Over the last generation or so, presidential elections have generally followed a predictable trajectory when it comes to guns: Republicans have partnered with the NRA, warning voters that Democrats are going to pursue dramatic changes to gun laws, while Democrats, feeling defensive, have insisted that little, if anything, will change.
Indeed, about a year ago, the Washington Post explained, “For at least the past several decades, Democrats seeking national office have often been timid on the issue of guns for fear of alienating firearms owners.” It was an observation rooted in fact: guns have served as a powerful wedge issue, drawing lines Dems were afraid to cross.
This year is poised to be very different.
On the Republican ticket, Donald Trump has abandoned some of his previous positions and sworn fealty to a right-wing vision on gun policy. Late Friday, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee spoke at the National Rifle Association’s annual gathering and condemned, of all things, gun-free school zones. Yesterday, Trump went just a little further.
Phoning in to “Fox & Friends” Sunday, Trump contradicted himself multiple times when asked to respond to [Hillary] Clinton, saying, “I don’t want to have guns in classrooms, although in some cases teachers should have guns in classrooms, frankly,” because “the things that are going on in our schools are unbelievable.” Then, he said, “I’m not advocating guns in classrooms, but remember in some cases … trained teachers should be able to have guns in classrooms.”
Hmm. So the GOP’s 2016 candidate doesn’t want guns in the classrooms, except for all the guns brought into classrooms by teachers.
Not surprisingly, Trump has also spent a fair amount of time condemning Hillary Clinton for advocating progressive gun reforms, but instead of getting into a defense crouch and pretending to love the status quo, Clinton has largely responded by bragging about her support for progressive gun reforms.
The New York Times reported yesterday on Clinton appearance in South Florida at an event to benefit the Trayvon Martin Foundation’s Circle of Mothers.
Speaking in a ballroom full of mothers who had lost children to gun violence, Mrs. Clinton defended her position on gun control and her promise to overhaul the criminal justice system.
“I love my daughter and granddaughter more than anything, and I worry about them as every mother does, and I want them always to be safe,” Mrs. Clinton said. “Parents, teachers and schools should have the right to keep guns out of classrooms, just like Donald Trump does at many of his hotels by the way.”
She mentioned his speech to the N.R.A. on Friday, which included a vow to allow teachers and principals to arm themselves. “This is someone running to be president of the United States, a country facing a gun violence epidemic, and he’s talking about more guns in our schools,” Mrs. Clinton said. “He’s talking about more hatred and violence in our streets.”
The comments came on the heels of a Clinton campaign official noting that the likely Democratic nominee believes the Supreme Court’s landmark Heller case, which established an individual’s right to own firearms in a 5-4 ruling, was decided incorrectly.
It’s important for two reasons. The first is that Clinton may be shifting her focus from the primary phase to the general election, but on this and several other major issues, she’s not straying from her progressive platform. The Democratic candidate made gun policy a key element of her platform in 2015 – she saw Bernie Sanders as vulnerable on the issue from the left – but she’s showing no signs of “evolving” on this now.
The second is Clinton’s apparent belief that in 2016, progressive views on gun reforms are not electoral suicide. I wouldn’t characterize her as a risk-taker by nature, but when it comes to gun safety, Clinton seems more willing to be less cautious.
And whether the NRA realizes this or not, the far-right group helped create these conditions. As we discussed last summer, it’s slowly dawning on Dems that as the NRA becomes more extreme, there’s no placating the organization. Right-wing groups and activists are going to go after Democrats whether the party tries to make the NRA happy or not.
Just ask former Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), who eagerly tried to keep the NRA on his side, only to find during his 2014 re-election campaign 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.”
With incentives like these, Clinton has made the calculus that she might as well speak her mind and try to prevent some gun violence, since condemnations from the right are inevitable either way.