Democratic presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Martin O’Malley are suddenly dueling over stricter gun control measures in the wake of the Umpqua Community College massacre in Oregon. This development was praised Monday by the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, which said in a statement, “Just four years ago it seemed unthinkable that a major presidential candidate would make gun violence prevention a cornerstone of his or her platform.”
This third rail of American politics sizzled this week when Clinton called for stronger background checks that close gun show and mental health loopholes. O’Malley, barely registering in the polls, boasted he had actually beaten Clinton to the punch with stronger measures. Meanwhile, Sanders is scrambling to reconcile his mixed record on gun control with a Democratic base far more urban than his rural Vermont. He supports most of what Clinton wants, but has voted to shield gun manufacturers from lawsuits and against the Brady Bill waiting period for gun purchases.
In the past, Democratic candidates had to weigh courage on guns in the primaries vs. political suicide in the general election. It is famously assumed that Al Gore lost his home state of Tennessee and other Southern states in the razor-thin 2000 presidential election because his gun safety positions ignited fierce opposition from the National Rifle Association. But the risk may be gone now with the new “silent majority” that wants serious gun control.
That silent majority does not own guns at all. In the last four decades, the percentage of adults who live in a household with a gun has dropped from 54 percent to 32 percent, according to the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago. Only 15 percent in America’s 12 biggest cities own guns and only 14 percent of Americans under the age of 35 own a gun.
The NRA seems to take great pride in the fact that, on the most basic question of gun rights vs. gun control, the nation remains evenly split. The gun lobby obviously hopes the split assures permanent political paralysis. But sanity is slowly winning the day as many gun owners and Republicans agree on key gun control measures. According to Pew Research, 85 percent of Americans want background checks for gun shows and private sales, 79 percent want to block gun sales to the mentally ill, 70 percent support a federal database to track all gun sales, and 57 percent want a ban reinstated on assault weapons.
The Republican candidates for president are oblivious to this change, as symbolized by Jeb Bush’s statement that “stuff happens,” in response to the Oregon shootings. Their denial that new gun laws are useless is rapidly plunging into depravity, with Donald Trump saying mass gun violence will go on for the “next million years,” and Ben Carson, the doctor, saying, “I never saw a body with bullet holes that was more devastating than taking the right to arm ourselves away.”
But even more in denial than the GOP candidates is the NRA itself. Its website remains a partisan cesspool of fearmongering about the current Obama administration and a prospective Clinton White House. Chris Cox, the organization’s legislative executive director, warned in a recent video, “This is the most dangerous time we face arguably as Americans,” and voters must thus “win this country back from the certain destruction.”
In responding to Umpqua, an angry Obama urged Americans who want action on gun violence to vote for candidates who reflect their views. The rush to reflect those views by the Democratic candidates is a positive sign that the party, at least in the race for the White House, no longer ducks when the NRA fires away. When the vast majority of even gun-owning households want expanded background checks and bar the mentally ill from getting guns, the third rail has become a source of political juice, instead of an electrocution.
Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.