Editor's Note: Hillary Clinton unveiled a plan to tackle gun violence on Oct. 5, including the repeal of liability protection for gun manufactuerers; closing the gunshow loophole, which allows people to buy firearms without background checks from private sellers; preventing gun purchases from being finalized before a background check is completed.
“Something is deeply wrong,” Hillary Clinton told the audience at the Democratic National Committee on Friday. Earlier in the week, a gunman killed two journalists in Roanoke, Virginia, on live television, just days before an unstable person with a gun murdered a highway state trooper in Louisiana. It all points to a national sickness, an impotence when it comes to curbing the spread of firearms to dangerous individuals, Clinton said. “I believe we can have common sense gun reform that keeps weapons out of the hands that should not have them—domestic abusers, the violently unstable—while respecting the rights of responsible gun owners.”
Hillary Clinton has long pushed to regulate access to guns. In her Friday speech, she pledged her presidency would be no different.
“Now I know the politics are hard. I know that some would rather throw up their hands and give up the fight, but not me. I’m not going to sit by while more good people die across America,” she said.
Of course, it’s easy for candidates for president—especially Democratic candidates for president—to say they’re going to do something on guns. Actually accomplishing anything is much harder—like Labor-of-Hercules difficult. After the Newtown, Connecticut, school shooting that killed 20 elementary school students and six of their teachers, President Obama made a massive push for relatively modest gun regulation. He got nothing.
But for Clinton, gun control has been a significant part of her political identity. She’s been working to regulate the firearms industry for decades, and had a front row seat the last time a president actually managed to pass any gun-control measure.
In other words: other candidates may say they’re coming for unregulated guns. Clinton really is.
No wonder the NRA has vowed to bring her down.
Her experiences in the ’90s—and the massacre of 13 people at Columbine High School in particular—seemed to shape her views and belief that the laws needed to change to better protect people.
The Clinton administration came into the White House in 1993 with a pledge to sign the Brady Bill, which implemented a five-day waiting period and a background check in order to buy a handgun.
Once Bill Clinton was in the office, he worked with former White House press secretary James Brady and his wife, Sarah, to pass the bill. And it was over the course of that fight Hillary Clinton forged a strong friendship with Sarah.
In her book, Living History, Clinton marveled at the Bradys’ strength.
“The bill wouldn’t have been possible without the tireless efforts of James and Sarah Brady,” she wrote. “He and his indomitable wife, Sarah, had dedicated their lives to keeping guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill.”
“Hillary was always really supportive, there was never a time it was in question,” said a longtime friend of Sarah Brady, who asked for anonymity in order to speak candidly about their relationship. “They became incredibly close—close on the issue and close personally.”
Sarah and James, who served as President Ronald Reagan’s press secretary before he was shot during an assassination attempt in 1981, both appeared at the 1992 Democratic convention in support of the Clintons.
When Sarah Brady published her book in 2002, Hillary spoke at her book party in Washington, D.C.
If the Bradys’ tenacity on the issue inspired Clinton, the mass shooting at Columbine High School emboldened her to push for changes to gun laws—particularly the so-called gun show loopholes.
On April 20, 1999, two teenagers murdered 12 of their classmates and one teacher in Littleton, Colorado. It was the deadliest school shooting in American history up to that point. And it sent the country into a debate over easy access to firearms.
A month after Columbine shootings, Bill and Hillary Clinton traveled to the shattered Denver suburb to meet with the families who lost their children in the violence.
Joe Lockhart, the White House spokesman at the time, said one by one the Clintons were introduced to family members who had lost their kin.
“It is hard to describe how unspeakably tragic it is to meet family after family all sitting in room with their loved ones, all of whom have lost a child, a brother or sister, to senseless gun violence,” Lockhart, who accompanied the Clintons to Littleton after the Columbine massacre, said. “It’s impossible to fully measure how it will impact any given person, but I’m certain that it forever impacts any leader who has to go through it.”
Clinton described the meetings as “gut-wrenching” in her memoir.
She reflected on seeing “the faces of parents who were living through their worst nightmare, dealing with the loss of their own children in such a senseless, disturbing act of violence.”
“Parents and teenagers alike asked Bill and me to make sure these horrible losses were not in vain,” she wrote.
So when President Clinton launched a nationwide ad campaign to draw awareness to youth violence and formed a task force to examine why the nation’s youth had become increasingly prone to violence, Hillary became deeply involved.
Jeff Bleich, who served as the director of the White House Commission on Youth Violence, said Hillary Clinton was very active in his group.
“My main impression overall,” he said, “was that she stayed with the issue. Some people in government lost focus on youth violence as soon as the next crisis occurred, but she and her office continued to check in to see how the program was going.”
And while the politics of gun control changed dramatically once her husband left the White House, Clinton kept at the issue once she got to the Senate, where she was a reliable vote for gun-safety measures. She supported renewing the assault weapons ban and barring the sale of high-capacity magazines.
“She’s worked on these issues for a really long time—she really comes to this as an advocate for kids and families,” said Neera Tanden, president of Center for American Progress and a longtime Hillary Clinton aide.
When Clinton announced her candidacy for the Senate in February 2000, she pledged “to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and away from children, for closing the gun-show loophole, requiring child safety locks and licensing all new handgun owners.”
She also co-sponsored several bills aimed at closing the so-called “gun show loophole” and voted to renew the assault weapons ban in 2004. These efforts, however, all came up short, and the Bill Clinton-era assault weapons ban expired.
The gun-control measures were good politics in New York. But by 2008, when Hillary was running for national office, she softened her position a bit.
When asked by NBC’s Tim Russert whether she would implement a plan wherein “everyone who wishes to purchase a gun should have a license, and that every handgun sale or transfer should be registered in a national registry,” during a presidential debate in 2008, Clinton said it was not politically possible.
“Well, I am against illegal guns, and illegal guns are the cause of so much death and injury in our country,” she said. “I also am a political realist and I understand that the political winds are very powerful against doing enough to try to get guns off the street, get them out of the hands of young people.”
In other words, the pivot on gun control was temporary, tiny. She added, “We need to have a registry that really works, with good information about people who are felons, people who have been committed to mental institutions like the man in Virginia Tech who caused so much death and havoc. We need to make sure that that information is in a timely manner, both collected and presented.”
The years since the 2008 campaign have been an exercise in frustration for the gun-control movement. And in today’s presidential race, Clinton’s nearest Democratic competitor—Bernie Sanders—voted against the Brady Bill and has a record on gun control that looks much more right-leaning than far left. Sanders represents Vermont, where gun laws are pretty much nonexistent, but those views and votes might not sit well with some of the more hard-core Democratic voters.
As one Democratic voter told The Daily Beast, Sanders is “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 it this way.”
NRA chief Wayne LaPierre, on the other hand, had nothing but bile for Sanders’s opponent.
“I vow on this day the NRA will stand shoulder to shoulder with you and good, honest decent Americans,” he said during April’s NRA convention, “and we will stand and fight with everything we’ve got and in 2016, by God, we will elect the next great president of the United States of America and it will not be Hillary Rodham Clinton.”
For the Democratic front-runner, it was a rather sweet endorsement.