Donald Trump justifiably sparked mass outrage with his comments about "Second Amendment" people stopping Hillary Clinton from appointing anti-gun judges — presumably through firearm-related means. While that particular line was new, it followed a statement Trump has been making at rallies for months now: that Hillary Clinton wants to abolish the Second Amendment.
To be clear, this is nonsense. Clinton is not proposing anything of the kind, and her gun control proposals this cycle hardly entail mass confiscation or constitutional amendments. But Clinton's position on guns, and her way of expressing it, has shifted in interesting ways over the course of her career.
Speaking about America’s gun violence problem after the mass shooting in Orlando, Clinton struck a strident tone: "I believe weapons of war have no place on our streets. We may have our disagreements about gun safety regulations, but we should all be able to agree on a few essential things."
But late in the 2008 Democratic primary, as then-Sen. Barack Obama was being roundly condemned for saying Rust Belt voters "cling to guns or religion," his rival Hillary Clinton joined in, saying that Obama’s comments offended her on a personal level, as she came from a family of gun owners.
"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," she told a crowd in Indiana. "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."
Minutes after that, in what CNN called a "slightly awkward moment," the mother of a child paralyzed by a gunshot asked Clinton if she was serious about gun control. "There is not a contradiction between protecting Second Amendment rights" and reducing crime, Clinton replied.
Eight years later, you’re not likely to hear Clinton defend gun ownership so passionately; if she expresses respect for guns at all, it’s as a caveat before arguing for serious measures to crack down on firearm violence.
This time around, her stated position on the issue is clear. She wants comprehensive, universal background check legislation. She wants to repeal civil immunity for gun manufacturers. She wants to ban assault weapons, ban the severely mentally ill and domestic abusers from buying guns, and use executive powers to limit the current gun show loophole to background checks. She attacked Bernie Sanders repeatedly for being excessively pro-gun.
But like most longtime Democratic politicians, Clinton’s passion for gun control has waxed and waned over the years. In the 1990s heyday of the Brady Bill and assault weapons ban, she was a vocal advocate, and made the establishment of a national gun registry a major proposal in her 2000 bid for Senate in New York. In the 2000s, like fellow Democrats from John Kerry to Howard Dean, she moderated her position, reflecting the then-conventional wisdom that the party needed to appeal to rural white voters in the South to win again.
And as the issue regained national salience after the Sandy Hook massacre, Clinton has, like most members of her party, rediscovered her passion for gun control.
Clinton in the '90s: a strong gun control advocate
Bill Clinton signed into law two of the most significant gun control laws in American history: the Brady Bill of 1993, which required background checks for most gun sales; and the assault weapons ban, included in the 1994 crime bill. Hillary Clinton did not make gun control one of her signature causes, the way she did health care reform, but she was an enthusiastic advocate of the measures all the same.
In her 1996 book It Takes a Village, she quotes a letter a 9-year-old boy in New Orleans sent to President Clinton in 1994, pleading, "I want you to stop the killing in the city. People is dead and I think that somebody might kill me. So would you please stop the people from deading. I'm asking you nicely to stop it. I know you can do it. Do it. I know you could." The boy was shot dead nine days later.
This is the context in which Clinton issues her defense of the Brady Bill and assault weapons ban:
The first step is to take weapons off the streets and to put more police on them. The Brady Bill, which my husband signed into law in 1993, imposes a five-day waiting period for gun purchases, time enough for authorities to check out the buyer's record and for the buyer to cool down about any conflict he might have intended the gun to resolve. Since it was enacted, more than forty thousand people with criminal records have been prevented from buying guns. The 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act banned nineteen types of military-style assault weapons whose only purpose is to kill people and it stopped the revolving door for career criminals with its "three strikes and you're out" provision. As part of a "zero tolerance" policy for weapons, drugs, and other threats to the safety of teachers and students, the President signed an executive order decreeing that any student who comes to school with a gun will be expelled and punished as a condition of federal aid.
In 1993, while Clinton was testifying in the Senate as part of her health reform efforts, then-Sen. Bill Bradley (D-NJ) asked her about his plan for a 25 percent tax on handguns and a $2,500 licensing fee for gun dealers. "I'm all for that," she replied. "I just don't know what else we're going to do to try to figure out how to get some handle on this violence. … I'm speaking personally but I feel very strongly about that."
