In the wake of the Charleston, South Carolina massacre at a historically black church this week, Hillary Clinton vowed Saturday to fight for new gun control laws despite the overwhelming opposition. She also said America must address lingering racism exposed by the shooting.
By leaning into gun control, Clinton found a place where is squarely to left of Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has energized liberal crowds across the country and gained steam in recent polls as her top rival for the Democratic presidential nomination.
In a speech to the U.S. Conference of Mayors in San Francisco, Clinton said it “make no sense” that Congress has failed to pass simple gun control laws, like universal background checks. She vowed to keep fighting and promised to achieve reform if elected president.
“The politics of this issue have been poisoned,” she acknowledged. “But we can’t give up. The stakes are too high.”
Sanders hails from Vermont, a rural state that lacks virtually any gun regulations and he seems uncomfortable discussing the issue. At an event in Las Vegas, Nevada Friday, he was asked twice about guns, but declined to promise specific new gun control laws and said he didn’t want to get into the issue at the moment.
An attendee at a town hall meeting asked about his stance on gun control. He explained that people in rural and urban areas view guns differently. “This is an issue that must be dealt with,” he said, without getting into details.
Reporters followed up by asking Sanders about the issue afterwards. “I think we need to have as serious conversation about that,” he said. Pressed again, he added: “I will talk about guns at some length, but not right now.”
Sanders voted against the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act in 1993, arguing that waiting period for handguns could be better dealt with on the state level. And he was boosted in his 1988 run for Congress when the NRA attacked his opponent. In 2005, he voted for a controversial bill pushed by the firearms industry. Slate recently labeled Sanders a “gun nut” in a headline.
His defenders note that Sanders voted for the Assault Weapon Ban and has an “F” rating from the NRA. And they argue that he is doing his job by representing the interest of Vermonters, where gun laws are lax, hunting is common, and violent crime is very low.
Nonetheless, Saunders’ record leaves enough room for Clinton – who has a long history of supporting gun control – to outflank her liberal challenger on his left. And with her visibility, Clinton can single-handedly ensure that guns become a major issue of the Democratic presidential primary, if she so chooses.
Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who is also running for the nomination, sought to do the same Friday. He blasted out a strongly worded letter to supporters calling for strict new gun control laws.
“I’m pissed that after working hard in the state of Maryland to pass real gun control – laws that banned high-magazine weapons, increased licensing standards, and required fingerprinting for handgun purchasers – Congress continues to drop the ball,” he wrote.
Meanwhile on Saturday in San Francisco, Clinton spoke passionately about the need to address racial inequities that persist to this day.
“It is tempting to dismiss a tragedy like this as an isolated incident,” she said Saturday of the Charleston shooting. But she dismissed that notion, saying the crimes of confessed shooter Dylann Roof must be placed in the larger context of racism in America. “Once against racist rhetoric has metastasized into racist violence,” she said.
But while Roof and his compatriots get the most attention, “our problem is not all kooks and Klansman,” she continued, saying racism persists deep and often unnoticed into otherwise upstanding communities.
“We can’t hide from any of these hard truths of race,” she continued. “We have name them, then own them, then change them.”
But she said she had hope that “this generation will not be shackled by fear and hate.”
Clinton also sent an email to supporters expressing similar sentiment and including a link to a video of her speech. “As a mother, a grandmother, and a human being, my heart is bursting for the people of Charleston,” she wrote. “This is a history we wanted so desperately to leave behind, but we can’t hide from hard truths about race and justice in America.”