Guns return to American elections

At the start of the 2016 election campaign, Democrat Hillary Clinton did something that no major presidential candidate had done since 2000: she brought the issue of gun violence into the contest. Touting her support for stronger gun laws, she used it to criticize her chief opponent, Vermont Democratic Socialist Senator Bernie Sanders. This issue proved useful for Clinton partly because it was one where she could criticize her ultra-liberal opponent from the left, given Sanders’ record of support against stronger gun laws – an anomaly explained by the fact that Sanders’ home state is strongly pro-gun.

In the fall race, Clinton hammered her Republican opponent Donald Trump on the issue, lending her support for universal gun purchase background checks, reimposition of the assault weapons ban, and better mental health screening to filter out those who should not have access to guns – all measures supported by most Americans. Trump has returned fire, extolling his embrace of gun rights – a reversal of opinion for him, as Trump had previously supported gun regulations. During the campaign, Trump, endorsed by the National Rifle Association, opposed the assault weapons ban and supported civilian gun carrying as a way of improving personal self-defence and thwarting crime.

 But this leaves a larger question: why have presidential candidates been silent on guns for the last 16 years, and what changed?

 Flash back to the 2000 elections. Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore actively touted support for new gun measures, but in losing the race, Democrats concluded (wrongly, later research revealed) that the issue hurt them. They mostly proceeded to avoid the issue and to appeal more aggressively to moderates and even conservatives—so-called ‘Blue Dog’ Democrats—which all but eliminated from the national debate any systematic advocacy for tougher gun laws. In turn, the gun-friendly presidency of George W. Bush quietly pressed for and won most of the NRA’s pro-gun wish list. 

 For the next three presidential elections, little was heard on guns. Even liberal president Barack Obama avoided the subject despite a past record of support for tougher gun laws. In fact, one gun safety organization gave him a failing grade in his first term for his failure to advance the issue, and for signing in to law two minor measures making gun carrying easier in national parks and on trains.

 But then three key events changed everything.

 First, the December 2012 senseless mass shooting of 26 school children and staff at Sandy Hook elementary school in Connecticut shocked the nation in a way not felt since the 1990s. Second, that event motivated Pres. Obama, fresh off his re-election, to do an about face. He appointed a commission to develop legislative and other policy recommendations, and took them to Congress in the Spring of 2013. While Congress ultimately failed to act, Obama wouldn’t let the issue go. Every time a new mass shooting occurred, Obama used his bully pulpit to abhor the violence, deplore the lack of even elementary new gun measures like universal background checks for all gun purchases, and chastise Congress for its failure to act. These repetitive rhetorical moments didn’t change policy, but did help push the issue back into the national debate.

 Third, the Sandy Hook shooting spurred the formation and growth of new gun safety groups bent on breaking the NRA’s stranglehold on gun policy. Former New York City Mayor Michel Bloomberg’s group, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, was reorganized when it combined with a recently formed grassroots gun safety group to form Everytown for Gun Safety. Bloomberg and allies doubled down on their efforts, pouring more money and resources into selected state races and referenda, among other actions. Another new Sandy Hook-inspired group, Americans for Responsible Solutions, was formed by former Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who survived being shot in the head by a deranged man in 2011, and her husband, former astronaut Mark Kelly. They, too, garnered significant national attention and considerable resources to press for improved gun safety. (Both are also gun owners.)

 These new groups did something never before seen: they outspent the NRA. The watershed moment came when they engineered the passage of a referendum in Washington State in 2014 to provide for universal background checks for all gun purchases, and defeated a competing measure that would have blocked such checks. In the 2016 election cycle, four states voted on new gun measures, and the issue played a key role in state elections including Missouri, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania.

 The upsurge in gun politics suggests that, if these new gun safety groups stay in the gun policy fight, the issue won’t go away. There may even come a day when the country’s clear preference for stronger gun laws may actually come to be reflected in policy.