In Colorado, a hard push by Hillary Clinton on gun violence


DENVER — A week before the Colorado caucuses, Hillary Clinton is focusing on firearms safety in a state with a bloody history of gun violence.

Her campaign has rolled out a list of Colorado gun-prevention advocates who support her, and she held recent events here with Gabrielle Giffords, the former Arizona congresswoman who was shot in the head during a 2011 mass shooting in Tucson.

On Monday, Clinton’s record on guns versus that of her Democratic rival Bernie Sanders came to the steps of the Capitol— though not directly. There at an endorsement rally for Sanders was Democratic Sen. Michael Merrifield of Colorado Springs, who once served as the state director for Michael Bloomberg’s group Mayors Against Illegal Guns. He was one of three lawmakers who officially announced their support for Sanders.

For Merrifield, a gun owner, firearms safety has been a marquee issue in a state that has seen some of the nation’s most notorious mass shootings. His 2014 election to the state Senate in a conservative county was remarkable in that he’d beaten a Republican who’d been swept into office in a recall election over gun issues. The high-profile recall had ousted the former Democratic Senate president and took place solely because the legislature in 2013 had passed a package of gun safety measures that expanded background checks and limited gun magazines to 15 rounds. 

With the Colorado caucuses a week away, and just three lawmakers in the 100-member legislature standing on the Capitol steps to endorse Sanders, Merrifield stood out, especially given the stark contrasts the Clinton campaign has been drawing with her opponent about guns.

In an interview with The Colorado Independent about why Merrifield supports Sanders over Clinton given his high visibility on gun safety, Merrifield gave two reasons, the second of which made the differences between the candidates even more apparent.

“I don’t think gun safety regulation is the only issue,” Merrifield said. “I think literally the most important issue is income inequality. I think it’s a crisis in the country, and I think Bernie is making it a center point of his campaign, and I think that’s necessary.”

But Merrifield also had a second reason for supporting the democratic socialist U.S. Senator from Vermont.

“I think that as Bernie has pushed Hillary further into more progressive positions than she was five months ago, my hope and my belief is that Hillary will push Bernie into more stronger stances on the necessity of having reasonable gun regulations and gun safety legislation,” he said.

Asked if he thought Clinton was better than Sanders on the gun issue, Merrifield said he did.

“It’s pretty obvious that she is,” he said. “At the same time I think Bernie is intelligent enough and has his finger on the pulse of the American people enough to know that to get the kind of support he’s going to need from progressives he’s going to need to be more progressive about standing up to the NRA and creating policy that’s more aggressive in controlling gun violence.”

For the Clinton campaign in Colorado, that message dovetails into a narrative the campaign has been molding in recent weeks: Clinton is the Democratic candidate for gun violence prevention.

On the day of Merrifield’s Sanders endorsement, the Clinton campaign had released a who’s who of gun violence prevention advocates who back her candidacy. One of them, Tom Sullivan, whose son was killed in the Aurora theater shooting, recently announced he’s running for the state Senate. Along with Sullivan the list included Jane Dougherty, whose sister was a school psychologist killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre, Tom Mauser, whose son was killed at Columbine, and Coni Sanders, whose father was also killed at the 1999 school shooting that scarred the state.

“Clinton has made gun violence prevention a focal point of her campaign and has emphasized her long track record of standing up to the gun lobby,” the campaign said in a statement.

Clinton’s campaign policy on guns includes comprehensive background checks and closing the “Charleston loophole” that allows a gun sale to go through if a check isn’t completed in three days. She says she’d use executive action to tighten the so-called gun-show loophole that allows some gun dealers to sell a large number firearms if they aren’t technically “in the business.” She wants to keep guns out of the hands of domestic abusers, make straw purchases federally illegal, and “keep military-style weapons off our streets,” without exactly specifying how.

Some of those policy measures are similar to ones Sanders supports in his own campaign, his supporters point out.

“He wants to close the gun-show loophole and make ‘straw man’ purchases a federal crime,” says the Sanders campaign’s Colorado spokeswoman Dulce Saenz. “He’s also said that guns are not the only part of the problem of gun violence. We must also address our broken mental health system. Bernie has stood up to the NRA as a member of Congress, and he’ll stand up to them as president.”

