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A Guide to the 2016 Presidential Candidates’ Records on Gun Control and the Second Amendment

The key positions, policy proposals, talking points, and flip flops of the Democratic and Republican hopefuls.

In March, when Texas Senator Ted Cruz became the first to declare his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination, it wasn’t yet apparent that guns would be a major issue in the 2016 race. Then came a flood of announcements that grew his party’s field by 16, amid a summer filled with record-breaking homicides in several cities and a series of high-profile mass shootings. During the last two cycles, guns barely made an appearance on the campaign trail, beyond Mitt Romney’s “varmint” hunting and Barack Obama’s “guns and religion” comment. This time around, gun policy is providing a wedge issue (see: Hillary v. Bernie) and, via the “terror gap,” edging its way into the perennial presidential campaign focus on national security. 

Democrats, sensing an opening, have galvanized around the issue of gun safety, a topic that strategists believe can mobilize young progressives and female swing voters. Meanwhile, most of the Republican contenders — including those representing their party’s establishment wing — have declared a hard-line stance on gun rights as they jockey for the title of the most stalwart Second Amendment defender. Within those broad patterns, however, there are sometimes significant differences to be found in the gun policy resumes and rhetoric of the contenders. Below, a gun-centric guide to the 2016 White House candidates, listed in the order in which they appear in the Huffington Post’s poll aggregator and their placement in their party’s televised debates. The Trace will update this roundup as positions evolve and the field shakes out.

The Democrats

Hillary Clinton (Former U.S. Secretary of State)

Hillary Clinton Stance on Guns

Photo: United States Department of State

“We took them on in the 90’s. We’re going to take them on again.” 
–Florida campaign rally, October 2015

The first candidate to produce an extensive position paper on guns and gun violence, Clinton has called for expanding background checks, re-enacting an assault weapons ban, and repealing the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA), which grants unique liability protections for gun businesses, a law she voted against as a Senator. Before President Barack Obama used executive action to clarify the rule that defines who is “engaged in the business” of selling guns, Clinton was vowing to do the same as a way to push more unregulated private sellers into the background check system. Her campaign has since released an ad declaring her support for Obama’s move.


She has used the gun issue to draw differences between herself and Bernie Sanders.

As Clinton’s campaign has seen its air of inevitability dispelled by Bernie Sanders,  she has tried to undermine his progressive reputation by highlighting his past votes for NRA-approved measures.

 In Iowa, which sets the narrative for the first leg of presidential primary contests, the Clinton camp hoped the gun issue would help her score a decisive win, leaving next week’s vote in New Hampshire, where Sanders holds a sizable lead in the polls, as a minor speed bump on Clinton’s march to the nomination. On Saturday, former congresswoman and gun violence prevention advocate Gabby Giffords, who rarely speaks in public, joined Clinton on the stump in a key Iowa county, an appearance meant to press Clinton’s perceived advantage on the issue. Meanwhile, the Sanders campaign, on the defensive, was sending out mailers in which he vowed to take on the NRA. And after spending months defending his vote for the gun-industry immunity law, Sanders agreed to cosponsor a bill that would repeal it. (The Trace)

She is proud to call the NRA an enemy.

During the first Democratic primary debate in October, Clinton drew applause from the crowd when she listed the gun lobby as among her favorite haters.

Clinton, too, named the NRA as one of her top enemies because of the group’s efforts to block gun control legislation, despite the growing number of mass shootings. Earlier in the debate, she noted that 90 people die every day in the U.S. because of gun violence. Congress hasn’t done anything in response.

“This has gone on too long and it’s time the entire country stood up against the NRA,” Clinton said to applause. “The majority of our country supports background checks, and even the majority of gun owners do.” (Huffington Post)

She once campaigned for a handgun registry.

In 2000, during her first run for New York Senator, Clinton called for a national handgun registry, a bold stand since gun registries are among the NRA and gun rights’ communities biggest fears.

Hillary Rodham Clinton endorsed a series of stringent gun-control measures yesterday, calling for the licensing of all new gun owners and the registration of new guns. Mrs. Clinton, the Democratic candidate for United States Senate, also warmly praised Gov. George E. Pataki, a Republican, for proposing a ”ballistic fingerprint” database to help police investigators track down guns used in crimes. In a speech to the Newspaper Association of America in Manhattan, Mrs. Clinton offered her support for the licensing and registration measure in advance of the Million Mom March in Washington on Sunday, a demonstration that is being staged in favor of what its organizers call ”common-sense gun control.” (New York Times)

During her 2008 presidential campaign, she distanced herself from earlier support for tighter gun laws. 

