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Democrats Mentioned Guns More Times Last Night Than They Did in 14 Debates in 2008

Candidates vie to prove their gun reform bona fides as the party seizes an issue it believes it can win on.

Guns were mentioned more times in Tuesday’s Democratic presidential debate than they were during more than a dozen party debates staged at the start of the 2008 election cycle, when a front-running Hillary Clinton was also fending off a liberal insurgent (an upstart Senator named Barack Obama) and another mass shooting (Virginia Tech, the worst in U.S. history) was resonating in the news. 

In total, last night’s CNN-hosted throw down in Las Vegas featured 42 mentions of “gun” or “guns” from candidates and moderators. Those same words were only uttered 27 times during the first 14 Democratic debates in the last election cycle for which transcripts are available, over a span of eight months. The five declared 2016 candidates sparred over their records on gun legislation, prodded the National Rifle Association, and discussed a lawsuit against the website that sold ammunition to the gunman who killed 12 in an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater. With Democrats feeling that guns can be a winning issue in the 2016 election, the candidates were eager to prove their gun reform bona fides, debating the topic for nine minutes early in the proceedings.

“We have to look at the fact that we lose 90 people a day from gun violence,” Hillary Clinton said. “It’s time the entire country stood up against the NRA.”

It was a much different scene from the first Democratic debate in the 2008 election cycle. Speaking at South Carolina State University on April 26, 2007, just 11 days after the Virginia Tech attacks, Clinton offered a more toned down response to the country’s gun violence “I remember very well when I accompanied Bill to Columbine after that massacre and met with the family members of those who had been killed and talked with the students,” she said then, “and feeling that we had to do more to try to keep guns out of the hands of the criminal and of the mentally unstable.”

The Trace analyzed transcripts of 21 Democratic presidential debates (of a total of 26) that took place in 2007 and 2008. During the first 14, “gun” and “guns” were mentioned only 27 times. It took the remaining debates, when “guns” were mentioned an additional 57 times, to surpass last night’s total. 

MSNBC debate (April 26, 2007): 13 mentions

First mention: Hillary Clinton: “We now know that the background check system didn’t work, because certainly this shooter, as he’s called, had been involuntarily committed as a threat to himself and others, and yet he could walk in and buy a gun.”

Noteworthy moment: Senator Mike Gravel, Senator Joe Biden, Senator Chris Dodd, Governor Bill Richardson, Congressman Dennis Kucinich raised their hands when asked whether they’d a gun in their house at some point in their adult life. (Biden: “Shotgun, not pistol.”) Clinton did not.

CNN debate (June 3, 2007): 0 mentions

PBS debate (June 28, 2007): 1 mention

Only mention: Barack Obama: “When we are impoverished, when people don’t have jobs, they are more likely to be afflicted not just with AIDS but with substance abuse problems, with guns in the streets.”

NAACP convention (July 12, 2007): No transcript available

CNN debate (July 23, 2007): 13 mentions

First mention: A YouTube question from Jered Townshend leaves Richardson and Biden squaring off. Nothing from Clinton.

The Yearly Kos Presidential Leadership Forum (August 4, 2007): No transcript available

The Democratic Candidates Forum (August 8, 2007): 0 mentions

Logo Debate (August 9, 2007): 0 mentions

“This Week” debate in Iowa (August 19, 2007): 0 mentions

Univision debate (September 9, 2007): 0 mentions

The “mashup” debate (September 12, 2007): No transcript available

PBS debate in Iowa (September 20, 2007): No transcript available

MSNBC debate (September 26, 2007): 0 mentions

NBC/Drexel debate (October 30, 2007): 0 mentions

CNN/Nevada Democratic Party debate (November 15, 2007): 0 mentions

NPR radio only debate (December 4, 2007): 0 mentions

Des Moines Register/Iowa Public Television debate (December 13, 2007): 0 mentions

Saint Anselm College debate (January 5, 2008): 0 mentions

MSNBC debate (January 15, 2008): 19 mentions

First mention: Clinton: “We do need to crack down on illegal gun dealers. This is something that I would like to see more of. And we need to enforce the laws that we have on the books. I would also work to reinstate the assault weapons ban.”

Noteworthy moment: Obama makes a campaign promise that presages his frustrations as president. “I don’t think that we can get that [licensing and registering gun owners] done. But what I do think we can do is to provide just some common-sense enforcement. One good example — this is consistently blocked — the efforts by law enforcement to obtain the information required to trace back guns that have been used in crimes to unscrupulous gun dealers. That’s not something that the NRA has allowed to get through Congress. And, as president, I intend to make it happen.”

The Congressional Black Caucus/CNN debate (January 21, 2008): 0 mentions

LAT/Politico/CNN debate (January 31, 2008): 0 mentions

MTV/MySpace “super dialogue” (February 2, 2008): No transcript available

CNN/Univision/Texas Democratic Party debate (February 21, 2008): 0 mentions

NBC News debate (February 26, 2008): 0 mentions

Compassion forum/CNN (April 13, 2008): 2 mentions

First mention: Clinton was asked about why she was so critical of Obama’s “cling to guns or religion” comment. Her answer focused on faith, not guns.

ABC News debate (April 16, 2008): 36 mentions

First mention: Obama was asked about his “guns or religion” comment. 

Noteworthy moment: Clinton: “I will also work to make sure that police departments in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, across America get access to the federal information that will enable them to track illegal guns, because the numbers are astounding. Probably 80 percent of the guns used in gun crimes are in the hands of that criminal, that gang member — unfortunately, people who are sometimes, you know, mentally challenged — because it got there illegally. And under the Republicans, that information was kept from local law enforcement.”

[Photo: AP Photo/John Locher]