a brief appearance at the start of the day, telling supporters to "fight, fight, fight!"
Giffords suffered brain damage when she was shot in the head in 2011 during a mass shooting in Arizona.