California Congressman Eric Swalwell kicked off his 2020 bid for president at a Broward County town hall on Tuesday with an emotional vow to make gun violence a top priority during his campaign and possible presidency.
Less than a day after announcing his run in the Democratic primary, Swalwell met in Sunrise with activists and families affected by gun violence in South Florida, including the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in 2018. The four-term Democrat said he would take an incremental approach to addressing gun violence through a ban on assault weapons, improved mental health services and strengthened background checks.
“Throughout this campaign, there will be other issues that I talk about—healthcare, education and climate change,” he told more than 300 people at the BB&T Center. “But my pledge to you tonight is that this issue comes first.”
Swalwell, who has been critical of current gun laws while in Congress, added “he couldn’t think of coming anywhere else” after announcing his run on the “Late Show with Stephen Colbert” Monday night.
The 38-year-old representing the San Francisco Bay area commended the Parkland community for fighting for stronger gun regulations after the Stoneman Douglas shooting and began the event by naming the 17 victims of the Feb. 14, 2018 massacre. He lamented that such shootings have failed to produce any meaningful changes in the country’s gun laws.
"Hope died in Parkland a year ago. But in a uniquely American way, through the strength and courage of our children, hope was born here too," he said. "I don't want to see another community go through what you have gone through."
A critical way of finally reducing deaths from gun violence, he said, is to completely ban the sale of all new semi-automatic style assault weapons. The government could also buy back existing assault weapons, which he estimated would cost about $15 billion.
“That’s a couple of fighter jets,” he said. “That’s a lot less than the cost of lost to a community.”
He added that anybody who refuses to give up their assault weapon would have it restricted to hunting clubs and shooting ranges. People would also be able to keep their pistols, rifles and shotguns, he said, noting that he does not aim to seize guns.
The hour-long town hall involved questions from several members of the audience. Tangela Spears, a member of the Hunger 9—a group of activists that recently ended a hunger strike in Liberty City—discussed with Swalwell the different needs of communities with rampant gun violence. Lori Alhadeff, who joined the Broward County School Board, also pressed him on what else he would do to prevent more future shootings.
Swalwell said he would work to increase mental health funding, enhance investment in gun-stricken neighborhoods and make gun laws throughout states more uniform. He noted that some cities in states with strong gun regulations struggle with rampant gun violence because guns easily travel across state lines.
“The problem in America is because we are open and free to move across states, you’re only as safe as the state around you,” he said.
Although other Democratic presidential candidates share similar support for stronger gun laws, Swalwell’s platform elevates the issue in the race. It earned him praise from March For Our Lives co-founder Cameron Kasky and Fred Guttenberg, whose daughter Jaime was killed during the shooting.
Guttenberg, who helped organize the event, thanked Swalwell for “catapulting gun safety into the forefront of the presidential election.”
“I don’t presume to tell anybody who to vote for,” Guttenberg added. “But I will tell you that if they’re not talking about gun safety first, second, third, you don’t vote for them.”
Other attendees, such as Ina Berlingeri, agreed with Swalwell’s message. Berlingeri lives in Parkland and has a son and daughter who were students at Stoneman Douglas last year. She said his incremental approach toward addressing gun violence could be advantageous.
“He’s going for solutions that I think would be palatable to people who are staunch second amendment supporters but believe that something needs to be done,” Berlingeri said.