Editorial: Finally, Democrats Speak About Gun Control

Published: 8/27/2016 10:00:34 PM
Modified: 8/27/2016 10:05:18 PM

In one respect, this fall’s elections promise to test whether political climate change is real. Democrats at the state and national levels, led by presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, are betting that it is and that America is ready for sensible gun control measures. Republican nominee Donald Trump, with the fervent backing of the National Rifle Association, is wagering that it’s all a hoax and the status of the Second Amendment will remain quo. National polls suggest that the Democrats have more accurately gauged the temperature of the electorate; if so, the election could represent a mandate for at least modest change.

Democrats, of course, have largely avoided the issue for many years, fearing the electoral consequences of being outgunned by the N.R.A. But in the wake of high-profile mass shootings involving powerful weapons — including a few committed by murderers with apparent terrorist leanings — and notorious killings by and of police officers in a number of cities, the party apparently thinks voters are ready to say that enough is enough. Clinton is said to be committed to making new gun restrictions a central theme of her campaign, and her choice for vice president of Sen. Tim Kaine, a former governor of Virginia who has long advocated stricter gun laws, lends credence to that scenario.

Trump, who as recently as 2000 expressed support for gun restrictions, is now a Second Amendment absolutist — perhaps out of political necessity. Given that he has alienated so many Republican constituencies, he cannot afford to lose a powerful ally. The N.R.A. has returned his ardor by spending almost $6 million on pro-Trump ads, The New York Times reports.

The dynamic is playing out much closer to home as well. Kelly Ayotte, New Hampshire’s first-term Republican U.S. senator, is locked in a tough fight for re-election with Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan, and her voting record on gun control could prove a decisive issue. Ayotte has repeatedly voted against extending background checks to private and online gun sales, even in the wake of the Sandy Hook school massacre. When she was subsequently confronted at a town hall event by the daughter of the school’s slain principal, Ayotte memorably tried to change the subject. Sensing an opening, Democrats have seized on the issue to try to gain an edge among independent voters. In this regard, New Hampshire, being a purple state, presents a fascinating case. Although it has a thriving gun culture, polls indicate that 80 percent or more of Granite State residents support expanded background checks.

Although Vermont is a true blue state, it, too, has a long tradition of respect for gun ownership and has among the least restrictive firearms laws in the nation. As recently as last year, a key provision to make background checks universal was stripped out of a bill that the Legislature ultimately approved in watered-down form. But as in New Hampshire and nationally, polls suggest that a big majority of Vermonters support background checks for all sales, not just those made by federally licensed firearms dealers. Democratic leaders, including gubernatorial candidate Sue Minter, now declare that gun control is a top priority, while Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, who is hoping to move up, and other Republican leaders insist that it just won’t happen. In fact, Senate Minority Leader Joe Benning, whose district includes several Bradford area towns, suggests that far from being a central issue in the state, gun control is a “boutique” issue. Time will tell.

It must be noted, of course, that expanded background checks are hardly draconian. They impose a relatively modest burden on buyers and sellers, and perhaps that’s why they appear to enjoy such widespread support. It might even be that in a less polarized political environment, they would enjoy bipartisan support in Congress and state legislatures. In any case, it is heartening to us that Democrats nationally have finally broken their long years of craven silence on gun control and given voice to the issue. But it must be noted that if voters vindicate that effort in the fall, it will be because outraged public opinion led the way and politicians followed in its wake.  


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