In stark contrast to recent Presidential elections, the issue of gun violence has taken center stage in this year’s race.
Five years ago, in May 2011, The Washington Post ran an article titled, “NRA tries to keep gun issues alive in 2012 presidential race.” “On the convention floor,” reporter Rosalind S. Heiderman wrote, “amid dozens of stalls exhibiting hunting gear, high-powered binoculars and guns of every size and shape, NRA members said they think issues other than guns are likely to drive the vote.”
NRA members were correct in this case. The topic of gun violence barely made a ripple in 2012, despite mass shootings in the previous four years that included the movie theater in Aurora, CO, the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, WI, and the attack in Tucson, AZ that targeted Gabrielle Giffords. It came up once during the second presidential debate in October 2012. President Obama’s answer began with a doctrinaire affirmation of the Second Amendment before moving on to the NRA-friendly talking point about enforcing existing laws. He mentioned renewing the assault weapons ban, then ended with more vague language about “catching violent impulses before they occur.” This one question during the 2012 election represented an uptick since the 2008 race, when gun violence did not come up at all despite the Virginia Tech shooting a scant year earlier.
For the 2016 contest, Donald Trump followed the standard GOP playbook and began courting the NRA early in 2015 as part of his presidential run. In March, he was added to the roster of speakers for the NRA’s April convention. Three months later, in July, Breitbart ran an article affirming Trump’s Second Amendment bona fides. At this year’s convention, Trump again addressed the NRA, and the group then endorsed Trump for the presidency, despite lingering reservations from members based on Trump’s past support of legislation such as the assault weapons ban. In June, Trump floated the possibility of influencing the NRA on the so-called “No Fly, No Buy” legislation. If Trump brought his negotiation skills to bear on the NRA, it produced no movement.
Hillary Clinton, in contrast, has refused this election to tiptoe around the issue as Democratic candidates have in recent years (including Hillary Clinton in 2008). Early on in this year’s race, Clinton distinguished herself from Bernie Sanders on the topic of anti-gun violence legislation. In October 2015, after nine people we killed at Upqua Community College, she announced a series of proposals to curb gun violence and called for a “national movement” to stand up to the NRA. In 2016, Clinton’s criticism of Sanders intensified as she attacked him on his voting record.
But a truly remarkable departure happened on the third night of the Democratic National Convention. Above the podium, the words “Ending Gun Violence” appeared.
In the video introducing the Mothers of the Movement, Clinton urges the mothers to speak out so their voices become a “constant drumbeat” calling for change. The phrase recurred to me on the third night of the convention as speaker after speaker detailed the dire, personal cost of gun violence. Lee Daniels opened the topic, unexpectedly, in a touchingly candid and raw speech. He was followed by Christine Leinonen, whose son was killed in the attack on The Pulse in Orlando. When she spoke, the deepest hush fell over the audience. In a stadium filled with thousands of people, her low, pained voice rang out through the echoing space.
The force of the speakers’ words and emotions reached a crescendo. It felt like pressure building up behind a dam, then breaking, the relief of finally hearing many people speak out against what we all know is true: that our nation suffers disproportionately from gun violence, and it is killing our citizens—our loved ones—at an epidemic rate. (I have embedded all the speeches below, in order.) That night in the stadium, I could tangibly feel the collective frustration that every mass shooting has been met with Congressional inaction. I could feel the will to turn the tide.
On Tuesday, Trump once again made plain what is at stake in this election when he said at a rally in North Carolina:
“Hillary wants to abolish, essentially abolish, the Second Amendment. By the way, and if she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know. But I’ll tell you what, that will be a horrible day.”
The NRA immediately responded, trying to frame Trump’s statement as encouragement to gun owners to exercise their voting rights, not to assassinate the former Secretary of State. The organization also revived the campaign’s ailing budget, putting $3 million into anti-Clinton ads.
Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, made the subtext explicit in her rapid response to Trump’s words. “The threat Trump issued against Hillary Clinton is a threat against every woman who has the gall to speak her mind publicly,” she wrote, “It’s pathetic, disgusting, and something women have faced for too long when we dare to question societal norms.”
Clinton is taking an unusual tactic in deliberately bringing gun violence to the forefront of the presidential race. In recent years, Democratic candidates have tried to reassure gun owners in order to counter the Republican/NRA narrative that Democrats plan to “take your guns” and repeal the Second Amendment. Rather than try to side-step this accusation, Clinton this year has decided to take it head-on. In her acceptance speech, she stated:
“If we’re serious about keeping our country safe, we also can’t afford to have a President who’s in the pocket of the gun lobby. I’m not here to repeal the 2nd Amendment. I’m not here to take away your guns. I just don’t want you to be shot by someone who shouldn’t have a gun in the first place.
“We will work tirelessly with responsible gun owners to pass common-sense reforms and keep guns out of the hands of criminals, terrorists and all others who would do us harm. For decades, people have said this issue was too hard to solve and the politics too hot to touch. But I ask you: how can we just stand by and do nothing? You heard, you saw, family members of people killed by gun violence on this stage. You heard, you saw, family members of police officers killed in the line of duty because they were outgunned by criminals. I refuse to believe we can’t find common ground here.”
Clinton is counting on a sea change in the politics of gun violence to support her as she aims for the White House. But she’s also doing her utmost to create that change.
Ending Gun Violence Speeches
Director Lee Daniels
Christine Leinonen, whose son was killed in Pulse attack, supported by Brandon Wolf and Jose Arraigada, survivors of Pulse attack
U.S. Senator Chris Murphy (CT)
“She’s With Us: My Mother”: Erica Smegielsky
Erica Smegielski, daughter of Sandy Hook Elementary’s principal
Former Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey
Angela Bassett introduction; Felicia Sanders and Polly Sheppard, survivors of the Emanuel AME Church shooting in Charleston, SC
Mark Kelly and Gabby Giffords