Gun-control group backs Clinton: Will it make a difference in 2016 race?

The National Rifle Association endorsed Donald Trump. Now, a major gun-control group has endorsed Hillary Clinton, reflecting the burgeoning importance of this issue in the 2016 presidential contest.

REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton (C) takes part in a gun control panel with (L-R) Rita Kestenbaum, Marie Delus, Erica Smegielski, Natasha Christopher, Sandy Phillips, and Representative Steve Israel (D-NY) in Port Washington, New York April 11, 2016.

Hillary Clinton received the endorsement Friday of a major gun control group, Everytown for Gun Safety, at a time when gun control seems to be an ever more prominent issue in the 2016 presidential election.

Not only is there a clear ideological divide between Mrs. Clinton and the likely Republican nominee Donald Trump, but distinctions have also been drawn between the former secretary of State and her democratic rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders.

As the primaries have gone on, Clinton has increasingly used gun control as a means of positioning herself to the left of Senator Sanders – perhaps the only issue on which she has been able to do so. But as the primary process draws to a close, and the parties each (probably) unite behind a candidate, the tussle will increasingly be more stark: gun control versus gun rights.

“Hillary Clinton passes [our] test with flying colors,” said John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, in a statement, “pushing back against the NRA’s extreme ‘guns for everyone, everywhere’ agenda, and ushering in a new political calculus that saving lives from gun violence is a winning issue.”

President Barack Obama has weighed in on the issue, too, having said back in January that he would not support any presidential candidate who departs from “common-sense gun reform”.

Sanders has done his utmost to defend his own record on gun control issues, which some disparage as inconsistent. The Vermont Senator highlights the fact that he represents a “rural state with a rich hunting tradition,” and on his campaign website, he criticizes extreme positions and talks of bringing the nation “to the middle.”

Perhaps the contrast between the Democratic candidates was most visible Thursday, on National Gun Violence Awareness Day, when Clinton wore orange – the color Americans wear to demonstrate support for the movement – and Sanders did not.

“The gun lobby may be the most powerful lobby in Washington, but I believe that the American people are more powerful still,” said Clinton in a statement responding to Everytown’s endorsement. “We are stronger together. We will not be intimidated. We will not back down.”

Mr. Trump was also in receipt of an endorsement a couple of weeks earlier, when the National Rifle Association officially backed his candidacy. Trump proceeded to lambast Clinton’s stance by accusing her of wanting to “abolish the Second Amendment,” which enshrines the right to bear arms.

While Clinton has consistently denied such accusations, explaining her position instead as fighting for “common sense gun safety measures,” some observers say that she is seeking to make gun control central to her presidential bid.

“The Everytown endorsement was unique in noting that 2016 marks the first year a Democratic presidential candidate is seeking to make gun safety, once a third rail issue, a winning position against a Republican nominee backed by the NRA,” notes Annie Karni in Politico.

Indeed, it is a bold position to take, as Democrats have sometimes shied away from promoting gun control with too much vigor on the campaign trail, worried that the NRA machine will lumber into action and persuade gun rights advocates to make their voice heard at the ballot box.

Clinton herself used to be less vocal in her support of gun control, talking only in 2008 of shooting as a “part of culture,” and “a way of life.” But since that time, observers say her stance has become remarkably consistent, and much more starkly in favor of strict gun controls.

National polls don't put gun policy at the top of voter concerns, but it is a bigger issue among Democrats than Republicans, especially in the wake of Ferguson, Mo., and the Trayvon Martin shooting. 

Democratic strategists are apparently in favor of the move, perhaps sensing a shift in the wake of a spate of mass shootings, or maybe because the gun-control movement has in recent years become more organized and better-funded.

“Democrats are starting to believe that a strong statement on gun control will motivate the base and not cost them in purple states,” Adam Winkler, a professor of constitutional law at UCLA, told Time. “That is a totally different electoral calculation than they were making even four years ago.”

And so Clinton has made gun control “a central theme of her campaign,” says The Nation's George Zornick. It's an issue that appeals to minority voters, especially older women. Last month, Clinton spoke spoke at the Trayvon Martin Foundation after meeting with 60 mothers who lost children to gun violence.

“At long last, we must do something about the gun violence that stalks communities and terrorizes families. And this is on the minds of every one of us here tonight, as we remember all of the young people who have been lost,” Clinton said. “This problem isn’t going away.”  

If the presidential contest should end up as Trump versus Clinton, it will likely pit the might of the NRA against the “burgeoning gun-reform movement.”

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