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Election 2016

How Donald Trump Used ‘Gun-Free Zones’ to Score Populist Cred

The hot-button issue is a way for disaffected white working-class men to reclaim their masculinity — making it a perfect fit for Trump's message.

Long before he claimed frontrunner status in national polls and rolled to victory in Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary, Donald Trump sat for an interview with the gun enthusiast website Ammoland. It was early July, and the new candidate was eager to gain credibility as a defender of the Second Amendment. During earlier flirtations with politics, Trump held moderate views on gun rights, such as supporting an assault weapons ban. When John Kasich, another Republican presidential candidate, was serving in Congress in the 1990s, he paid dearly for taking the same stance. The National Rifle Association downgraded Kasich’s rating to an F because of his vote for the ban, and he spent years crawling his way back to an A.

The Ammoland interviewer gave Trump a free pass on the assault weapons question, instead turning the conversation to the flash point of so-called “gun-free zones,” referencing the 2009 mass shooting at the Fort Hood U.S. Army base in Texas. Noting that service members on military installations are often left “defenseless” against “murderers,” he asked: “Would you have a problem allowing our military bases to set their own policies with regard to personal weapons and do away with the Gun-Free Zones’ death trap?”

Trump replied that on his watch, gun-free zones on military property would be no more. “As commander-in-chief, I would mandate that soldiers remain armed and on alert at our military bases,” he said. “They will be able to defend themselves against terrorists. Our brave soldiers should not be at risk because of policy created by civilian leadership.”

Trump’s response made headlines on major right-wing media outlets, including Breitbart.com. Then, nine days later, on July 16, Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez opened fire at two military installations in Chattanooga, Tennessee, killing four Marines and one Navy sailor. Another influential conservative website, the Independent Journal Review, credited Trump’s stance as prescient. The GOP gate-crasher was now primed to take ownership of an issue that has become an increasingly potent motivator for gun-rights activists.

On July 17, Trump tweeted: “Get rid of gun free zones. The four great marines who were just shot never had a chance. They were highly trained but helpless without guns.” Trump’s proclamation garnered 8,000 retweets and over 9,000 likes. Those are high numbers by any standard, even for Trump, whose tweets are generally shared a couple thousand times.  

The argument for abolishing gun-free zones has been around for more than a decade, but it didn’t really take root among gun-rights advocates until 2012, when 12 people were killed and dozens of others wounded in a mass shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado: The cinema complex had a no-gun policy, which conservative commentators claimed made it an obvious target for a killer. The topic surfaced again five months later, following the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Wayne LaPierre, the National Rifle Association’s Executive Vice President, said at the time that a gun-free zone designation tells every “insane killer in America that schools are the safest place to inflict maximum mayhem with minimum risk.”

One of the most prominent critics of gun-free zones is John Lott, the pro-firearms researcher who has built a career on the theory that more guns equals less crime. In a 2000 study, Lott found that states that had expanded “right to carry” laws had experienced a reduction in multi-victim shootings by nearly 80 percent. The study continues to provide a scholarly sheen for the argument to ban gun-free zones, even though Lott’s research has proven to be grossly flawed. The notion that mass shooters are attracted to gun-free zones is also a fallacy. When the FBI analyzed 160 active shootings that had taken place between 2000 and 2013, it discovered that in more than 60 percent of the cases, the gunmen had chosen the site of their rampages due to some personal connection to the location, rather than the property owner’s firearms policies.

Robert Spitzer, a political scientist who has extensively studied the effects of gun control, believes that the case against gun-free zones has for some voters the feel of the truth, even if the facts point in the other direction. “There is literally no evidence that mass shooters have ever specifically targeted gun-free zones. And beyond that, if homicide is your end point, then the fact that people do or don’t have guns is not entering into your calculation. The majority of Americans are gun free.”

Facts rarely constrain political candidates, however, and as they have on issues like immigration, Trump’s opponents have followed his lead on gun-free zones.  The day after the Chattanooga shootings, at a campaign event in Nevada, Jeb Bush said, “You go to places where there is vulnerability and it’s a very powerful symbolic attack on our country.” In December, shortly after the rampage in San Bernardino, California, Senator Ted Cruz told a roomful of supporters that “if you’re a lunatic, ain’t nothing better than having a bunch of targets you know that are going to be unarmed.”

But no candidate has hit the note harder than Trump. “The message sounds great on the campaign trail,” says Spitzer. “Right away, he realized it’s an easy way to earn conservative credentials at no cost.” Ever since Chattanooga, Trump has returned to the talking point repeatedly. In October’s presidential debate, he told moderators that gun-free zones are a “catastrophe,” “target practice … for the mentally ill,” and “a feeding frenzy for sick people.” Last month, he exclaimed to an audience in Clear Lake, Iowa that gun-free zones are “like bait to a bad guy.”  That same week, in Burlington, Vermont, he announced to the crowd, “I will get rid of gun-free zones on schools, and … on military bases. My first day, it gets signed, okay? My first day.”

There’s no clear polling data that might explain why the issue has been such a favorite for Trump, but one possibility has to do with the demographic breakdown of his followers. According to the American Values Survey, 55 percent of Trump supporters are white, working-class voters. And per Gallup, most of them are men. Add that together, and Trump’s largest swath of supporters comprise one of the country’s most disaffected groups, whose job prospects have been in freefall for decades.

No longer breadwinners, white working-class men have been forced to rethink their role in American society. According Victor Tan Chen, a Harvard sociologist whose recently published book, Cut Loose: Jobless and Hopeless in an Unfair Economy, examines the phenomenon, the trend has dealt a major blow to the psyches of blue-collar men, who, he says, “have more traditional views of gender roles.” They find it difficult to “feel like men when they don’t have good jobs.”

Guns, Chen says, are “one of the most potent symbols of masculinity we have in our culture.” If white, working-class men feel they cannot contribute economically — the traditional “provider role” — perhaps they can at least act as protectors of themselves and their families, first, but also of the innocent people around them. (The University of Toronto sociologist Jennifer Carlson explores this idea at length in her convincing Citizen-Protectors: The Everyday Politics of Guns In an Age of Decline.)

Symbolically, then, the existence of gun-free zones may function as yet another negation of their manhood.

“Trump taps into this sense of grievance,” Chen says, “which isn’t entirely unfounded.” He adds, “It’s not so surprising that they see guns as a way to assert their masculinity and fight back.”

Which in turn becomes one more reason to vote Trump, the candidate most vocal in his promises to let them take their guns wherever they please.

[Photo: Rex Features via AP Images]