The Monday announcement of gun safety advocate support for Clinton here came two weeks after Giffords campaigned for her in Denver. During a campaign stop in Colorado Springs on Saturday, former president Bill Clinton hit on gun violence and the contentious debate surrounding gun laws, saying his wife would bring common sense to that debate.

And Clinton herself spoke out on gun violence during a Feb. 13 speech in Denver at the year’s biggest Democratic Party fundraiser. There, she raised the specter of Robert Dear, the 57-year-old gunman who’d slaughtered three people at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs on Black Friday.

“Let’s be clear,” Clinton told the crowd. “The Planned Parenthood shooter should have never had that gun in the first place.”

Clinton continued:

The man who shot Gabby Giffords and 18 others should have never had a gun. We have survivors here tonight of the gun attacks in Columbine, Aurora, and Sandy Hook. I cannot tell you how much I admire their courage taking their grief, turing it into determination, and pursuing action. They know— in fact we all know– we can balance people’s Second Amendment rights with common sense measures to prevent more senseless deaths. It is just a question of whether we choose to do so. Well, I’ll tell you where I stand: when we lose on average 90 people a day to gun violence, 33,000 people a year, we can’t wait. We can’t wait for more people to die before finally taking action. The time for action is now.”

That Clinton is making gun safety issues a focus for her campaign in Colorado shouldn’t surprise anyone.

During a series of debates in recent months, she’s repeatedly called out Sanders for his actions on guns in Congress. As a federal lawmaker, Sanders voted five times against the Brady bill for waiting periods and background checks, and in 2005 he supported the NRA-backed Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which exempts gun sellers and manufacturers from much liability if their firearms are used in crimes. In a May 2015 piece in Slate headlined “Bernie Sanders, Gun Nut,” Mark Joseph Stern called the law “the most reprehensible pro-gun legislation in recent memory.”

Sanders changed his position on immunity for gun manufacturers shortly before a January debate with Clinton in Charleston, South Carolina, maintaining that he still wanted to protect mom-and-pop shops “in rural America that serve the hunting community” from being negatively impacted.

As a candidate for president, Sanders doesn’t often talk about guns in his rousing speeches about the cancer of money in politics, the influence of billionaires on Wall-Street and the Koch brothers, and an economic playing field tilted in favor of the wealthy.

Representing the largely rural, hunter-green state of Vermont, Sanders has tended to frame America’s gun debate as one between rural and urban constituencies. In his campaign he has at times used that as a positive electoral message: He’s the guy who can speak the language of Field & Stream gun owners to get reasonable regulations passed for firearms. He’s said people involved in the debate must find ways to work together instead of shouting back and forth. And he’s touted his D- rating from the NRA as an example of his own record on gun laws.

But Clinton has ripped Sanders on his record throughout the race. She’s even linked one of his congressional votes to a federal loophole in gun laws that allowed the purchase of a firearm by the dead-eyed 21-year-old South Carolina man who gunned down nine black parishioners in Charleston. Part of her gun policy agenda is to close that loophole, and also to repeal the NRA’s Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act.

In response, the Sanders’ camp has pushed back in Colorado, saying their hearts go out to the families of gun violence victims.

“Bernie has been clear, gun violence is appalling,” says the Sanders campaign’s Colorado spokeswoman Saenz. “We owe it to them to make common sense changes to the law that will make Americans safer.”

Politically, Colorado is as volatile a state as any on gun issues. On Monday, the Republican-controlled state Senate passed a bill that would scrap permitting requirements to carry concealed firearms.

Merrifield, the gun safety advocate in the Senate and Sanders supporter, says that’s not a reflection on what voters here want.

“Westerners have a tradition of weapons and guns in their history,” he said. “But … all the polling shows that at the same time in Colorado specifically the majority of voters believe that there should be reasonable gun regulations and restrictions including background checks.”

[Photo credit: 4Neus via Creative Commons on Flickr]