Hillary Clinton goes bold on gun safety -- but she sounded a different note in 2008

Exploiting a Bernie Sanders weakness, Clinton offers much more full-throated backing of gun control than in '08

By Sophia Tesfaye

Senior Politics Editor

Published July 10, 2015 3:25PM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Yuri Gripas)
(Reuters/Yuri Gripas)
Hillary Clinton is staking her 2016 campaign firmly on the side of gun control, closely aligning herself with the Democratic Party base and planting herself further to the left on the issue than Democratic primary challenger Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), the Washington Post notes today.
The morning after a gunman opened fire in a historical African American church in Charleston, South Carolina and killed nine worshippers, Clinton said it was tim for America to be “honest” and “face hard truths" on violence and guns, asking, "How many people do we need to see cut down before we act?" In the weeks since, Clinton has not let up her charge pushing the issue of gun control. In a recent speech, she took on the NRA, calling it "the height of irresponsibility not to talk about" the gun lobby.

But Clinton hasn't always been so forceful in her fight for gun control. As the Post highlights, Clinton has dramatically shifted her tone on gun control since the 2008 campaign. While Clinton touted her husband's record record on gun control (former President Bill Clinton signed into the law an assault weapons ban that has since lapsed) she also heralded personal memories of learning to shoot with her father and defend gun ownership, saying, "there is not a contradiction between protecting Second Amendment rights" and the effort to reduce crime.

“You know, my dad took me out behind the cottage that my grandfather built on a little lake called Lake Winola outside of Scranton and taught me how to shoot when I was a little girl,” Clinton said while campaigning ahead of the Indiana primary, where white working class Democrats propelled her to a narrow victory over then-Sen. Barack Obama. “You know, some people now continue to teach their children and their grandchildren. It’s part of culture. It’s part of a way of life. People enjoy hunting and shooting because it’s an important part of who they are. Not because they are bitter," she continued, in a dig at Obama's remark at a fundraiser that disenfranchised Americans often "cling" to cultural symbols like guns and religion.

Clinton's campaign even attacked Obama during the primary by sending out a mailer questioning his stance on gun control from the right.

Years later, Clinton has recast her rhetoric on the issue, championing former President Clinton's administration historic deal with a major gun manufacturer, Smith & Wesson, to adopt safety measures. Although the agreement nearly ruined the company, as revenues dropped 40 percent within a year due to an NRA-led boycott, Sen. Tim Kaine told the Washington Post that Clinton wouldn't have to worry about the NRA's influence this cycle. Calling the NRA a “paper tiger," Kaine welcomed Clinton's new tough anti-gun lobby talk. “I think she has no illusion that even if she didn’t say a word about guns, the NRA would be out there blasting her to say she had a conspiratorial plan to work with the U.N. to take everybody’s guns away, so why not go head-on on an issue that will improve safety,” Kaine said.

Now, with the families of the victims of the massacre in South Carolina calling for federal action on background checks and a poll conducted shortly after the shooting showing that 49 percent of Americans want a discussion on stricter gun laws, Clinton appears to have found the room to talk tough -- especially with her nearest rival running to her right on the issue.

This week, a member of the group, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, pushed Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders about his record on gun control, specifically a vote his cast protecting gun and ammunition manufacturers from being sued. The families of the victims of the Aurora theater shooting cited the 2005 law as the reason why their lawsuit against the ammunition manufactures was dismissed. After explaining his vote, Sanders called for understanding from both sides of the debate:

I come from a state that has virtually no gun control and it turns out one of the safest states in the country. I come from a state where tens and tens of thousands of people hunt and do target practice. I understand that guns in my state are different than guns in Chicago or Los Angeles,” Sanders said. “People in urban America have got to appreciate that the overwhelming majority of people who hunt know about guns and respect guns, and are law-abiding people, that’s the truth. And people in rural America have got to understand that in an urban area, guns mean something very, very different.”

We will not succeed on this terribly important issue if we continue the cultural warfare between urban America and rural America, and I think I’m in a good place to bridge that gap

But the volunteer gun control activist who questioned Sanders on his vote, Honora Laszlo, told Al Jazeera America that his answer sounded like the NRA. “He reinforces the idea in people on the other side of the divide that this is about people hating them and people hating guns, and it’s not, this is about safety," she said:

“He’s using phrases that the gun extremists and the NRA use, saying things like it’s about people not liking guns ... A lot of us are super Bernie Sanders supporters and we were all really disappointed that he could talk about in this way. It is [a deal breaker] for everybody in the gun violence prevention community.”

It may be this exact sentiment that Hillary Clinton is hoping to tape into as a barrier against the growing Sanders surge.

Clinton's tough talk on guns has at least gotten the attention of liberal gun control activist. Erika Soto Lamb, spokesperson for Michael Bloomberg's Everytown for Gun Safety group said that Clinton's campaign has shown a "striking" focus on the issue of gun control during this election. “It is a changed world now when Hillary and other candidates are making it a part of their stump. This is the first presidential election when we’ve seen proactive statements."

By Sophia Tesfaye

Sophia Tesfaye is Salon's senior editor for news and politics, and resides in Washington, D.C. You can find her on Twitter at @SophiaTesfaye.

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2008 Elections 2016 Elections Bernie Sanders Gun Control Guns Hillary Clinton