Politics & Government

2020 hopeful Pete Buttigieg tackles gun control at USC town hall

Democratic presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg called for stricter background checks and “red flag” laws during a campaign stop at the University of South Carolina on Tuesday.

Standing outside Russell House, the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and a Navy reservist, told about 550 college students and his supporters that the Second Amendment should not be “distorted into an excuse of inaction” to curb gun violence.

“The majority of the American people are with us right now,” Buttigieg said at USC. “We’ve had the same conversation for about 25 years. Right now, more than 90% of Americans, including the vast majority of Republicans and the vast majority of gun owners, are for common sense gun laws. They’re for universal background checks. So popular, even the president briefly pretended to be for it.”

Near 90% of those surveyed in a Washington Post-ABC poll said they would support expanding federal background checks that would cover private gun buys and gun-show purchases. Another 86% said they would support “red flag” legislation.

The U.S. Congress should be able to deliver on those checks, Buttigieg said, so as to ensure that “the kinds of weapons of war that I trained on and saw in a war zone have no place in American streets and neighborhoods or anywhere near a school in peacetime in our country.”

However, Buttigieg showed no desire to continue tangling with Democratic primary opponent Beto O’Rourke. The two have been sparring publicly since last week’s presidential primary debate over just how far to take gun control.

Asked in the debate a question about his proposal to buy back guns, O’Rourke said, “Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47” to thunderous applause.

Buttigieg on a Sunday talk show criticized O’Rourke’s comments, agreeing when asked whether he thought that kind of rhetoric plays into Republicans’ hands.

The spat between the two 2020 hopefuls went unnoticed to several students and supporters who came to hear Buttigieg speak Tuesday. Of those students The State spoke with, several were freshmen who said they were just excited to be voting in their first election.

“I’m pretty excited,” said freshman Bella Crowe, 18, from Sumter, who said Buttigieg’s “Douglass Plan” — an effort to reach black voters — has drawn her to his candidacy.

Eighteen-year-old Hannah Meredith, of Spartanburg, an environmental science major, sided with his climate change proposals.

But the dustup between Buttigieg and O’Rourke signals an important development in the Democratic primary as candidates are pushed to take more specific and nuanced stands on policy issues.

O’Rourke, a former U.S. congressman, is from El Paso, Texas, where a recent mass shooting claimed 22 lives. On the debate stage in his home state, O’Rourke said that through his gun buyback program, he would confiscate weapons “designed to kill people on the battlefield.”

He continued: “the high-impact, high-velocity round, when it hits your body, shreds everything inside of your body, because it was designed to do that so that you would bleed to death on a battlefield and not be able to get up and kill one of our soldiers.

Speaking to CNN’s Jake Tapper Sunday, Buttigieg said, “Right now, we have an amazing moment on our hands. We have agreement among the American people for not just universal background checks, but we have a majority in favor of red flag laws, high-capacity magazines, banning the new sale of assault weapons. This is a golden moment to finally do something.”

O’Rourke responded to Buttigieg on Twitter:

“Leaving millions of weapons of war on the streets because (President Donald) Trump and (Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch) McConnell are ‘at least pretending to be open to reforms’? That calculation and fear is what got us here in the first place. Let’s have the courage to say what we believe and fight for it.”

At USC on Tuesday, two of Buttigieg’s supporters from Irmo — Krystin White, 27, and Emery Benson, 31, who said Buttigieg reminds him of former President Barack Obama — said a gun buyback program sounds good, but curbing gun violence likely would be easier through enhanced background checks and vetting.

“It really does feed right into it (Republicans’ hands),” White said. “How are you going to buy back all the guns? ... It kind of cuts into constitutional rights. It’s already there, the right to bear arms. That’s a lot of gray area.”

Earlier Tuesday afternoon, Buttigieg spoke to Columbia area women about how as president he would work to ensure equal rights.

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Maayan Schechter (My-yahn Schek-ter) covers the S.C. State House and politics for The State. She grew up in Atlanta, Ga. and graduated from the University of North Carolina-Asheville. She has previously worked at the Aiken Standard and the Greenville News.