Vying with Obama for the Democratic nomination, Clinton played down her previous pro-gun-reform position, saying said she didn’t support “blanket rules” on guns.

“What I favor is what works in New York,” she said. “You know, we have a set of rules in New York City and we have a totally different set of rules in the rest of the state. What might work in New York City is certainly not going to work in Montana. So, for the federal government to be having any kind of, you know, blanket rules that they’re going to try to impose, I think doesn’t make sense.” (Buzzfeed)

Bernie Sanders (U.S. Senator, Vermont)

Bernie Sanders Stance on Guns

Photo: U.S. Congress

“Folks who do not like guns are fine, but we have millions of gun owners in this country who are law-abiding citizens.” –CNN interview, July 2015

Sanders has a D-minus rating from the NRA, but he sits to the right of other Democratic candidates on gun control. As a Congressman in 1993, he voted against the Brady Act, which ushered in the federal background check system; in 2005, as a Senator, he voted for PLCAA, the federal law that largely shields gun manufacturers and sellers from negligence suits — a vote that Clinton has increasingly hammered him for. On other gun policy questions, Sanders is more in line with current Democratic orthodoxy, voting for assault weapon bans and recently coming out in favor of universal background checks. Pressed on the inconsistencies, Sanders has explained his record as the product of representing a liberal, rural state where guns and hunting are popular.


He agreed to cosponsor a bill repealing a 2005 gun law he once supported.

Days ahead of the Iowa caucuses, Sanders distanced himself from his earlier support of the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA), which shields gun manufacturers from lawsuits. In 2003, he voted for an even friendlier version of the bill, and has struggled to explain his evolving position on the issue.

In a Democratic forum on Monday, a week before the Iowa caucuses, Sanders said he had supported PLCAA because, “among other things, it has a section which says we should not be selling ammunition which will pierce policemen’s armor.” He said he also liked a PLCAA provision “which said that we want to have safety locks for children on guns.”
The details formed a new line of argument for Sanders. But it’s one that does not withstand scrutiny.
The Senate added the child safety and armor-piercing bullet provisions to the measure in July 2005 votes. The bill then passed in October 2005. But a 2003 version of the bill did not contain either of those provisions. Sanders, then a member of the House, voted for it anyway.

He brags about his D-minus rating from NRA.

As fellow Democratic presidential candidates have attacked Sanders’s position on gun control, he’s mounted a vigorous defense of his record.

“I do not accept the fact that I have been weak on this issue,” Sanders said. “In fact, I have been strong on this issue. In fact, coming from a rural state which has almost no gun control, I think I can get beyond the noise and all of these arguments and people shouting at each other and come up with real, constructive gun control legislation which, most significantly, gets guns out of the hands of people who should not have them.” (Huffington Post)

His position on gun industry legal immunity partly echoes the NRA’s. 

Sanders’s vote for a controversial bill that protects gun manufacturers from lawsuits when their weapons are used in crimes has become an issue as Clinton, looking to raise doubts about her rival among liberal primary voters, has tried to turn use his position to poke holes in his progressive bona fides and image as a crusader against special interests.

Explaining the vote to NBC’s Chuck Todd, Sanders adopted a version of the argument used by its original boosters, which included the National Rifle Association: He was voting, he said, to protect small-town Vermont gun owners from being sued out of existence due to the behavior of their customers. (The Trace)

In 1996, he voted against a measure to allow the CDC to research gun violence.

The day after the mass shooting in San Bernardino, Sanders urged Congress to authorize the CDC to study gun violence. He voted against a similar measure two decades earlier.

Congress, at the urging of gun rights supporters, put restrictions on CDC funding of gun research into the federal budget in 1996. Sanders, then a Vermont U.S. representative, voted against an amendment, which ultimately failed, that would have authorized funding for such research, according to the website for the Office of the Clerk of the House of Representatives. (Reuters)

The Republicans

Donald Trump (Businessperson)

Trump stance on guns

Photo: Gage Skidmore

“If some of the people in those places where it was slaughter, absolute slaughter, had guns, you wouldn’t have had the carnage that you had in Paris.” 
–South Carolina campaign rally, December 2015

Before he began his no-holds-barred run for president, Trump held moderate views on firearm access, like supporting assault weapons bans and a waiting period for gun purchases. But in the wake of several high-profile mass shootings, Candidate Trump has embraced gun rights with the zeal of a religious convert. In September, he released a policy paper on guns (the second of his campaign, following one on immigration, the issue on which he first built his lead in the polls). The document begins with Trump stating that he will not allow any infringement on the right bear arms. He proposes familiar GOP policy prescriptions — enforcing gun laws already on the books, compelling states to enter more mental health records into the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) — while reinforcing gun owners’ rights to self-defense, suggesting that reciprocity for concealed carry permits should extend across all 50 states (a top policy priority of the National Rifle Association) and that military personnel should be armed at domestic installations.


