In 2008, Hillary Clinton told a memorable story on the campaign trail of how her father taught her how to shoot a gun.
Eight years later, on a prime-time debate stage again, the Democratic front-runner proudly called the National Rifle Association one of her “enemies.”
When Democrats took the stage on Tuesday at the first official Democratic primary debate in almost eight years, it was clear the party had shifted dramatically on one issue in particular: gun control.
At the Democratic debate on Tuesday in Las Vegas, guns became a focus of the 2.5-hour-long contest. The difference this time, compared to prior elections: The top three Democrats made repeated attempts to tout their tough-on-gun records.
The front-runner Clinton, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) bragged about their negative ratings from the National Rifle Association. A lower-tier candidate, former Sen. Jim Webb (D-Virginia), was still forced to concede that he still supported some gun control efforts, despite his “A” rating from the NRA during his time in Congress.
“We can’t overstate how much of a sea change that is American politics, given how guns have been previously been portrayed as a third rail. Last night’s debate shows how far the gun safety movement has come in the last few years,” Erika Soto Lamb, the communications director for group Everytown for Gun Safety, told Business Insider.
One of the most memorable moments of the debate came less than 10 minutes into the affair. Clinton went after Sanders over his support for a controversial gun law called the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which protects gun manufacturers and distributors from most legal liability if sued by victims of gun violence.
Asked if she thought Sanders’ position on gun control went far enough, Clinton didn’t hesitate.
“No, not at all. I think that we have to look at the fact that we lose 90 people a day to gun violence,” Clinton said.
“It’s time that the entire country stood up to the NRA,” Clinton added, as the audience cheered.
O’Malley, whose campaign was clearly focused on capitalising on the issue before the debate, touted his own record banning assault weapons in Maryland. He mentioned that he invited the family members of one of the victims of a 2012 movie-theatre shooting in Aurora, Colorado, to the debate. In 2012, it made news when President Barack Obama campaigning for his re-election, called for “common sense” reform.
But the politics of the issue within the Democratic Party have shifted tremendously in the last several years, as opinion among party voters has moved toward stricter controls on guns.
Both Clinton and O’Malley have rolled out comprehensive gun-control plans that propose universal background checks and a rollback of the liability shield for gun manufacturers and distributors for violent crimes committed with guns.
Clinton’s anti-gun rhetoric was especially notable, considering how carefully Democrats have treaded on the issue over the last several election cycles. After former Vice President Al Gore lost the 2000 election, Democrats pointed to his support for the assault-weapons ban signed into law by former President Bill Clinton in 1994.
In 2008, then-Sen. Obama mocked Clinton’s story about learning how to shoot with her father, saying that she was “talking like she’s Annie Oakley!” In 2012, even after the Aurora shooting, guns did not take center stage.
Tuesday’s debate gave evidence of a tectonic shift.
Prior to the debate, the most popular questions submitted to CNN online both came from the family members of victims of gun violence.
And a Google Trends analysis released after the debate showed that gun control was the fifth-most searched issue before the contest began, but jumped to second once it was over. Many searches likely were the results of candidates using the NRA as a convenient rhetorical punching bag — the organisation was mentioned 14 times during the 2.5-hour broadcast.
“I worked here in 2012, and I know how hard it was to get the candidates to address gun violence,” Soto Lamb told Business Insider earlier this year. “The candidates have been talking about guns far more than they did then.”
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