In Hillary Clinton's landslide S.C. win, an asterisk on gun control

Hillary Clinton routed Bernie Sanders in Saturday's South Carolina primary. Beneath the surface, it offered a nuanced, Southern glimpse of gun control. 

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks about the results of the South Carolina primary to supporters at a primary night party in Columbia, S.C., Saturday.

Hillary Clinton’s 48-point victory over rival Bernie Sanders in the South Carolina Democratic presidential primary here Saturday was categorical by a host of measures. On issues ranging from foreign policy to race relations, voters chose the former secretary of State by huge margins.

Within those exit polls, Mrs. Clinton also won big among another group: Those who favored reducing gun violence over gun rights chose her by a 50 point margin. And 81 percent of voters prioritized reducing gun violence.

In a state that saw two high-profile shootings last year – the killing of motorist Walter Scott by a policeman and the murder of nine churchgoers by a white supremacist in Charleston – the issue was emotionally resonant. Yet interviews with voters Saturday offer a more nuanced picture than the numbers themselves.

They suggest that South Carolina Democrats’ overwhelming desire to rein in gun violence is not all anti-Second Amendment crusading. South Carolina, after all, is steeped in the Southern hunting culture. Even Democrats carry.

Instead, South Carolina Democrats interviewed at Saturday’s polls offer something of a middle view on gun rights – supportive of the right to bear arms, but feeling that a line has been crossed and needs to be addressed. 

Twenty-something Graham Holson pulls up to vote in Edgefield, S.C., in a jacked-up white pickup truck with a goofy pit bull riding shotgun. He claims he has “tons of guns – handguns, rifles, you name it.” A self-described white “country boy,” he also has a concealed carry permit, which means, “You won’t know when I’m carrying, which is how it should be.”

Yet Mr. Holson, a Sanders supporter, joined other primary voters, most of them African-American, in welcoming Clinton’s foray into the gun culture wars, suggesting, in his view, that America’s gun violence might be softening some hard-line views on gun ownership.

He said he’s open to stricter background checks to weed out “potential nut cases” and even reviving the Bill-Clinton-era assault weapons ban, which expired in 2004 after 10 years.

“As a country we’re becoming a cultural no-man’s-land where every house is a militia, and that’s not good,” says Holson. “Also, I don’t understand these banana clips that are this long – I have no need to kill 20 people in 20 seconds.”

On Thursday, a high-powered assault weapon was used by a man to kill four people and hurt another 14 in Hesston, Kan. Clinton has also spoken out against allowing domestic abusers to own weapons, a point punctuated by the fact that the Kansas shooter started firing at people after being served a restraining order filed by a scared girlfriend.

Vowing to continue President Obama’s efforts to improve background checks, Clinton has until now used the gun issue primarily as a wedge issue to attack Mr. Sanders, who in 2005 voted against putting more responsibility on gun manufacturers for the safety of their product.

And last week, Clinton reminded South Carolina voters that Sanders had supported what’s come to be called the “Charleston loophole” that allowed Dylann Roof, the accused Charleston shooter, to acquire a gun despite having a criminal record.

“The killer in Charleston who bought that gun — if they had spent a little more time, it would’ve been discovered,” Clinton said. “He should not have been able to buy the gun because he had a federal record.”

Clinton’s campaign pushback against American gun culture is bound to clash with a political reality: Only 12 years after the assault weapons ban sunsetted, the AR-15 – a militarized rifle – has become “America’s gun,” as Normal, Ill., gun shop owner Stephen Stewart told CBS News recently.

"It's a favorite among sportsmen, target shooters and competitors,” Mr. Stewart added. "It's also popular as a home defense platform."

The NRA and other gun rights groups oppose gun control proposals on principle, saying they’re all part of a slippery slope toward all-out gun confiscation. Moreover, tightening gun-ownership restrictions are likely to be used by the government to target certain kinds of people for confiscation, they believe.

“That’s silly,” says Kent Bacon, a former Edgefield County commissioner, who voted on Saturday for Clinton. “Nobody is talking about taking people’s guns away, in part because the country wouldn’t stand for it.  Heck, I wouldn’t stand for it. But that doesn’t mean we just sit here and do nothing.”

The issue might not translate well in the general election, where conservatives strongly favor gun rights. But Clinton’s message of new constraints on gun ownership had appeal among at least a subset of Second Amendment supporters here.

Guns are “part of why domestic terrorism is a far bigger problem than ISIS,” says Eugene Spann, a black Democratic voter who says he supports the Second Amendment’s right to “bear arms.”

Deborah Holloway, an African-American union organizer in Aiken, S.C., agrees. She says people should absolutely be able to own a handgun for self-defense, but only if they meet a high standard of responsibility and good citizenship.

“Guns in the wrong hands is really the issue.” 

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