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How Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton stack up on guns

Ready, aim, vote!


Aaron Sankin


Posted on May 21, 2016   Updated on May 26, 2021, 6:00 pm CDT

Investment guru Louis Navellier recently called President Barack Obama “the best gun salesman on the planet.”

See, virtually every time Obama even talked about guns, firearm and ammunition manufacturers saw a huge boost to their bottom lines. Which may be one reason the president has been reticent to use guns a political issue—especially during campaign season.

Looking forward to a general election that’s shaping up to pit Democrat Hillary Clinton against Republican Donald Trump, gun control may actually become an important part of the 2016 election. While Trump has waffled on guns in the past, he’s recently taken up the GOP’s standard hard line against control—and earned the NRA endorsement to back it up. Clinton, meanwhile, has actively pushed her desire to see stronger gun laws into a campaign issue. 

The chart on this Clinton tweet may be questionable, since the “gun owners” circle should probably be completely inside the “Americans” circle, but the sentiment abundantly clear:

Here is a thorough guide on where the two people most likely to occupy the White House in 2017 stand on gun rights and the Second Amendment.

Donald Trump on guns

In his 2000 public policy book The America We Deserve, written as he was mulling a presidential run on the Reform Party ticket, Trump was relatively ambivalent on gun control, labeling the hard-line policies taken by people on either side of the issue as so inflexible as to be counter-productive.

“Nobody has a good solution,” he wrote. “This is another issue where you see the extremes of the two existing major parties. Democrats want to confiscate all guns, which is a dumb idea because only law-abiding citizens would turn in their guns and the bad guys would be the only ones left armed. The Republicans walk the NRA line and refuse even limited restrictions.”

“I will get rid of gun-free zones on schools, and—you have to—and on military bases.”

“I generally oppose gun control, but I support the ban on assault weapons, and I also support a slightly longer waiting period to purchase guns,” Trump continued. He added that, “with today’s Internet technology,” waiting periods necessary to conduct background checks could be kept reasonably short.

The book contains an expansive list of policy prescriptions, including an in-depth plan for what would have been the single largest tax hike in American history, but the section devoted to guns is only a few vague paragraphs without specific proposals. It largely seems like Trump, at the time, had devoted little thought to the Second Amendment issue.

What considerations he did give were often in favor of gun control. In 2012, he approvingly tweeted in favor of Obama’s desire to impose new rules in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting. 

However, since kicking off his 2016 presidential run, Trump has made opposition to gun control one of the planks of his campaign platform. “Second Amendment Rights” is one of the seven issues in the “Positions” section of Trump’s campaign website. And he largely takes the sort of absolutist stand he once derided.

“The Second Amendment to our Constitution is clear. The right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed upon. Period,” Trump’s website reads. “The Second Amendment guarantees a fundamental right that belongs to all law-abiding Americans. The Constitution doesn’t create that right–it ensures that the government can’t take it away. Our Founding Fathers knew, and our Supreme Court has upheld, that the Second Amendment’s purpose is to guarantee our right to defend ourselves and our families. This is about self-defense, plain and simple.”

Trump’s plan to defend the Second Amendment pushes for harsher sentences for people who commit crimes using guns as a way to take armed criminals off the street. When crime goes down as more people are thrown in jail, Trump argues, there will be less pressure on lawmakers to take action against violent crime in a ways that could affect law-abiding gun owners.

Trump’s platform also advocates for the expansion of “stand your ground” laws that allow citizens to take violent action when they feel threatened. He also backs increased funding for metal-health treatment. Because “people with mental health problems” who are violent pose “a danger to themselves and others,” Trump writes, “we need to get them off the street before they can terrorize our communities.”

The rest of Trump’s 2016 platform on guns centers around an opposition to all prohibitions on certain types of firearms, such as assault weapons, and ammunition, such as high-capacity magazines—a notable shift from his past support of an assault weapons ban. He approves of background checks, but he’s against any new legislation to expanding them and wants to bring concealed carry to all 50 states.

Speaking at campaign event in January he took aim at rules prohibiting where people can legally carry guns—a stance he would repeat at the National Rifle Association forum in May. “I will get rid of gun-free zones on schools, and—you have to—and on military bases,” Trump said. “My first day, it gets signed, okay? My first day. There’s no more gun-free zones.”

Trump has repeatedly asserted that prohibitions on carrying guns function to create spaces where mass shooters can target civilians with impunity. On his hyper-active Twitter account, Trump made this claim in relation to terrorist attacks in Paris that targeted the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, among others, even though France has one of the highest rates of gun ownership of any country in the world.

