When Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton square off in an April 16 debate in Philadelphia, they may be forced to spend time discussing an issue neither has talked much about in this campaign: gun control. April 16 will mark one year since the murder of 32 students at Virginia Tech, the deadliest shooting rampage in U.S. history. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence will stage events around the country that day calling for stronger gun regulations, and for the candidates, gun control will be thrust on the table suddenly and unavoidably.
A 2002 poll found that 42 percent of Pennsylvania households have guns.
Guns are an especially potent issue in Pennsylvania, which is home to 300,000 members of the National Rifle Association -- the highest per capita NRA membership in the country, according to Chris Cox, executive director of the NRA's Institute for Legislative Action. A 2002 Quinnipiac University poll found that 42 percent of Pennsylvania households have guns, including 54 percent of union households, a key Democratic constituency.
Gun issues also stir up passions in Pennsylvania for another very different reason. Philadelphia has experienced an epidemic of gun killings: 331 people were shot to death last year, 321 with handguns.
Local officials have pleaded with the state Legislature to pass new regulations, including measures to limit handgun purchases to one gun a week, allow local governments to pass their own gun control laws and require handgun owners to report lost or stolen weapons. Not one has passed. Last December, black lawmakers stormed out of the Legislature to protest the failure to pass new gun restrictions, and Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell ordered each member to "put your rear end on the line" and vote for the laws -- all to no avail.
"Pennsylvania legislators, including many Democrats, respect gun rights," Cox said.
In the 2002 Quinnipiac poll, its most recent measure of gun issues in Pennsylvania, voters were divided in their views. Fifty-five percent said controlling gun ownership was more important than protecting gun rights, while 40 percent said protecting rights was most important. That tracks with a USA Today/Gallup national poll taken last month, which found that 49 percent want stricter gun laws, while 38 percent would like to leave the laws as they are.
Despite those indications of continued public support for tough gun laws, neither Obama nor Clinton is aggressively pushing for new gun restrictions. Clinton's Web site makes no mention of guns. Obama's does, under the heading of "Sportsmen," saying, "Protecting Gun Rights: Respect the Second Amendment."
On the campaign trail, both candidates have tried to demonstrate a comfort level with gun owners. In Wisconsin, Clinton described how her father took her hunting and said she once shot a duck. In New Hampshire last November, Obama told a gathering of rural voters that his wife worries about urban handgun violence but realized while driving in Iowa that she might want a gun for protection if she lived in a rural area. Insists the NRA's Cox: "They know gun control is a political loser."
Groups that lobby for tighter gun regulations argue that candidates who support stricter laws can win in states like Pennsylvania, where the NRA is politically powerful. Case in point: Rendell, an outspoken advocate of gun control who was elected handily and is popular statewide.
The Brady Legacy & The Candidates' Records
When Clinton was first lady, her husband pushed through the only significant federal gun control legislation passed in the last 15 years: the Brady bill, which requires a background check to purchase a gun; and the ban on semi-automatic assault weapons, which Congress allowed to expire in 2004.
Peter Hamm, communications director for the Brady Campaign, noted approvingly that Clinton and Obama both have long records supporting tighter regulations on guns. "We would be happy with either of them," he said.
In the wake of the Columbine High School shootings, Hillary Clinton urged Congress to pass laws restricting handgun sales to one a month and raising the legal age of handgun ownership to 21, according to her memoir.
"The name Clinton is synonymous with gun control to us," said Andrew Arulanandam, the NRA's national spokesman.
As a senator, Clinton has supported numerous curbs on guns: extending the ban on assault weapons, requiring background checks at gun shows, allowing civil lawsuits to be filed against gun makers and gun dealers, requiring mandatory trigger locks for handguns and making state gun-trace records available to the public.
Obama supports all of the above as well. When he was running for Senate in 2003, he filled out a questionnaire saying he supports limiting handgun purchases to one a month. He also opposes laws allowing citizens (with the exception of retired police officers and military personnel) to carry concealed weapons.
The NRA and the Brady Campaign can point to only one noticeable difference in the candidates' Senate records on guns. Obama voted in favor of legislation prohibiting the use of federal money to confiscate weapons during a disaster. Clinton voted against it. The NRA has given both of them an "F" in its rating system.
In the past, both Obama and Clinton have supported requiring a license to purchase a handgun. In her 2000 Senate campaign, Clinton called for a national registry of all handgun sales. But during the presidential campaign, both candidates have backed away from that idea. Asked in a January debate whether she would pursue the licensing and registration of guns, Clinton said she would not.
"I am against illegal guns," she said, but "I am also a political realist, and I understand that the political winds are very powerful against doing enough to try to get guns off the street, get them out of the hands of young people."
Obama also said he would not push for gun licensing legislation as president, saying, "I don't think we can get that done." He called for tougher gun tracing procedures but added that he is sensitive to the concerns of gun owners.
"We essentially have two realities when it comes to guns in this country," he said during the debate. "You've got the tradition of lawful gun ownership... and then you've got the reality of 34 Chicago public school students who get shot down on the streets of Chicago." He added that it was important to "make sure the Second Amendment is respected."
How It Plays In Pennsylvania
Cox insisted that both candidates are pulling their punches. He argued that their support for tougher gun regulation may not affect them in the Pennsylvania primary, but it could push the Keystone State into the Republican column in the general election.
But he isn't exactly gushing about the GOP choice, either. Republican presidential candidate John McCain has infuriated the NRA over the last several years. Although McCain has voted consistently to protect gun rights -- opposing the assault weapons ban, trigger locks and the right to sue gun makers and dealers -- he also sponsored legislation requiring background checks at gun shows and even appeared in TV ads (subscription) promoting the idea in 2000.
Gun rights groups were even more enraged by McCain's crusade to pass the McCain-Feingold bill, which restricted the ability of outside groups to advertise in campaigns -- a provision that the Supreme Court later loosened. The NRA skewered McCain on the cover of its August 2002 magazine, with a headline that growled: "Putting a Muzzle on the First Amendment."
On the campaign trail, McCain has been resolute in opposing gun restrictions. After the shootings at Virginia Tech, he expressed deep sympathy for the victims, but, according to published reports, said he believes in "no gun control." Last month in Wisconsin, he called "the right to own a weapon" a "very important constitutional right."
As the Democrats try to answer to gun rights activists in Pennsylvania, they may face an opposing pressure from Philadelphia's political leaders, who are seeking tougher gun regulations. Some of them will heighten their visibility as well, joining in the events commemorating the massacre at Virginia Tech at the same moment the Democratic presidential hopefuls are preparing for the debate that night.