He opposes gun free zones and believes that good guys with guns are an antidote to mass shootings.

After last summer’s rampage at two military recruiting centers in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Trump put forward the view that criminals (contrary to what FBI research has shown) target gun-free zones.

“You know, we could give you another example — the Marines, the Army, these wonderful six soldiers that were killed. Two of them were among the most highly decorated — they weren’t allowed on a military base to have guns. And somebody walked in and shot them, killed them. If they had guns, he [the shooter] wouldn’t be around very long. I can tell you, there wouldn’t have been much damage.” (Washington Post)

When 10 students were fatally shot and nine others injured at Umpqua Community College in October, Trump called for schools to arm teachers.

“Had somebody in that room had a gun, the result would have been better. I think that if you had the teacher, assuming they knew how to use the weapon, which hopefully they would, you would’ve been a lot better when this maniac walked into class, starting to shoot people.” (KTLA)

And in January, Trump went one step further. On the night President Obama conducted a live-televised town hall on gun violence to discuss his executive actions on gun reform, the Republican candidate told a rally in Vermont that on his first day in office, he would end gun-free zones at both military bases and schools. Existing federal law makes it illegal to possess a firearm in an area that a person “knows or has reasonable cause to believe is a school zone,” as the Washington Post notes.

He blames mass shootings on the mentally ill.

After two women were killed and nine others wounded in a July shooting at a movie theater in Lafayette, Louisiana, Trump said that the focus should not be on more restrictive gun laws, but psychiatric issues.

“These are sick people … this has to do with the mentality of these people. I’m a big Second Amendment person. I believe in it so strongly. You need protection. You need protection against the bad ones that have the guns.” (Washington Post)

He subscribes to the “slippery slope” theory.

Trump believes that if background checks are expanded to include private gun sales — a proposal that repeated polling has shown to be popular with a vast majority of American voters, including Republicans, gun owners, and NRA members — tighter gun restrictions will inevitably follow.

“The problem is once you get into that you start getting into a situation, the slippery slope, where all of a sudden you are going to violate the Second Amendment. I don’t want to violate the Second Amendment. To me the Second Amendment is very important.” (Real Clear Politics)

Ted Cruz (U.S. Senator, Texas)

Ted Cruz Stance on Guns

Photo: Christopher Halloran

"We don't stop the bad guys by giving way our guns. We stop the bad guys by using our guns." 
–Heritage Foundation address in Washington, D.C., December 2015

Ted Cruz has campaigned aggressively for the pro-gun vote ever since he ran for U.S Senate in 2012, and his presidential run is no different. He’s repeatedly pointed to how he’s blocked tighter gun regulations: he threatened to filibuster the (ultimately unsuccessful) 2013 Manchin-Toomey background check bill, and argued in the U.S. Court of Appeals against Washington, D.C.’s strict gun laws. Cruz also introduced a bill making the interstate sale of firearms easier, a practice that is currently highly restricted. The NRA formally recognized Cruz’s work on the legal challenge to the district’s handgun ban in 2008 and again in 2010, but it’s a group to its right, Gun Owners of America, that has offered its official endorsement of his candidacy.


He exaggerates his gun-rights record.

On the presidential trail, the Texas senator has taken credit for court victories in which he played a small role, while staking out no-compromise positions that obscure his once practical approach.

 There’s no doubt that Cruz’s gun-law résumé is without peer in this year’s field. Indeed, among the many lawyers who have ever run for president, Cruz is uniquely well-credentialed, with nine Supreme Court oral arguments to his credit and analytical and rhetorical skills that, from his earliest days as a lawyer, were “simply amazing” and “off the chart,” in the words of his first employer.

But a closer look at the accomplishments Cruz claims for himself reveals a sort of Second Amendment Zelig, a gun-rights advocate who somehow manages to surface in key legal contests but is hardly a driving force. Strip away the artful exaggeration of the roles he played in particular cases, peer inside the mechanics of what he actually did, and Cruz the uncompromising superlawyer starts to look more like a marginal player with a forgotten pragmatic streak.

