Last night, Brooklyn hosted the tenth (and let’s all start praying this can be the last?) debate of the 2016 Democratic primary, where the usual candidates argued over the usual issues with the usual caveats mentioning whatever happened in the campaign sphere that past week.
(If you can’t tell, I’m 100% ready for the Democratic race to be over by now. I think it’s so I can dedicate all my anxiety and well-meaning condescension on my poor Republicans.)
1, 2, 3… DRAW!
But one moment did stick out to me: the gun control portion. It’s always been a weird hiccup in the Democratic debates. Gun control has only gotten around 5-7 minutes of air time at each debate so far (probably because much like Beetlejuice, mentioning “assault weapons” on the debate stage three times summons failed candidate / Time Keeper Jim Webb), which is probably fitting for the scope of issue it is—minor.
Still, I always find myself wanting more in these sections. The first couple minutes are dedicated to the political moves Clinton and Sanders basically have to take: Clinton bringing up Sanders’ rejection of the Brady Bill, Sanders trotting out the same lines about opposing assault weapons bans since ’88 and his D- NRA voting record, yadda yadda.
This time, the gun control section ended with Clinton making a bold assertion:
Well, I believe that … giving this special protection to gun manufacturers and to dealers, is an absolute abdication of responsibility on the part of those who voted for it. This is a unique gift given to only one industry in the world by the United States Congress.
The special protection Clinton’s referring to is the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA), a 2005 law passed in response to a flurry of legal challenges against various gun manufacturers in the late ‘90s. The law protects providers of weapons from being held legally culpable when crimes are committed with their products (e.g. you can’t sue a gun shop for selling ammunition that was later used to murder a member of your family).
It’s also an underutilized wedge issue this primary season: in 2005, Clinton voted against the protection bill, and Sanders voted for it. Conflict!
This isn’t the first time Clinton’s brought PLCAA up this election cycle. She mentioned it in the New Hampshire Town Hall forum last October:
So far as I know, the gun industry and gun sellers are the only business in America that is totally free of liability for their behavior. Nobody else is given that immunity.
I wish good ol’ Wolf could’ve pushed this topic more, because I think there’s an interesting conversation to be had about gun violence, security, and societal culpability. Should a gun manufacturer be held accountable for crimes committed with their products? Should they (as on 2000 legal challenge argued) stop providing weapons to stores that sell a high percentage of guns later used in crimes?
The debate is partially interesting because ultra-progressive Sanders is actually on the more conservative end of the spectrum than Clinton here. But far more interesting to me is the cultural and societal connections of guns and gun culture, and what it reveals about the appeal of the modern Democratic Party.
Clinton (although rooted in Chicago & Arkansas) embodies the persona of a New York politician: liberal, but business-savvy; hawkish security while championing social freedoms; and most of all, a proclivity toward under-the-table political wheeling-and-dealing. It makes complete sense why she opposes PLCAA: it represents the overreach of the NRA into legislative policy, a fight that has probably led to increased homicides rates in NYC in the decade since the law was passed. And she brings up this consistent conviction to boot.
Sanders, although having a lot in common with a New York politician in policy, does not have the cultural background Clinton does. Sanders comes from rural Vermont, and like a lot of rural politicians, his relationship to guns is different. Hunting is more common, gun crime is almost the lowest in the nation, and in general—it’s a less pressing issue. It makes complete sense why Sanders would be more gun-friendly than Clinton, and yet—he doesn’t lean into it the way Clinton does.
This is a warning sign to me: Bernie is stumbling under the weight of his own image. Ultra-liberal, super-progressive, democratic–socialist Bernie can’t possibly be more conservative than Hillary on guns, right? But he is! He just can’t talk it up because Democrats have added gun control to their list of must-supports for the immediate future. As that list grows, Democrats should become concerned they’ll fall into the same demographic tailspin currently plaguing another (unnamed) political party.
Though, when pushed in the debate last night, Sanders capitulated his actual policy opinion:
I voted [for PLCAA] because I was concerned that in rural areas all over this country, if a gun shop owner sells a weapon legally to somebody, and that person then goes out and kills somebody, I don’t believe it is appropriate that that gun shop owner who just sold a legal weapon to be held accountable and be sued.
To be honest, I agree with him. I don’t know if it’s necessary to specifically introduce legislation stating that you can’t sue a gun manufacturer, but the premise of his quote is definitely accurate to me.
More so, I think part of why I agree with him has to do with my own cultural background! I grew up in a state with a LOT of guns, and know a lot of people—friends and family—who own guns, for hunting and for self-defense. Personally, it’s not really my cup of tea (and the self-defense argument really is poorly constructed), but being close to gun culture reminds me that people who own and like guns aren’t crazy or inherently demagogic.
That’s a perspective that missing from the modern Democratic Party. Sanders has the chance to let people in on that perspective, so that we can start talking about accomplishing the gun control policy that virtually everyone in America agrees on, but instead, he distances himself from those voices, and starts sounding a lot like a New Yorker in the process.