When fighting the war on terror conflicts with gun rights, Trump is likely to lean to towards proactively keeping firearms out of the hands of potential terrorists. In a 2015 interview with ABC’s This Week, Trump said that if someone is on a terrorist watch list, they shouldn’t be able to legally obtain firearms—erroneously claiming people reasonably suspected by the FBI‘s Terrorist Screen Center to be involved in terrorist activity are already prohibited from purchasing guns as part of the standard background-check procedure.

This position puts him at odds with many Beltway Republicans, who blocked a bill introduced by Senate Democrats last year in the wake of the shooting in San Bernardino, California—as well as a report showing that suspected terrorists were able to purchase over 2,000 guns in a four-year period—that would have categorically prevented the over 1 million people on the terrorist watch list from buying guns. While that bill would have given affected individuals the ability to challenge this designation, GOP lawmakers worried that the legislation would have infringed on the rights of people with no direct ties to terrorism who were put on the list mistakenly.

Trump’s lack of rigid consistency on Second Amendment issues has triggered the skepticism of some gun-rights advocates. For example, Larry Pratt, the executive director of the group Gun Owners of America insisted—in his endorsement of former Trump rival Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who had defended gun rights before the U.S. Supreme Court—that “Trump is not at all satisfactory. He’s not consistent. Sometimes he’s conservative, and sometimes he’s not.”

Nevertheless, after becoming the GOP’s presumptive nominee, Trump received the endorsement of the NRA, assuming that someone who hasn’t always towed the group’s line on guns is better than the likely general election alternative. 

Hillary Clinton on guns

Because he’s never held elected office, Trump has never received a report card rating from the NRA. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, has not only received the lowest possible grade from country’s preeminent gun rights group, she’s proud of it.

As her primary fight with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders started heating up, Clinton began seriously pushing back against the narrative of Sanders as the race’s true progressive. Clinton’s push to highlight her progressive bona fides by bringing gun control into the forefront is the first time this issue become a major one on the campaign trail in recent election cycles—at least on the Democratic side.

“I think that we’ve got to rein in what has become an almost article of faith that anybody can have a gun, anywhere, anytime.”

One of the primary ways she did that was by comparing her record of advocating for strong gun control against Sanders’ more accommodating stance, at least in some aspects, to the Second Amendment-based concerns of gun rights activists—even though PolitiFact rated Clinton’s assertion that Sanders “has been largely a very reliable supporter of the NRA” as mostly false.

Clinton’s activism in favor of stronger gun control laws goes back to her time has first lady, when she vocally supported the passage of the Brady Bill, which mandated federal background check on firearms purchases. In contrast, Sanders voted in favor of an amendment to the bill that permitted gun buyers to complete their purchases if their background checks were not completed within a three-day period. Some of called that amendment the “Charleston loophole,” because it was used by white supremacist Dylann Roof to obtain the weapons used in a deadly shooting at a historic African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina.

The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, a pro-gun control nonprofit, called Clinton “the only candidate who … has consistently put the safety of the American public ahead of the interests of the corporate gun lobby.”

She’s called for restrictions on online gun sales, pushed back against policies that shield gun manufacturers from liability, advocated for increasing the legal age for handgun ownership from 18 to 21, and argued against expanding gun ownership among the general public as a way to protect Americans from the threat of terrorism.

The core of Clinton’s philosophy on firearm regulation was summed up during a 2014 speech at a conference held by the National Council for Behavioral Health. “I think again we’re way out of balance. I think that we’ve got to rein in what has become an almost article of faith that anybody can have a gun, anywhere, anytime,” Clinton said. “And I don’t believe that is in the best interest of the vast majority of people. And I think you can say that and still support the right of people to own guns.”

However, there are times when Clinton has backed off a hard-line position on gun control. On the presidential campaign trail in 2008, positioning herself to the right of Obama, she touted her own experience with guns, calling firearms an inexorable part of American culture. “I disagree with Sen. Obama’s assertion that people in our country cling to guns and have certain attitudes about trade and immigration simply out of frustration,” Clinton said. “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.”

While Clinton advocated national gun registration at the federal level in her run for Senate, she backed off the position eight years later, saying the decision to build a centralized list of gun owners should be made at the state level. “What might work in New York City is certainly not going to work in Montana,” she said during a 2008 debate in Philadelphia. “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.”

On her campaign website, Clinton lists a litany of policy proposals to tighten gun control laws. Those proposals include closing loopholes that make it easier to buy firearms at gun shows and online than at licensed gun dealers, cracking down on gun dealers who knowingly sell to straw purchasers, expanding rules prohibiting the sale of guns to domestic abusers, making the purchase of guns on behalf of someone whose criminal record otherwise prevents from buying guys a federal crime, and reimposing the ban on assault weapons. 

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*First Published: May 21, 2016, 9:00 am CDT