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Opinion On guns: How to stand out in a field of like-minded candidates

Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang in Des Moines on Saturday. (Scott Morgan/Reuters)

At a gun-safety forum hosting virtually every presidential candidate, how do you stand out? One way is to not merely run down a list of policy ideas, but rather to speak from the heart and from experience.

That’s what Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) did at the forum sponsored by Everytown for Gun Safety, Moms Demand Action and Students Demand Action. Many news outlets picked up her punchy line about President Trump’s responsibility for gun violence: “He didn’t pull the trigger, but he’s certainly been tweeting out the ammunition.” Much more compelling, however, was her leaving the stage to embrace a gun violence survivor and then explaining in some detail the trauma inflicted on children exposed to gun violence.

And in response to another questioner (whom she led the crowd in applauding), Harris spoke to the disparity in coverage of gun deaths depending on race. She was able to draw on her experience talking to mothers of gun victims who were despondent that they and their sons were treated as “statistics.” She explained, “The media, America, has come to believe and accept therefore the killing of, in particular, young black and brown men in America … Our young men, and in particular our young black and brown men, should not be thought of as disposable. It should not be expected and unsurprising when they are killed."

Harris simultaneously imparted new information (rather than recycling a sound bite) and spoke from the heart. It was a high point in her campaign.

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In a similar vein, the usually cool, remote and even flippant Andrew Yang broke down in tears hearing a mother recount how her young daughter’s killing by a stray bullet was witnessed by her twin brother:

A showing of empathy from a presidential candidate, reaffirmation that this is someone who can relate to a voter’s concerns and pain, reminds us that we live in a bizarre time in which our current, narcissistic president lacks simple decency and humanity.

And finally, former vice president Joe Biden came to the stage for questions from another mother of a gun violence victim. He spoke at length to her and others in the audience, many who had suffered similar losses, not about the nuts and bolts of gun policy but about their courage to revisit the circumstances of their children’s deaths. He acknowledged that he didn’t have the same courage after his wife and daughter were killed in a car crash to focus in the Senate on highway safety, and recalled that after the death of his son Beau from brain cancer, he found it exceptionally challenging to work on the “moonshot” cancer initiative President Barack Obama had assigned him.

When Biden did move to guns specifically, he talked about less-frequently discussed topics: getting kids off the streets so they aren’t exposed to violence, getting police out of cars and on the streets so they get to know their communities, and requiring “from this moment on, every weapon … sold [in] America has to have your biometric marker.” Again, he said something different than others in the parade of candidates and spoke with emotion from personal experience.

There are lots of ways to impress voters. Not every candidate needs to wear hearts on their sleeves. South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, for example, spoke calmly and with conviction about gun violence, explaining how mayors must deal firsthand with the failure of national politicians. Perhaps the personification of “Iowa nice,” he was a crowd favorite. His mix of witty insights (“Somewhere between a water balloon and a Predator drone, America gets to draw a line in order to keep ourselves safe”) and generational perspective (in a new ad, he simply reads an interminable list of mass shooting incidents, fewer than half of those that occurred in his lifetime) allows him to avoid sounding like everyone else. At least with this crowd, his future orientation (“Let’s make sure 20 years from now, we are proud of what we did in 2020. And we can tell our kids, you will never believe this. But there used to be daily shootings in this country”) went over extremely well.

The challenge for politicians not to sound like politicians — to be “authentic” — is nothing new, but in a field as large as this one, it’s an absolute necessity. And when it comes to finding the most un-Trump candidate out there, Democrats would do well to find a candidate who not only knows what she is talking about but also is capable of normal human emotion and knows it’s not all about her.

Read more:

Jennifer Rubin: Democratic candidates grasp the moral seriousness of this moment

Paul Waldman: This is the most important question Democratic presidential candidates must answer

Shannon Watts: Leaders must listen to Americans, not a minority of gun extremists

Jennifer Rubin: What the responses to the shootings tell us about the presidential race

Jonathan Capehart: Joe Biden reminded all of us of what a presidential president would sound like