Between them, the 2016 Republican and Democratic National Conventions featured at least two historical moments in the gun debate.
In Cleveland, Chris Cox, the chief lobbyist for the National Rifle Association, addressed the gathered crowd of Republican delegates — the first NRA official to speak at such a major party gathering. In Philadelphia, Democrats dedicated unprecedented attention to the impact of gun violence, and Hillary Clinton’s plans to reduce it — and that was before Clinton drove the message home in her acceptance speech last night. “I’m not here to take away your guns,” the Democratic nominee said. “I just don’t want you to be shot by someone who shouldn’t have a gun in the first place.”
With any doubts that the heated intraparty gun debates of the primary season would carry over into the general election now erased, here are five storylines to watch as Clinton, Donald Trump, and do battle on the issue through the campaign’s homestretch.
In April at an MSNBC town hall, Hillary Clinton called on voters who share her embrace of tighter gun laws to flock to the polls.
“I’m going to keep talking about it, and we are going to make it clear that this has to be a voting issue,” she said.
To do that, as Clinton knew, her campaign needs to change an electoral status quo: voter intensity for gun issues has typically been much stronger among the Republican base than in her party. Speaking in 2000, Grover Norquist, a prominent Republican strategist and NRA board member, described the difference in stark terms. “Gun control is for the right what prayer in school is for the left,” he said. “It is an issue where intensity trumps preference.”
As Vox’s German Lopez has noted, the political scientist Kristin Goss believes that for the pro-gun side, the issue is simply more visceral: its voters feel they have something to lose.
But Democrats are betting that’s changing. The combination of increasingly frequent mass shootings and congressional gridlock have brought more urgency to their cause. The massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 spawned activist groups that have pushed other forms of gun violence into the spotlight, especially domestic shootings. Rising urban homicide rates have increased media attention on urban firearms deaths. Following the shooting at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub, gay rights groups have joined the fold.
“The cumulative effect of these tragedies is starting to increase the intensity of the attention we give this issue,” said Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut.
Polling shows that progressives’ newfound focus on guns has translated into political will. In 2013, conservatives were far less likely than liberals to vote for a candidate that disagreed with them on guns, and more likely to donate money to an organization that matched their position on guns. By the end of 2015, a similar number of Democrats and Republicans said they would only vote for a candidate who supported their position on guns. Another survey shows overall support for tougher gun laws at the highest it’s been since the Sandy Hook shooting.
Creating a new bloc of single-issue, pro-reform voters dedicated to the cause of universal background checks is one way for Clinton and the Democrats to secure electoral gains through stoking the gun debate. But listening to the speeches in Philadelphia made it clear that the party believes fighting for new gun laws can rally its supporters for reasons only indirectly related to policy. For all their criticism of Donald Trump’s shortage of specific plans, the Democrats who addressed the gun issue in Philadelphia mostly kept things gauzy — and likely did so deliberately.
During his primetime address, Barack Obama called on his voters to lift Clinton into the White House so that she could continue the work they had started together.
“I ask you to carry her the same way you carried me,” he told the assembled Democrats.
Before Obama took the stage, a video, played in the arena. The short film made clear just what those supporters had carried him through. In particular, it presented the 2012 mass shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School — and a string of high-profile mass shootings that followed — as the moral crucible of his presidency. Obama (and, by association, the Americans who’d elected him) was portrayed as a heartbroken leader eager for gun reform, but stymied by Republicans beholden to the National Rifle Association.
Put together, the speech and video cast gun reform as an essential reason for Obama supporters to turnout again in November. As The Trace has reported, Democratic strategists hope that a strong stance against gun violence will unify the “Obama coalition” against a common enemy: A Republican party supplicant to a heartless gun lobby. It also holds the promise of cathartic progress.
“We need to take action, and we need to take action now,” said producer and director Lee Daniels in his convention remarks. “There’s only one candidate willing on the gun lobby and keep our families safe.”
Political journalists have observed that with Obamacare on the books, Democrats have lacked a cause to energize them, and are in particular need of one that stirs the soul in a way that pocketbook issues do not. Emily Tisch Sussman, the Campaign Director for the Center for American Progress Action Fund, argues that gun reform can be a replacement for another liberal catalyst that motivated Democrats in recent cycles, comparing its potential on Democratic turnout in 2016 to the cause of gay rights and marriage equality in 2012. With marriage equality now the law of the land, “LGBT issues don’t present the same big clear villain,” she told The Trace this fall. “Democrats are going to have to reconvene the Obama coalition for 2016 and [gun policy] has very high interest.”
As Clinton and the Democrats were setting up camp in Philadelphia, where she and several speakers would call for gun reform, Trump unleashed a barrage of tweets bashing the party for killing jobs in the Keystone State.
It was a microcosm for how the gun issue may play in the battlegrounds of the Rust Belt, where the NRA’s message provides Trump with another way to stoke turnout among disaffected white male voters. The voting bloc is Trump’s path to victory and makes up a large portion of the members that the NRA takes pains to keep happy.
