On guns and the New York Democratic primary: why Sanders is better for gun control
I am a staff person at a major gun control organization. I am writing to you, the New York voter who cares about gun violence, in the hopes of setting the record straight on a number of related issues. It may therefore surprise you to learn that I am a supporter of Bernie Sanders for President, and not Hillary Clinton, as most gun control lobbyists are. I am staying anonymous because I would like to keep my job.
Gun violence is a serious issue in the United States and around the world. We all hear about the stream of mass shootings, the accidental shootings of and by children, the routine gun violence in places like Chicago. 875 people were killed by guns in New York State in 2014, the most recent year that we have data for from the CDC, which includes homicides, suicides, accidents, police killings, and other shooting deaths. If the stats for New York State are similar to the rest of the country, several thousand more people were also shot but not killed that year.
There are three basic parts to the gun violence problem: the interpersonal violence and self-harm that people commit (two-thirds of American gun deaths are suicides); the vastly greater consequences that ensue because people are using guns; and the power of the NRA and other gun lobbying groups (and relatedly the corruption of politicians) that keep any solutions, even partial ones, from being implemented. I will take them in turn.
The first issue, interpersonal violence and self-harm , the changes that Bernie Sanders is asking for will do far more to help than what Hillary Clinton is suggesting. There is no substitute for decent jobs, affordable, quality education, universal and free access to mental health care, and a society that is based on the idea that we are our siblings’ keepers is crucial to ending this kind of violence against one’s self or others. These are all facets of Bernie Sanders’ political program. While Hillary Clinton also speaks about some of these issues, there is little evidence that she would go as far in addressing this root cause of gun violence. If I had to grade them, I would give Bernie Sanders an A+ on this issue and Hillary Clinton a C- (at best).
The next issue is the lethality of gun violence, namely that while Americans are not uniquely violent people, they do more damage than people in other places when they are violent because they are using guns. There are simply too many guns (300 million or so) and guns are too easy to get, whether secondhand, through theft, from a gun show, online, or from a licensed dealer. On this issue, Sanders and Clinton have roughly comparable positions, though Clinton has successfully branded herself as having a stronger one. They both advocate for measures like expanded background checks to keep guns from people who shouldn’t have them, an end to assault weapons, etc.
We have too many guns and guns are too easy to acquire and no one is doing anything about that, and that’s not going to change as a result of either Sanders or Clinton’s policies, though I would give a slight edge to Clinton on the content of her policies. Their solutions — the solutions of the gun control lobby — are not nearly enough to address the shootings of 100,000+ people each year in the United States.
At this point, I should comment on the differences between Clinton and Sanders in the content of their gun control policy. Bernie Sanders focuses on eliminating assault weapons more strongly, while Hillary Clinton highlights her support of repealing PLCAA, the law that partially protects the gun industry from lawsuits by victims of gun violence and governments. The law does allow lawsuits, but restricts them. Assuming the political will could be mustered to repeal this law, the resulting lawsuits could hypothetically bring down the gun industry a la the tobacco lawsuits; but absent that will, it is unlikely that just changing the law would make much difference. If I had to grade them on the content of their gun violence proposals, I would give Hillary Clinton a B, and Bernie Sanders a C+.
Australia has showed us how to respond to a mass shooting. Before 1996, Australia had a similar if less drastic situation as the United States now — lots of guns, gun-related tragedy, and the lack of political will to do anything about them. Since the Port Arthur massacre in 1996, in which almost 60 people were shot, the government acted strongly to protect the public, introducing severe restrictions on the ownership of shotguns and semi-automatic rifles, a 28-day waiting period to buy guns, background checks for all gun sales, and licensing requiring a justifiable reason to own a gun. The government bought back countless now-illegal guns from people, so it’s not as if people were not compensated for their disallowed property. These solutions are much stronger than anything Sanders or Clinton is talking about — basically, neither Clinton nor Sanders (nor the American gun control lobby) offers a comprehensive solution to guns as the source of the gun violence problem. Although Hillary Clinton’s campaign has enlisted the support of Sandy Hook elementary parents, it is a simple fact that none of the policies she is suggesting would have prevented that shooter from gaining access to that gun or prevented that shooting.
Moreover, the Australian solution is eminently pragmatic — it’s not across-the-board gun bans or confiscation, which I would frankly prefer — and still allow far more people to have guns than in places where guns are basically banned. It wouldn’t take *all* that much to imagine implementing such steps in the U.S., and generating the same results — an end to mass shootings and a sharp reduction in irresponsible and dangerous access to guns.
This question, the question of political will and possibility, brings me to the third issue, and in my opinion the most important one. The United States has had a continuous stream of mass shootings over the 20 years since Australia’s Port Arthur shooting, including some that had death tolls that were also very high. More than 90% of the American public — including something like 3/4 of NRA members — agree with Sanders and Clinton that we need background checks for many more gun sales on the Internet and at gun shows. So why don’t these policies get legislated, let alone ones like those in Australia that might have a chance of making a real dent in the U.S. gun violence problem, or even a ban on guns? Why do we have to sit through day after day of unnecessary mass shootings, unreported gun suicides, and hundreds of thousands of assaults, robberies, and threats made with guns in the United States?
The reason is because of the power of special interests and money. Congress and the political establishment are simply unresponsive to the interests of the American people — including on guns as well as other areas — and are far more likely to listen to the NRA and their allies in conservative movement. And on this issue, I make up my mind about gun violence. I would give Sanders an A on this issue, and give Clinton an F. Regardless of their individual positions on the content of gun violence, Sanders’ political upheaval and challenge to money in politics and the status quo is the *only* way we’re going to even get half measures on gun violence. Meanwhile, Clinton can talk about their differences on gun industry liability all she wants, but even if you believe she is seriously committed to the issue. But given that she is unwilling to seriously confront establishment players, it seems highly unlikely that she will be able to generate the political will in a Republican Congress for any substantive change, let alone change big enough to make a serious dent into the U.S. gun violence problem.
Overall, then, I would say that the chances of better gun control under Sanders would be a B-/C+, while under Clinton, they would be D+. And if there were enough political pressure placed on Sanders to address gun violence, those chances could go up. It would also probably be easier to convince Sanders of the merits of gun control than it would be to convince Hillary Clinton to buck the system and support campaign finance reform for the sake of preventing gun violence.
So, in practice, and funnily enough, Sanders is the more practical candidate to choose if you actually want to see movement on the issue of gun control, though, as I said, neither are super. However, as I said above, if you really care about implementing a solution that actually works, the gun control equivalent of single payer health care or tuition-free public universities, neither of these candidates is ideal.