Overshadowed by immigration, national security and the election itself, gun rights are nevertheless one of the most important issues in the 2016 presidential campaigns of Republican nominee Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. A recent Pew Research Center poll found gun policy as the fifth-most important issue among voters in 2016, with 72 percent saying the candidates’ positions are “very important” to their vote.
Trump, who was endorsed by the National Rifle Association on May 20, has come out in strong support of the Second Amendment and the rights of gun owners. On the campaign trail and his web site, Trump says he will appoint justices that “abide by the rule of law and the Constitution of the United States that includes upholding the Second Amendment.”
Trump’s web site calls Hillary Clinton the “most anti-gun, anti-Second Amendment candidate ever to run for office.” It goes on to say Clinton wants to reverse District of Columbia vs Heller, the 2008 Supreme Court decision that overturned DC’s 1975 Firearms Control Regulations Act. The act placed a ban on owning hand guns and a safety measure that required all firearms to be kept “unloaded and disassembled or bound by a trigger lock.”
Clinton was asked about her opposition to Heller at the third and final presidential debate. There she said she supported the part of the ruling that upheld the right to own a gun but opposed the overturn on the safety measure.
“She believes states and cities should have authority to craft safe storage laws that keep children safe,” said a Clinton campaign representative.
“She’s not trying to take away your guns, she just doesn’t want you to be shot by someone who shouldn’t have a gun in the first place,” added the campaign representative, who asked not to be named.
As Clinton looks to differentiate her positions on the separate components of the ruling, her stance on Heller has received backlash from Trump and groups like the NRA.
“This election is about law-abiding Americans’ right to have a firearm in their home for self-protection,” said NRA spokesperson Cat Mortensen. “At (the Oct. 20) debate, Hillary Clinton reiterated her opposition to the Supreme Court’s Heller ruling which guarantees the fundamental right to have a gun in your home for self-protection.”
“If elected, Hillary would appoint anti-gun Supreme Court justices who would promote her gun control agenda,” Mortensen added. “A shift in the Supreme Court would pave the way for extreme gun control including banning entire classes of firearms.”
The Clinton campaign said it would fight to restore the assault weapon ban enacted in 1994 by Clinton’s husband, then-president Bill Clinton, but there is no specific legislation planned currently. The ban expired in 2004 and hasn’t been reinstituted.
The NRA cited a Gallup poll conducted earlier this month that showed support for assault weapon bans is at its lowest level in 20 years. The poll showed 36 percent of Americans want a ban, down from 44 percent in 2012 and 57 percent in 1996. The poll also showed a divide among party lines, with 50 percent of Democrats supporting the ban and 25 percent of Republicans.
The NRA also referenced a 2004 study by George Mason University professor Christopher Koper that Bill Clinton’s ban provided “really, very, very little evidence, almost none, that gun violence was becoming any less lethal or any less injurious” during the time frame of the ban.
A major aspect of Clinton’s gun policy is closing the so-called gun show and internet sale loopholes, as well as preventing potentially dangerous people, such as those on the terrorist watch list or with domestic violence convictions, from purchasing guns.
“These are two sides of the same coin,” the Clinton campaign said. “If you just prohibit a category of dangerous people from buying guns, but you don’t have background checks at gun shows or on the internet, it leaves a gaping hole in our laws.”
The Clinton campaign also supports legislation similar to Senate amendment 2910 proposed by Diane Feinstein (D-California) that allows the U.S. Attorney General to block sales to suspected terrorists on a case-by-case basis. The bill doesn’t provide blanket ban for those on the list, and allows for appeals.
A competing amendment authored by senator Jon Cornyn (R-Texas) and supported by the NRA was called “smoke and mirrors” by the Clinton campaign. The proposed amendment also would allow the Attorney General to block sales for those on the watch list, but would require the investigation within a 72-hour window.
If nothing suspicious was found within that window, the prospective buyer would be able to go ahead with the purchase. The Clinton spokesperson said the bill requires the Attorney General to meet an unreasonable standard for blocking sales to suspected terrorists.