Polling averages show a very close race in Ohio and a closer race than Clinton would like in Michigan. In Pennsylvania, Clinton leads by an average of 4.4 percent — a lead slightly lower than Obama’s margin of victory in 2012. Both Ohio and Pennsylvania swung for Obama in 2008 and 2012 and, in recent years, have elected governors and senators from both parties. Both states are also hosting tight, high-profile Senate races in which candidates are pushing gun laws to the fore. The NRA seems especially eager to make an example of Democrat Ted Strickland of Ohio, a formerly pro-gun governor, for modifying his gun position: It’s already spent $1.2 million against him — only slightly less than it has spent against Clinton.
But the political geography of the Rust Belt gives Clinton a counterbalance to the strongholds that Trump and the gun group enjoy among white men and rural residents. In Pennsylvania for example, greater Philadelphia and Pittsburgh provide such a disproportionate share of the state’s populations that Democrats can carry the state’s electoral votes by winning the big metro areas and losing everywhere else. Data collected during Democratic primaries made the pattern clear: Where there are the most voters to be found in a state, those voters also tend to be the most enthusiastic towards tighter gun regulation.
In late June, the NRA spent $2 million to launch its first ad oriented toward the 2016 presidential election. Notably, the spot did not mention guns or the Second Amendment. Instead, its focus was Benghazi.
The ad, which aired in key battleground states, features Mark “Oz” Geist, a former Marine and one of the private security contractors who interceded during the deadly 2012 siege on the U.S.’s diplomatic compound in the Libyan city. He walks solemnly through a cemetery. “A lot of people say they’re not going to vote this November because their candidate didn’t win. Well, I know some people who won’t be voting this year either,” he says, referring those who died during the attack. “Hillary as president? No thanks. I served in Benghazi. My friends didn’t make it. They did their part. Do yours.”
Earlier this week, Politico reported that the organization plans to spend another seven figures to extend the campaign in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, and Nevada, states that will likely prove must-wins for Trump
The NRA’s ad campaign could suggest that the organization is avoiding direct trumpeting of gun rights in the wake of a string of horrifying shootings. But in fact the group has affirmative reasons for playing the Benghazi card. The Geist spot is a way for the NRA to double down on the story it likes to tell about itself and its members, who are encouraged to view themselves as society’s “sheepdogs,” protecting the defenseless flocks from wolves — which include mass shooters and terrorists. If the U.S. government would simply butt out, and leave citizens to protect themselves, Americans would be much more secure.
Geist is the NRA’s latest military hero, following in the footsteps of deceased Navy Seal Chris Kyle, who authored American Sniper, and Marcus Luttrell, also a Navy Seal, who wrote Lone Survivor. Both books were made into blockbuster films, and are celebrations of toughness, perseverance, and rugged individualism in the face of grave danger.
Geist helped author 13 Hours, a book about his experience in Benghazi; it, too, was made into a blockbuster film. According to its version of events, Geist and his fellow commandos were delayed in their intervention by the chain of command. Against the orders of superiors, they finally headed over to the nearby compound to fend of the attackers on their own: an international spin on the sheepdog story.
Geist spoke at last week’s Republican National Convention, and was one of the chief attractions at this year’s NRA convention, which took place in May. During an event, he addressed thousands of people, reminding them that Hillary Clinton, as Secretary of State, was responsible for Benghazi, despite numerous investigations and reports that have concluded otherwise. He told the crowd Clinton could not be relied upon for protection, and it was up to people like him — like them — to stop her. “The NRA is America’s safest place,” he said.
Clinton’s willingness to address gun violence as an issue was clear early on in her 2016 campaign. In a September debate, she said she was proud to have the NRA as enemies.
Despite Clinton’s — and Democrats’ — readiness to bash the NRA by name, Americans for Responsible Solutions (a gun reform group founded by former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and her husband Mark Kelly) recommends avoiding directly criticizing the gun group, as Politico reported. The reasons: Thanks to the NRA’s popular gun safety and training programs, a lot of Americans feel positively about the group. A July AP poll found that equal proportions of the electorate view the NRA favorably and unfavorably, at 37 percent each.
On the eve of the Democratic convention, at an event in Miami unveiling Tim Kaine as her vice presidential pick, Clinton applauded his “backbone of steel,” adding, “just ask the NRA.” When Obama gave his valedictory on Wednesday night, by contrast, a barbed line about obstructionism on background checks — “the gun lobby that blocks change through every funeral that we hold” — alluded to a more abstract foe.
There may be no backing down now for Democrats, but going on the offense on guns is still new for the party. In a political era when every key phrase is relentlessly focus-grouped, it is clear that Clinton and her compatriots are still sorting out some of the details.
[Photo: AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Matt Baron/BEI/Shutterstock]