As she campaigns in South Carolina, Hillary Clinton is focusing heavily on the need to change the nation’s laws to better address gun violence. Her strategy may not work.
Even in a state where nine people died last year in a shooting at a historic black church known as Mother Emanuel, Democratic voters in Saturday’s primary say gun control is not a top issue.
“If I had 10 priorities, gun control would be No. 10, or maybe No. 9,” said Anil Rao, 72, a federal government retiree from North Charleston. The self-described conservative Democrat backs Clinton. But not because of her stance on gun control. “It’s just not that big ... of an issue for me.”
A spate of mass shootings from Tuscon to Newtown, Charleston to Kalamazoo has pushed the issue to the forefront nationally. Both Democratic candidates for president – Clinton and Bernie Sanders – tout the need for new gun laws and support President Barack Obama’s actions to expand the number of background checks for gun purchases.
And gun control is a constant topic in the state that ranks as the fourth highest for gun homicides. But campaign rhetoric aside, the issue is not any bigger in South Carolina than it’s been for years.
Top issues for voters this year are more kitchen table ones, including jobs and schools, said Gilda Cobb Hunter, a South Carolina legislator and a member of the Democratic National Committee. Clinton and Sanders, she surmised, must be taking their cue from the national conversation. “We’ve been dealing with this for several years,” she said.
Clinton is betting more on the issue resonating than Sanders is, making gun control a top issue in speeches, ads and endorsements in a state where guns are popular. She criticizes Sanders for his record on gun control, including voting against the 1993 Brady bill that established federal background checks and a waiting period for potential buyers, and for a 2005 bill to shield gunmakers from lawsuits.
The fact she's always been strong on it is something I think about. It's not the everything, but it's important part of the package It's just not a make or break, but it's certainly on people's minds because of Mother Emanuel
Regina Anderson, 61, a retiree from Folly Beach
Her campaign began airing a new TV ad statewide that features Anthony Thompson, whose wife died in the Charleston massacre at Emmanuel AME Church. It dispatched top surrogates to accuse Sanders of failing to make gun violence a priority. It released a video blaming him for helping create the so-Charleston loophole, which allowed the church shooter to buy his gun despite having a criminal record.
On Tuesday, Clinton took her message to Columbia’s Central Baptist Church in Columbia, where the pews were packed and the crowd was enthusiastic. They nodded approvingly and said “amen” as Clinton denounced gun violence and controversial police tactics that she said hurt the African-American community more than the general population.
“The epidemic of gun violence stalking our land is another barrier holding us back,” Clinton said. “Gun violence by far is the leading cause of death for young African-American men, next to the nine other causes combined.”
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She also appeared with mothers who lost their children to gun violence and police incidents, including many who have become household names, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, as well as former Rep. Gabby Giffords, who was shot in Arizona in 2011.
I’m not angry enough to riot. I’m angry enough to vote for this lady
Geneva Reed-Veal, mother of Sandra Bland, found hanging in a jail cell in July after she was pulled over for a minor traffic violation in Houston
One reason Clinton may be focusing on guns is because it’s one of the few issues on which the two opponents differ, according to Gibbs Knotts, chairman of the Department of Political Science at the College of Charleston. And, he said, the issue is important to African Americans, who make up 60 percent of Democratic primary voters.
Sanders has explained that his record reflects his largely rural state, but said that he voted for and supports a ban on semiautomatic weapons, closing the so-called gun show loophole and tightening background checks. His campaign counters Clinton’s criticism by pointing out that she ran to the right of Obama on guns in their 2008 primary fight.
Audrey Brown, 36, of Charleston, a stay-at-home mom, said she doesn’t like Clinton suggesting Sanders has a weak record: “I’m like, ‘That’s an X on you for throwing it on Bernie,’ ” she said of Clinton’s criticism.
She said calls for gun control are largely unrealistic. “There’s too many guns on the street,” she said. “It’s like, how can people sitting at the White House up there think they can fix the problem? There’s so many guns out there; people are getting them legally, illegally. What are you going to do? Knock on every door?”
Recent polls show South Carolinians support some measures to combat gun violence, as do people across the nation. An overwhelming number - 80 percent - support background checks for gun buyers, a Winthrop Poll found last September.
I wish they'd do away with guns totally. If you want to go hunt, do it bare handed. I've seen first hand what guns can do
Bill Wilson, 54, a Charleston chef
A recent CNN/ORC Poll found Clinton leading Sanders by 6 percentage points on who could best handle gun control.
Jeanette Privette, 48, of Jefferson, who owns a house-cleaning business, is one voter who backs increased gun control laws, including gun locks and additional background checks.
“It seems like just about anybody can go to a pawn shop or some store and get a gun,” she said recently after stopping to pay her respects at Mother Emanuel. “We really need to make sure people are capable of having one.”
She said she is still undecided about whom to vote for, but is leaning toward Clinton. She said her strong support for increased gun control is one factor, but not the deciding one.