In April 1999, she recorded a robocall opposing a Missouri ballot initiative that would have required issuance of concealed carry permits to eligible persons, saying in the message, "It's just too dangerous for Missouri families."
She got more active on guns following the Columbine shooting a few weeks later, usually in the context of calling for children to have less access to weapons. In a speech to the National Education Association, she declared, "It does not make sense for us at this point in our history to turn our backs on the reality that there are too many guns and too many children have access to those guns — and we have to act to prevent that," expressing support for a Senate-passed measure that would have required background checks for all gun show sales.
"If you own a gun or you know people who do, make sure it's locked up and stored without the ammunition," Clinton said in a Good Morning America interview, in response to a teenage girl asking what she could do to promote gun control. "We've made some progress in the last several years with the Brady Bill and some of the bans on assault weapons, but we have a lot of work to do."
Around this time, Clinton was gearing up to run for the Senate in New York. In her 2003 memoir Living History, she writes that her run was inspired, at least in part, by Congress’s failure to require child safety locks on guns and to close the gun show loophole after Columbine: "This Congressional lack of will to buck the all-powerful gun lobby and pass sensible gun safety measure made me think about what I might be able to do, as a Senator, to pass common sense legislation."
Clinton took even more restrictionist stands during the campaign than she had previously. She endorsed licensing all new gun owners and registering all new guns, pledging to work with Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) on her bill on the issue, and embraced a plan from then-Gov. George Pataki (R-NY) to set up a "ballistic fingerprint" database, to make it easier for police to solve gun crimes.
Under Clinton’s plan, the New York Times's Adam Nagourney wrote, "prospective gun buyers would have to obtain a photo license, which would be issued only after they had undergone a criminal record check and passed a gun safety examination. Also, all sales of new guns, or transfers of guns, would be recorded in a national registry."
Clinton endorsed a bill proposed by Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) requiring gun purchasers to get a photo ID and take safety lessons first. She also proposed requiring trigger locks for handguns, making adults liable for how their children use guns, raising the handgun age minimum from 18 to 21, limiting gun sales to one a month, and having the Consumer Products Safety Commission regulate guns.
She signed on to the Democratic Leadership Council's "Hyde Park Declaration," which among other things included a call to "develop and require 'smart gun' technology to prevent use of firearms by unauthorized persons and implement sensible gun control measures."
By the 2000 race, then, Clinton had put together a very consistent and strong pro–gun control record. She didn’t call for anything out of the political mainstream, like a handgun ban. But universal licensing and registration and mandatory smart guns were about the outer limit of what Democrats could propose on guns in the late '90s and early '00s.
And they made sense as proposals for a New York candidate; New York City is very pro–gun control and was still shaken by the high murder rates of the '80s and early '90s, and Clinton's likely Senate rival, Rudy Giuliani, was also an enthusiastic gun control supporter.
Democrats’ 2000s retreat on guns
It’s easy to forget now, in the eighth year of a popular Democratic president’s tenure with a Democrat leading the polls to succeed him, but the '00s, up until the 2006 midterms, were a period of near-total panic by Democratic operatives.
First George W. Bush, elected without winning the popular vote, gained a surge of popularity after 9/11. Then Republicans gained seats in the 2002 midterm elections, the first time a first-term incumbent’s party had done that since 1934. Then Bush won reelection despite presiding over an increasingly unpopular war.
Theories abounded about how best to staunch the damage, but one persistent theme was that Democrats should — must — move to the right on guns. Data point No. 1 was Mark Warner’s election to the Virginia governorship in 2001 as an enthusiastically pro-gun candidate, but pretty soon the 2004 Democratic presidential candidates were getting in on the game.
"In [Vermont], we have no gun control of any kind," Howard Dean, who was running as the left candidate that year, bragged. "We don't need gun control in our state, other than the federal gun control which I support." He told crowds he was "more conservative" on the issue than his rivals.
John Kerry accused Dean of pandering to the National Rifle Association, but then in the general election he did exactly the same thing. While he supported efforts to close the gun show loophole, his campaign site’s section on guns began, "John Kerry is a gun owner and hunter, and he believes that law-abiding American adults have the right to own guns." In October, he went on a hunting trip as a visual confirmation of his commitment to gun rights.
