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Politics and Government

Gun Control May Gain More Traction In 2016 Presidential Campaign


And some Democratic candidates are reviving an issue that hasn't come up much in recent presidential campaigns.


HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON: We can have common sense gun reforms that keep weapons out of the hands of criminals and the violently unstable while respecting responsible gun owners.


MONTAGNE: After the Charleston massacre, Hillary Clinton, in a speech, and Martin O'Malley, in an email, proposed something that was once a Democratic staple - gun control. Political scientist Robert Spitzer wrote a book called "The Politics Of Gun Control." And he says Democrats got skittish about gun issues after years of defeats. most recently, a failed attempt to expand background checks and assault weapon bans.

ROBERT SPITZER: President Obama, after having recently been re-elected, decided to push the issue in Congress in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shooting. He made a major push in Congress, but the effort fell short. And since that time, you've seen politicians pretty much avoid the issue, partly because of a sense of political paralysis and because of the press of other issues as well.

MONTAGNE: Why then do you think Hillary Clinton is speaking out now?

SPITZER: She is in the presidential primary process now. Her chief opponent is Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who is extremely liberal. But this issue is a bit of an anomaly because it's an instance where Hillary Clinton can talk about support for gun control, which, A, is very popular among the country if you just look at public opinion polls. And also it allows her to outflank Bernie Sanders on the left because the state of Vermont, where he comes from, has a long tradition of being strongly pro-gun rights. And when Bernie Sanders was in the House of Representatives in the early 1990s, for example, he voted against the Brady law. And that sort of anomaly, ideologically, I think provides an opening for Hillary Clinton. And secondly, of course, the fact is when something terrible happens, one of the first things we do is examine and ask ourselves, well, why did this happen? And with respect to a mass shooting, what role did guns play? How accessible were guns? Could the tragedy have been prevented with stronger gun laws?

MONTAGNE: Still, though, the NRA is one of the most powerful lobbies in politics, if not the most powerful. Is there any reason to think that will be different in 2016?

SPITZER: Well, there sort of is. Yes, it's a powerful group. They've been effective. But their impact has been overstated to some degree. The other thing at play is that we've seen just in the last couple of years, the rise of new pro-gun control groups that have not existed before - former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's group, the Mark Kelly-Gabrielle Giffords gun control group have both had a - quite a large impact. They've raised a lot of money. And they've done something that has never happened in American politics before, which is they have actually raised and spent more money than the NRA, and we saw that in the 2014 election cycle. And the pro-gun control groups had some limited successes in some of the states, such as western states, to advance issues that they were promoting.

MONTAGNE: I am curious, though; many gun enthusiasts see guns as part of their lives - everyday lives. It's a sport. It's an identity. And for many, they would really feel it if they couldn't have their guns. There is a daily passion there on this single issue that isn't matched by people who do not have guns. So could there ever be a gun control lobby as powerful as the gun rights lobby?

SPITZER: Well, you're absolutely correct in pointing out that key to the gun rights community's strength has been the zealousness that they feel for firearms. Most of the people who report in public opinion polls that the gun issue is number one for them are gun rights people. Can that degree of passion be matched on the other side? I think if these pro-gun control groups work to build similar grassroots support, I think you can certainly see a point where they might not match person for person but build some significant strength out in the country for gun-control measures.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for talking with us.

SPITZER: Pleasure to speak with you.

MONTAGNE: Robert Spitzer is a political scientist. His most recent book is "Guns Across America: Reconciling Gun Rules And Rights." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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