It’s a rare occasion when anything significant actually happens during a presidential campaign, so you might want to note the date. All it took to get there was another tragedy, an angry White House address, and the pressure of a closer-than-expected primary race.
But, whatever it took, Hillary Clinton has basically guaranteed that gun violence, and how or whether to address it, will play a central role in the 2016 election.
She has called for a “national movement,” which she volunteered to lead, against the NRA’s influence on gun laws. She offered up a fairly ambitious gun-control plan, which includes — Obama-style — executive action to deal with the gun-show loophole on background checks (yep, it’s still there).
I know the story is that Clinton has finally found a way to get to the left of Bernie Sanders, who, as a senator from Vermont, argues that gun control isn’t exactly an issue there. That may not help him explain, though, to primary voters why he voted against the Brady Bill or for a bill protecting gun manufacturers from lawsuits. And, as The New York Times noted, Sanders drew another stunning crowd of 20,000 in Boston over the weekend, but it took him over an hour to mention the massacre in Oregon.
He has called not for a “national movement” on guns, but to “get beyond the shouting,” which may not be the answer his young, activist audience is hoping for.
Will this change the direction of Bern-mentum? Sanders will almost certainly put out his own gun-control plan, which will probably not be too dissimilar from Clinton’s. He’ll get better on gun violence, as he did on #blacklivesmatter. And guns don’t change the fact that Sanders has captured the audience on income inequality and authenticity and trustworthiness. And what about Joe Biden? Isn’t it time to ask again about Biden?
In any case, that’s just where the story begins. The question is where it ends. Stuff happens, and it looks as if Democrats have basically put gun control on the presidential ballot.
Something has certainly changed. The shootings feel like they’ve come so quickly, so relentlessly, so inexplicably. In the aftermath of the mass shooting at Umpqua, Barack Obama made the unexpected argument that we should be politicizing these shootings — that it’s the only way to move the issue. And Clinton followed that with a four-point plan, including closing the so-called Charleston loophole, preventing domestic abusers from buying guns and repealing the gun-manufacturers immunity law – yes, the same one Sanders voted for.
If it seems like it’s been a while since Democrats were pushing gun laws, that’s because it has been a while. Democrats have been on the defensive on guns for nearly as long as the NRA has been on the offensive — or at least since the Bush-Gore race in 2000 when some must have thought that Columbine would change the political equation.
We’re not so naive now. Obama tried to shift the focus to modest legislation after Newtown and the horror of 20 murdered first-graders, but Congress, astonishingly, wasn’t interested in doing anything about assault-style rifles or the handguns that take down children on the streets of Chicago. And if a few states, including our own, took on the issue, the backlash hit hard enough that the movement, if you could call it that, quickly ended.
The argument that Republicans will face in 2016 is that law-and-order conservatives have, in the words of Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, allowed themselves to “be dominated by gun extremists who deride every gun measure that might make our country a little bit safer — no matter how many mass killings we have.”
But how will that argument work in real time versus the gun-grabber argument? Can Democrats really put together a national movement to challenge the NRA, which has its movement already in place?
The Republican response to the mass shootings is generally that it’s a mental-health problem and that if people are determined to kill people, they’ll find a way. I know, it sounds as if they’re arguing that if you take away guns, there’d be a bunch of half-crazed serial knife throwers on the loose. Laws wouldn’t stop mass killers, because, well, they just wouldn’t. These are not serious answers, but serious answers are apparently not allowed.
There are serious studies, if only a few. But it doesn’t seem to matter if one shows that states with more gun laws have fewer homicides and that, conversely, states with fewer gun laws have more homicides. But it does explain, I guess, why Congress passes laws making it difficult to collect data on guns.
Here’s what Donald Trump, the man who has an answer for every problem, said on Meet the Press when asked what he would do about mass killings: “You know, no matter what you do, guns, no guns, it doesn’t matter. You have people that are mentally ill. And they’re gonna come through the cracks.”
You’d think if they were coming through the cracks that Trump, of all people, could tell you how to mend the wall.
Photo credit: Jasper Nance, Creative Commons, Flickr.