Hillary Clinton’s campaign just released an ad advocating action on guns, and it seems clear that she’s going to continue talking about this issue. In fact, she could be the first Democratic nominee in a long while to treat the issue of guns without fear, and it shows that she has figured out a couple of key things about it that Democrats haven’t realized before.
One might see Clinton’s continued discussion of the gun issue (and the agenda on guns she released a month ago) as aimed primarily at Bernie Sanders, whose record on the issue is a mixed one. But from the beginning, Clinton has been simultaneously running a primary and general election campaign, knowing that anything she says now could be used against her later. Clinton employs a small army of pollsters, and you can be sure that they have thoroughly tested this issue in the context of both the primaries and a potential general election to determine what might be a good or bad idea for her to advocate.
It isn’t as though Clinton desperately needs the gun issue in order to become the Democratic nominee. At most, it might make a marginal difference here or there. So why risk incurring the wrath of gun advocates? That’s the first thing Clinton seems to have realized: the National Rifle Association and their allies will come after her no matter what.
It doesn’t matter if she talks about guns, or doesn’t talk about guns. It doesn’t matter if she advocates specific restrictions, or doesn’t advocate specific restrictions. It doesn’t matter if she goes hunting a couple of weeks before election day, like John Kerry did. The NRA will scream “She’s coming for your guns!”, just like they did with Barack Obama, and Kerry, and Al Gore, and Bill Clinton. Keeping gun owners in a constant state of fear is essential to maintaining their membership and keeping sales strong for the gun manufacturers who are the NRA’s partners, and they’ll do it no matter who the Democratic nominee is and what he or she says.
The second thing Clinton seems to have realized is even more important: the gun issue can actually benefit the Democratic presidential nominee.
You’ll notice that the only policy position Clinton takes in the ad is, “we need to close the loopholes and support universal background checks.” Universal background checks are supported by around 90 percent of Americans, including strong majorities of gun owners, Republicans, and even NRA members — in other words, pretty much everyone except the NRA itself. While some of the other things she advocates might not be quite as popular, universal background checks is always going to be the first thing out of her mouth when this issue comes up.
The other thing that’s significant about Clinton’s rhetoric is that when she talks about this issue, she usually mentions the NRA by name. There’s a growing understanding that for all its ability to quash gun legislation in Congress, when we’re talking about elections, the NRA is not anything like the potent force it claims to be. Its record in helping its favored candidates get elected in tight races is actually pretty weak; most of the time the organization just tries to claim credit whenever Republicans have a strong year, but becomes oddly silent when Democrats win big.
When you mention that, someone is likely to retort, “But didn’t Al Gore lose his home state because of guns, and doesn’t that prove Democrats shouldn’t touch this issue?” This is a myth that’s been circulating for years, encouraged by gun advocates and spread by timorous Democrats. But it’s not true. Al Gore didn’t lose Tennessee because of the gun issue, he lost Tennessee because he was a Democrat. The state had been trending Republican for years, and continued to do so afterward (Mitt Romney beat Barack Obama there by 20 points in 2012). There is precisely zero evidence that the gun issue hurt Gore in Tennessee, and what evidence there is suggests that his position on guns helped him win other states with large urban and suburban populations like Pennsylvania and Michigan (I discussed that election, and the concomitant myth that the NRA won Congress for Republicans in 1994, at greater length in this article).
Conservative groups are calling Clinton a hypocrite for her current position because in 2008 she spent more time talking about respecting the rights of gun owners than about restricting gun proliferation. While it may not rise to the level of hypocrisy (she still mentions that there are lots of responsible gun owners), her emphasis certainly has changed. That tells us that while a Democrat might still want to approach the issue with some degree of care, she can do it without the terror that gripped Democrats for so long.