In the three weeks since the mass shooting in Charleston, two notable statewide gun measures have been signed into law. In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker (R) scrapped his state’s 48-hour waiting period, and this week in Maine, Gov. Paul LePage (R) got rid of his state’s concealed gun permit requirement.
The developments are a striking reminder about the politics of the gun issue. No matter how high-profile the shootings, and no matter how severe the public revulsion, proposals to scale back restrictions keep advancing.
At the national level, meanwhile, the massive Republican presidential field is largely unified on all gun-related questions, and recent history suggests the Democratic candidates will generally avoid the issue. But the Washington Post had an interesting piece overnight highlighting the degree to which Hillary Clinton is pursuing her own course.
[I]n a sign that the political environment on guns has shifted in the wake of recent mass shootings – and of Clinton’s determination to stake out liberal ground in her primary race against insurgent Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) – Clinton is not only initiating a debate about gun control but also vowing to fight the National Rifle Association.“I’m going to speak out against the uncontrollable use of guns in our country because I believe we can do better,” Clinton said Tuesday in Iowa City.A few days earlier, she said in Hanover, N.H.: “We have to take on the gun lobby…. This is a controversial issue. I am well aware of that. But I think it is the height of irresponsibility not to talk about it.”
The Post piece makes the case, persuasively, that this isn’t the norm for recent Democratic candidates. None of the party’s recent nominees in “several decades,” including President Obama, emphasized the issue at all while on the campaign trail.
Clinton, however, is trying something different. It’s worth appreciating why.
Some of this may be the result of a unique primary rival – Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is running to Clinton’s left on some issues, but guns are a notable exception. The Independent senator describes himself as aiming for “the middle” on the issue and he has a voting record that arguably puts him well to the right of many Democratic activists.
It’s possible, in other words, that Clinton is stressing the issue at this point to help exploit a gap between Sanders and the Democrats’ progressive base.
But chances are, there’s even more to it than this. Practically all of the leading Democratic presidential candidates have shied away from the issue, for over a generation, fearing a fierce backlash from far-right groups like the NRA.
Clinton no doubt realizes, however, that as the NRA becomes more extreme, there’s no placating the group – it goes after Democrats whether they try to make the group happy or not. Just ask former Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), who eagerly tried to keep the NRA happy, but who found that the NRA targeted him with a vengeance anyway.
To this extent, the NRA has given up its credibility. The group’s message used to effectively be, “Play ball with us and we’ll leave you alone.” That’s transformed into, “We’re coming after you, whether you try to work with us or not.”
Given those incentives, Clinton might as well speak her mind, confident that the attacks are inevitable either way.