He boasted of an endorsement from a gun group whose leader was deemed too extreme by Pat Buchanan.

During a GOP primary debate earlier this fall, Cruz touted his endorsement from Gun Owners of America, which calls itself America’s only “no compromise” firearm advocacy organization. GOA was founded in 1975 by Larry Pratt, a far-right operative with a checkered history.

[Pratt] spoke at a conference organized in the wake of the infamous Ruby Ridge standoff, where his fellow speakers included Klansmen and members of the Aryan Nations. After signing on as co-chairman of Pat Buchanan’s 1996 presidential campaign, he was forced to leave that post when his frequent proximity to white supremacists was uncovered. (The Trace)

He argued in favor of the plaintiffs who successfully challenged Washington, D.C.’s handgun ban.

As Texas solicitor general, he wrote an amicus brief arguing in favor of the plaintiff in the landmark District of Columbia v. Heller case, which determined that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to bear arms. He explained his thinking in an interview with National Public Radio:

“The Second Amendment to the Constitution was understood by the framers as a critical individual liberty that each and every American has protected by the Constitution. And what this case is really about is, is that right going to be, in effect, written out of the Constitution? Because the natural consequence of the argument that the District of Columbia is making is that no individual anywhere in America can ever again assert a right under the Second Amendment. And that is a deeply troubling outcome.” (NPR)

He cooked bacon with the hot barrel of an AR-15.

Cruz demonstrated his savviness with the gee-whiz side of gun ownership when, at a Texas gun range, he wrapped bacon around the muzzle of a semiautomatic rifle and squeezed off rounds until the muzzle got hot enough to fully cook the meat.

Firing at one round per second for 140 seconds will heat the section of the gun nearest the muzzle to 613 to 685 degrees Fahrenheit. Another 140 seconds puts the temperature at almost 900 degrees. At normal cooking temperatures, bacon usually takes five to eight minutes per side, so even without flipping, it doesn’t look like Cruz would have to take much time out of his senatorial duties to cook up his breakfast meats. (CNBC)

John Kasich (Ohio Governor)

Kasich Stance on Guns

Photo: Michael Vadon

“I don’t think more laws are going to fix this.” –CNN interview, October 2015


Kasich’s NRA rating has swung from an F to a B to an A over the course of his decades-long career as an elected official. Like most of his Republican competitors, he’s been vocal about his support for the Second Amendment, and as governor of Ohio, he’s had a friendly relationship with the NRA. In a recent CNN interview, he attributed high rates of gun violence to what he calls the “breakdown” of the family and to untreated mental illnesses, not lax gun laws. What separates him from the rest of the Republican field are his views on the so-called terror gap and his checkered history with the NRA.


He voiced concerns about the “terror gap” loophole.

Kasich broke with other Republican contenders when, in the aftermath of the San Bernardino shooting, he expressed concerns about the terror watch list.

“Of course, it makes common sense to say that, if you’re on a terrorist watch list, you shouldn’t be able to go out and get a gun, although you will be able to get it illegally.” Kasich did raise concerns that preventing those on watch lists from buying guns could tip them off that they’re under surveillance.” (Politico)

He once earned an F rating from the NRA.

As a congressman in 1994, Kasich voted for the national assault weapons ban, which drew the ire of the gun lobby. He hasn’t exactly recanted the vote, but he has said it was unnecessary.

For a long time, it seemed as if the National Rifle Association would never forgive John Kasich. In the wake of the shooting deaths of eight people in 1993 in San Francisco by a man with an automatic pistol, Kasich joined 215 other House members in 1994 to ban the production and sale of 19 semi-automatic assault weapons. The NRA’s response was quick: It awarded Kasich, then a Republican congressman from Westerville, a grade of F. When Kasich ran for governor in 2010, the NRA was still smoldering. It endorsed Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland, who as a House member in 1994 had voted against the same weapons ban. (The Columbus Dispatch)

He loosened gun restrictions in Ohio.

Last year, the governor signed an NRA-backed bill that expanded gun rights in Ohio.

A new state law effective today will allow hunters to use suppressors on guns; permit Ohioans to buy rifles, shotguns and ammunition from any state; and implement a more-rigorous background check for concealed-carry permits. It also reduces the training required to get one of those permits from 12 hours to eight, including some of it online for the first time; changes the definition of an ‘automatic’ weapon; and makes concealed-carry permits issued from other states valid in Ohio, even without a reciprocity agreement. (The Columbus Dispatch)