Where They Stand: On Guns, Democrats Agree on Stricter Policies, With Key Differences

Dec 3, 2015

This primary season, NHPR is taking a closer look at some of the issues defining the presidential primary races in a series we’re calling Where They Stand. Today, we’re looking at gun control and the Democratic candidates' positions, both past and present.

As news continues to unfold out of the recent shooting in California, Democrats have shifted their focus back to this issue. And although it doesn't top the list for most voters, it may be the one area where divisions among the Democratic candidates for president are starkest.

Click through the timeline below learn how their policies have evolved and responded to events in the news. For optimized timeline viewing on mobile, click here.  (Story continues below.)

Over the course of the 2016 presidential primary race, America has seen four high profile mass shootings resulting in 36 deaths.

On Wednesday President Barack Obama reiterated his call for stricter gun control but in his seven years in office, nothing has passed Congress.

At least on the surface, Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley agree gun control reform is necessary. All favor expanding background checks, banning assault weapons and restricting internet and gun show purchases.

But there are disagreements too, and the candidates have been eager to draw distinctions with their rivals.

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley spar over gun control during the first debate in Las Vegas.
Credit CNN

The major division amongst the candidates seems to be over how best to regulate guns: on the federal or state level.

As Sanders, a long standing senator from Vermont, notes gun violence differs from state to state. On the campaign trail, he often points to his home state, which has a history of both hunting and low crime.

“I come from a state that has virtually no gun control," Sanders said in July. "But the people of my state understand, I think, pretty clearly, that guns in Vermont are not the same thing as guns in Chicago or guns in Los Angeles. In our state, guns are used for hunting. In Chicago, they're used for kids in gangs killing other kids or people shooting at police officers, shooting down innocent people.”

Sanders' record in Congress reflects this stance. He’s voted five times against the Brady Bill, which mandates federal background checks and a waiting period for all gun purchases, calling it an act of “federal overreach.”

Sanders has backed looser gun regulations such as allowing pilots to have guns, and permitting firearms on Amtrak trains and in national parks.

2016 Democratic Candidates react to the San Bernardino, Cali. shooting, which resulted in 14 deaths and 17 injured.
Credit Twitter

Clinton has historically been a strong proponent of gun control, but her specific positions have shifted over her political career.

Running for the U.S. Senate in New York in 2000, Clinton said a uniform national policy was the only way to prevent further gun violence across the country. But in 2008, during her first bid for the White House, Clinton emphasized a policy of letting states and cities strengthen their own gun laws, rather than new reforms at the federal level.

“What might work in New York City is certainly not going to work in Montana," Clinton said eight years ago in response to a question by debate moderator George Stephanopolous. "So, 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." 

There have been 351 mass shootings in the U.S., according to data from Shooting Tracker, which is maintained by a Reddit group.
Credit Courtesy of PBSNewsHour

And in this election cycle, Clinton seems to have circled back to her 2000 stance, calling for national action to address gun violence, whether enforcing universal background checks or taking on the National Rifle Association.

“We have to look at the fact that we lose 90 people a day from gun violence. This has gone on too long, and it’s time the entire country stood up against the NRA,” Clinton said during the first Democratic debate earlier this year.

O’Malley, the former governor of Maryland, has been critical of Clinton’s current stance on guns, calling it “politically convenient.”

When O’Malley was governor, Maryland was one of three states to pass comprehensive gun control measures after the deadly Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012. Maryland required all gun buyers submit fingerprints to police and it banned certain assault weapons and limited the size of gun magazines.

Hillary Clinton unveiled her plan to address gun control at Manchester Community College in October.
Credit AP

O’Malley says he would carry these measures nationwide if elected president. 

“The more states that achieve this, the easier it will be to create a national consensus, but I intend to forge a consensus on the course of this campaign,” O'Malley said while campaigning in Concord recently.

Although Clinton and O’Malley make similar calls for federal action, O’Malley would go further. His proposal involves regulations on the home storage of guns, a universal minimum age for gun ownership and the creation of a national firearms registry.

Another key division among the candidates is whether gun manufacturers and gun shops should be liable for firearm misuse. Clinton and O’Malley want to hold manufacturers accountable. Sanders has voted against such proposals.

But whether these divisions among the candidates on gun control - both past and present - will have much impact come primary day, depends on whether this issue is a top priority for voters and events in the news.

Here are the ratings given by the National Rifle Association for the three Democratic presidential candidates.
Credit Sara Plourde/NHPR

Edward Dunn of Exeter, who heard O’Malley speak last month, says he’s disheartened Congress didn’t pass sweeping gun policy reforms after the recent spate of mass shootings.

Dunn says even with a new president he’s not hopeful much will change. 

“I think in a more peaceful world that didn’t have to deal with ISIS and a few other problems I think it would be right at the top or close to the top – it’s just that you have a really full plate,” Dunn said.

But as voters continue to learn more about the two mass shootings this past week, candidates' differences on gun control may become more of a defining factor this primary.