Before he announced his run for president Monday on late-night TV, as he went about planning the first event of his nascent campaign, California Congressman Eric Swalwell already knew where he wanted to go and what he wanted to do.
“I couldn’t think of coming anywhere else,” Swalwell told a crowd of several hundred that came to his kickoff event at the BB&T Center, about 13 miles from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Swalwell, one of Congress’ most outspoken voices on guns, kicked off his bid for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination Tuesday by meeting with families harmed by gun violence and the parents of students slain in last year’s school shooting in Parkland. Intent on elevating gun control back into the 2020 discourse, he spent about an hour talking about background checks, mental health services, and banning and buying back assault weapons.
“You just catapulted gun safety into the forefront of the presidential election,” said Fred Guttenberg, whose daughter Jaime was killed last year in the Valentine’s Day massacre, the worst school shooting in Florida history.
A long-rumored candidate who declared his candidacy Monday on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” Swalwell has been building relationships with Guttenberg and other Parkland activists for months. The 38-year-old Bay Area politician befriended March For Our Lives co-founder Cameron Kasky last year and recently invited him in February to President Donald Trump’s State of the Union speech.
“I don’t want to see another community go through what you’ve gone through,” he said, ticking off other school shootings. “What the Columbine families went through. What the Sandy Hook families went through.”
Kasky and Guttenberg helped Swalwell organize Tuesday’s event. Originally planned at a Coral Springs La Quinta, the guns town hall was moved due to demand to the north lobby of the Sunrise stadium, which was converted with black curtains into a theater space for a little more than 300 people.
Kasky called gun violence a “national emergency” as he introduced Swalwell. The four-term congressman, who came to Broward County with his wife and two children, began by slowly reciting the names of the 17 students and faculty who were killed at the school.
It was at times an emotional night, held on the eve of a coming announcement that the families of slain Parkland students are suing the Broward Sheriff’s Office and Broward County Public Schools. The event also followed immediately after the state’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission ended its own meeting elsewhere at the stadium. At one point, School Board Member Lori Alhadeff, whose daughter Alyssa was killed at Stoneman Douglas, pressed Swalwell on what he’d do to stop school shootings from happening in the future.
“He touched on mental health, which was really important,” she later told reporters. “It’s been 20 years since Columbine. What has really changed?”
Much of the night was about reducing shootings by restricting access to “assault weapons,” typically a blanket term used to define semi-automatic rifles. Swalwell has proposed that the U.S. government ban all assault weapons and then buy them back at $1,000 each, which he estimates would cost $15 billion.
“That’s a couple fighter jets,” he said. “That’s a lot less than the cost of loss to a community.”
But Swalwell also talked about crime laws, his support for the First Step Act, and healthcare, saying he supports “coverage for all.” Miami gun-violence activist Tangela Sears and one member of The Hunger 9, a group of activists that recently ended a guns-related hunger strike in Liberty City, also spoke to Swalwell about the different needs of different gun-stricken communities.
Swalwell is a long shot in a field of Democrats that is expected to make history as the largest scrum ever to seek a party’s nomination. Broward County has its own hometown candidate, Miramar Mayor Wayne Messam, who also happened to be attending a gun roundtable Tuesday, albeit in Charleston, South Carolina.
But Swalwell is hoping that his activism on gun control will be an issue that resonates with Democratic voters, even among a field that is unified in its belief that the country’s gun laws need to be reformed. He has called for the U.S government to reinstate the federal 1994 assault weapons ban, and says that it looks like Trump’s rhetoric has been “inspiring” mass murderers like the man who shot up the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.
A spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee said Tuesday that Swalwell was “playing politics in Florida where real families have been affected,” and called him a feckless hypocrite. Some Parkland parents panned his appearance on Twitter.
But Swalwell seemed to strike a chord with the crowd at his event Tuesday, which gave him several ovations. At one point, the congressman asked the crowd to stand if they’d been affected by gun violence, and half the room got out of its seats.
Parkland also makes sense as a campaign backdrop for Swalwell given his efforts to court young voters through Future Foundation, a group of young House Democrats with a focus on listening to millennials. The community has been a beacon for Democratic activists after students at Stoneman Douglas responded to the shooting at their school by lobbying Washington and Tallahassee for new gun laws.
Most recently, friends and families of some of the people killed in the Parkland shooting have been pushing a petition drive to ban assault weapons in Florida.
“You’re a community that has inspired me,” Swalwell said. “And you continue to inspire me, because you don’t have any fear.”