It was with this in recent memory that Hillary Clinton launched her 2008 campaign. Her actual voting record in the US Senate was solidly anti-gun and received 100 percent ratings from the Brady Campaign on two occasions. She voted repeatedly against shielding gun manufacturers from lawsuits, something she would bring up repeatedly as a point of contrast to Bernie Sanders in the 2016 race. She voted to require handguns to come with child safety locks. In 2006, she voted against an amendment prohibiting federal officials from confiscating legal firearms during emergencies, one of only 16 senators to do so. Even Barack Obama, Joe Biden, and Harry Reid voted for the amendment.
But in 2008 she consciously took a more pro-gun tone than she had in the past. She would still advocate for the assault weapons ban, which lapsed in 2004, but her focus was more on cracking down on "illegal guns" and enforcing existing laws against gun violence.
"You know, I believe in the Second Amendment. People have a right to bear arms," she said in a January 15 debate in Las Vegas. The moderator, Tim Russert, pressed her on her 2000 support for universal gun licensing and registration. "But you've backed off a national licensing registration plan?" he asked. "Yes," she replied.
That was the clearest moment in the campaign of her repudiating a specific past call for gun control. But she constantly spoke about the need to balance Second Amendment rights with concerns over gun violence, a much less strident rhetorical strategy than she pursued in the 2000 campaign. In an April 2007 debate, she described her husband’s administration’s goal as "not to in any way violate people's Second Amendment rights but to try to limit access to people who should not have guns."
Under questioning from George Stephanopoulos in an April 2008 debate, she refused to defend Washington, DC's handgun ban (then before the US Supreme Court, which would strike it down). "What I support is sensible regulation that is consistent with the constitutional right to own and bear arms," she said. "I think a total ban, with no exceptions under any circumstances, might be found by the court not to be [constitutional]. But I don't know the facts."
Pressed again about her 2000 support for gun licensing and registration, she deferred to federalism: "For the federal government to be having any kind of, you know, blanket rules that they're going to try to impose, I think doesn't make sense."
And then, of course, there was the time she took offense at Obama’s "clinging to guns and religion" comments, sticking to her guns even after the mother of a gun violence victim challenged her. Her campaign even sent out mailers attacking Obama as an anti-gun flip-flopper.
Clinton in 2016: strident, but not going as far as in 2000
For her latest run, Clinton is not attempting to straddle gun owners and gun control advocates the way she did in 2008. The political climate changed dramatically after the Tucson shooting in 2011 and the Aurora and Sandy Hook shootings in 2012. Appetite within the Democratic Party for gun control increased greatly, and President Obama, who had gotten an F from the Brady Campaign in 2010 due to his neglect of the issue, made passing background check legislation a major priority.
Add to that the fact that Clinton's main rival was a senator from Vermont with a somewhat pro-gun voting record, and turning back leftward on the issue made a lot of sense.
Clinton's official plan on guns calls for universal federal background checks, closing the "Charleston loophole," wherein sales can proceed if a background check is not complete within three days, closing the gun show and internet sales loopholes, repealing civil immunity for the gun industry, making it a federal crime to buy a gun with the intent to give it to a felon, banning domestic abusers from buying and owning guns, and reviving an assault weapons ban. She also has a plan for an executive action to expand background checks and undo the gun show and internet sales loopholes slightly.
Tellingly, her webpages detailing the plan don't invoke the Second Amendment at all, and only make a passing reference to "law-abiding gun owners." The focus is solely on how to tighten up gun laws, with 2008-style references to balancing the needs of gun violence victims with those of gun owners conspicuously absent.
As early as October, Clinton slammed Bernie Sanders for supporting immunity for gun companies and voting repeatedly against the Brady Bill. Whereas in 2008 she was clearly running to Obama’s right on the issue, she pointedly embraced gun control as one area where her socialist 2016 rival was unmistakably more conservative than she was.
All that being said, the actual substance of Clinton’s platform on gun control has been watered down dramatically since 2000. She's not calling for universal licensing and registration, or for a "ballistic fingerprint" database, or to ban all non-smart guns.
If her 2000 campaign was toward the anti-gun end of the Democratic Party, her 2016 campaign is solidly in the middle, advocating the same relatively modest measures (strengthening the promise of background checks in the Brady Bill, keeping guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them, etc.) as President Obama, Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, and every other major Democratic leader.