The Feinstein and Cornyn amendments are among the few serious legislative acts towards gun control considered by Congress since 2013, and both failed to pass the Senate.
The Clinton campaign said the majority of American people, including gun owners, support expanding background checks. Multiple polls have shown around 90 percent of respondents support expanded checks.
Clinton’s campaign said this support extends to NRA members, a statement the NRA denied.
“The NRA is a private organization. We do not share our membership records with pollster or outside groups,” Mortenson said. “We don’t have any idea where they’re getting that information.”
Another key component of Clinton gun policy is support of an executive order passed by President Obama that mandates gun sellers “in the business” of selling firearms must meet certain criteria for background checks, regardless of structure. For example, gun sellers in brick and mortar stores have to conduct background checks, while those at shows or online do not. The executive order would extend this to all retailers.
Trump’s position on his web site is “we need to fix the system we have and make it work as intended. What we don’t need to do is expand a broken system.”
The NRA endorsed Trump earlier in the campaign cycle than it has for any other presidential candidate in its history, and NRA’s television ads been parallel to Trump’s positions.
Earlier this month, the NRA released an ad called “Kristi’s Story” where a woman talks about fighting off an attacker with a pistol before encouraging viewers to vote for Trump.
An ad released Oct. 26 called “Four Justices” calls out Clinton and several Supreme Court justices for their positions on guns and the Second Amendment. The next president will appoint one Supreme Court justice to replace the late Antonin Scalia and possibly more in the next four years, subject to the consent of the Senate.
“It’s all about the Second Amendment and the Constitution,” Mortensen said. “That’s really our focus, protecting the justices on the court.”
Clinton and her campaign have refuted the ads and other accusations by the NRA.
“If you watch the ads being run against Sec. Clinton by the gun lobby, none talk about the policies she has proposed,” said the Clinton campaign representative. “They can’t criticize her policies because the American people agree with her. Instead, these ads focus on personal attacks and fact checks show they’re baseless.”
In Virginia, concerns about gun legislation continue to be an issue. There are nearly 500,000 residents with concealed carry permits and an more than one million gun owners, according to Phillip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, a leading gun rights organization in the state.
In the Commonwealth’s 10th congressional district, where incumbent first-term Republican Barbara Comstock is facing a close race from Democratic challenger LuAnn Bennett. On the campaign trail, Comstock has reiterated her stance as a supporter of the Second Amendment. She has earned an “A” rating from the NRA, whose headquarters sits just outside the 10th District borders, as well as the group’s endorsement in this year’s race.
In an interview with the Tribune, Comstock said she had worked to stop gun violence while allowing people to protect themselves. To curb violence, she said she supports the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, a method of determining if a prospective firearms or explosives buyer’s name and birth year match those of a person who is not eligible to buy. She also spoke in support of Project Exile, a mandatory sentencing system for people possessing guns illegally.
Bennett has spoken in favor of “common sense gun legislation” and aligns herself with national Democratic policy positions. Speaking at a Clinton Campaign event in October, Bennett knocked Comstock for her record on gun rights, including support for the Cornyn amendment.
Prior to Comstock’s election in 2014, the district was represented for 34 years by Frank Wolf, whom Comstock worked for. Wolf also received high ratings from the NRA.
It remains to be seen how Comstock’s NRA support, or Bennett’s lack thereof, will impact this year’s race. In many other congressional districts around the nation, opposition to the active and well funded NRA can be politically intimidating. But nearby in Virginia’s 11th district, which includes most of Democrat-heavy Fairfax County, incumbent Democrat Gerald Connolly has been an outspoken opponent of the NRA yet has been elected to three consecutive terms and is running unopposed this year. The 10th, designed as a Republican stronghold following the 2010 census, has seen an influx of millennial and minority voters, which have a greater propensity to vote Democrat and may be less swayed by an NRA endorsement.
With much of the nation’s attention focused on other political issues this year, a candidate’s stance on gun issues may not be the make-or-break issue that it has been in years past. Nevertheless, guns will be a compelling issue for many Loudoun voters come Election Day.