In 2008, Barack Obama bent over backward to defuse suspicions from gun owners and their chief lobbying group, the National Rifle Association. “I believe in the Second Amendment,” he assured one audience. “I will not take your shotgun away. I will not take your rifle away. I won’t take your handgun away.”
A lot of good it did him. The NRA ran ads saying he “would be the most anti-gun president in American history.” Four years later, with that fear unrealized, NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre warned that Obama was plotting “to ensure re-election by lulling gun owners to sleep” so he could then “erase” the Second Amendment. That, of course, also didn’t happen.
Back in 2008, running against Obama, Hillary Clinton also tried to make nice with the gun-rights crowd, fondly recalling that she had learned to shoot as a child. But Obama’s experience then and since proved there is nothing a Democratic presidential nominee can say or do to appease NRA sympathizers.
So Clinton is taking a different approach this time. She’s endorsed the gun control measures sought in vain by Obama after the Sandy Hook massacre, including universal background checks. She’s slammed Bernie Sanders for supporting legislation passed in 2005 giving firearms manufacturers protection from some lawsuits.
Clinton’s message to the gun lobby: Bring it on.
That shift is notable particularly because of her husband’s experience in the White House challenging the NRA. After winning passage of a federal ban on assault weapons, Bill Clinton saw his party wiped out in the 1994 elections, giving Republicans control of the House for the first time in 40 years. Democrats suffered a net loss of 54 seats; the then-president attributed 20 of those defeats to the gun issue.
He also blamed that issue for Al Gore’s narrow loss to George W. Bush in 2000. “The NRA had enough votes in New Hampshire, in Arkansas, maybe in Tennessee and in Missouri, to beat us,” Bill Clinton said later.
Some states with lots of gun owners who once were up for grabs, like Arkansas and Tennessee, now appear out of reach for Democrats. Nationally, public opinion is on Clinton’s side: Not only do 89 percent of Americans support universal background checks, so do 87 percent of Republicans and 84 percent of voters in households with guns.
On top of that, it’s become clear that the NRA will do everything it can to defeat any Democratic nominee. Clinton clearly figures that these days, trying to get along with the NRA won’t win her any votes, and challenging it may.
Changing demographics also matter.
As Ronald Brownstein wrote in The Atlantic, “Since 2000, Democrats have grown far less dependent on the blue-collar whites who are the most resistant to gun control measures, and have replaced them with growing groups like people of color and college-educated white women more open to the idea.”
Clinton also thinks the issue can help fend off her primary opponent, because of his vote on a 2005 bill that substantially protected gunmakers, sellers and trade groups against lawsuits. Most Democrats favor greater regulation of firearms, and she can claim to speak for them better than Sanders does. In their debates, Clinton has used the issue to put him on the defensive.
There are risks in her forthright stance.
If she gets the nomination, she could turn out gun owners who might otherwise stay home on Election Day, in states where the contest is close. If a Republican is elected, the gun lobby will be able to claim credit. If not, though, the NRA is likely to face a president who is not on its side — and has no reason to fear it.