Gun Control

Friday A/V Club: What the Gun Debate Looked Like in 2008

A lot can change in seven years.


There's nothing to be afraid of. They were right. It's painless. It's good. Come. Sleep.
Maul of America

Since the Democratic nomination wasn't seriously contested in 2012—I'm afraid John Wolfe and Keith Judd don't count—Tuesday night's Demopalooza was the party's first presidential debate in seven years. Seven years is a long time in politics, especially in an age when pundits sometimes struggle to remember what happened more than a month ago. It may not be far enough back to qualify as an entirely different era, but it still feels faintly alien, the way your neighbors do when they look and sound almost the same as usual but have been replaced by extraterrestrial pods.

Take the matter of guns. At this week's debate, almost all the contenders were eager to stress their anti-NRA credentials. Even Bernie Sanders, a moderate on the issue, rushed to reassure viewers that he favored new controls. Only Jim Webb offered a forthright defense of the idea that Americans need "the right to be able to protect their family"; and Webb, last I checked, was polling less than 1 percent.

In 2008, violent crime was more common than now, but the country's most prominent Democrats were a lot less eager to have that kind of conversation. I've discussed that part of the party's history before, and you should read that article if you want the details. But here's the short version: For a period that began with Al Gore's loss in 2000 and ended with some high-profile shootings in 2012, the anti-gun lobby was practically inert on the national level. In part, that reflected a new wave of Netroots-driven Democrats, such as Howard Dean and Brian Schweitzer, who didn't see a contradiction between defending gun rights and pushing the party leftward on economics or foreign policy. And in part it reflected the fact that many pols who did support substantial new gun controls also believed it was a losing cause and that they were better off putting their energy elsewhere.

And so the two leading candidates in 2008—Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama—mostly avoided the topic. The closest it came to affecting the race was when the press discovered Obama's behind-closed-door comments about "bitter" Americans who "cling to guns." Clinton responded by framing herself as a defender of gun owners and claiming to have gone shooting with her dad as a little girl. But this was culture-war stuff, not a public-policy battle. When people asked Clinton about gun control on the campaign trail, she would praise her husband's anti-gun legislation; as best as I can tell, the only firearms policy where she reversed her stand that year was when she backed down from her support for a national gun registry.

So when ABC's Charlie Gibson asked the candidates about guns at a debate in Philadelphia, his opening question was, basically, You two have a history of supporting gun control. Why aren't you bringing that up when you campaign?

Things to note:

1. Both candidates said they supported the Second Amendment, supported crime control, and wanted to strike an appropriate balance between the two. That was the formula of the hour.

2. This was two months before the Supreme Court handed down its decision in D.C. v. Heller, the landmark case that affirmed that the Second Amendment protected an individual right. Anyone interested in gun policy was keeping an eye on the case. When Gibson asked about it, both Clinton and Obama refrained from taking a stand on D.C.'s gun ban.

3. At one point, Clinton said it made sense for rural states to have lighter firearm restrictions than urban areas. That's the very argument that a lot of Clintonites have been damning Bernie Sanders for using this time around.

4. Did you notice these comments from Clinton? 

I will be a good partner for cities like Philadelphia as president, because I will bring back the COPS program, the so-called COPS program, where we had 100,000 police on the streets, which really helped drive down the crime rate and also helped create better community relations.

I will also work to reinstate the assault weapons ban. We had it during the 1990s. It really was an aid to our police officers, who are now, once again, because it has lapsed and the Republicans will not reinstate it, are being outgunned on our streets by these military-style weapons.

Criminal justice reformers often complain about the COPS program today. While it was designed to fund neighborly "community policing" policies, it also helped fuel a lot of darker changes, such as the explosion in the number of "school resource officers"—that is, police officers based in schools. (When activists decry the criminalization of student discipline and throw around phrases like "the school-to-prison pipeline," those school cops are one of their leading complaints.) Some COPS funds even found their way to SWAT teams.

Today both "gun control" and "criminal justice reform" are popular phrases with the Democratic base, so it may sound a little jarring for Hillary Clinton to move so easily from praising the COPS program to praising the assault weapons ban. But both were a part of the 1994 crime bill. Bill Clinton's restrictions on guns were embedded in a larger law 'n' order push, as such measures often are.

One last note about that alien landscape we call 2008: Remember Jim Webb? The gun-rights guy at Tuesday's debate? Before he declared that he wasn't interested in the job, he was widely cited as a potential running mate for Obama. The Palin/Webb debates would've been interesting, that's for sure.

Bonus link: "What the Gun Debate Looked Like in 1967."

(For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here.)

NEXT: Documenting Humanity's Great Escape from Abject Poverty: Angus Deaton

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  1. The issue now is really framed by (so-called) mass shootings by crazy people of curiously youthful age.

    For me, guns have actually become less about protecting my family from ne’er do wells and footpads, and more about keeping Americans armed against the growing threat of the domestic occupation army known as “Law Enforcement”.

    1. Absolutely. I tell people the 2nd Amendment is not about guns, it’s about self-defense, possibly the most basic natural right, and it includes protection from not just wolves and bears, but also two legged crooks, including government goons. They either grin and agree, or sputter about how government is just here to help, but that devolves into me naming one incident after another of corrupt cops and their protests of weeding out the bad eggs; and that leads me to the definition of government as coercion and violence, how everything devolves into the government being able to kill you for a parking ticket which you refuse to pay, and them sputtering about nonsense or just obey the law.

      Watching them back up like that on such predictable paths is kinda fun when bored, but really a waste of time.

      1. I usually face the “paranoid” ad hom. It probably doesn’t help that the examples I provide are Ruby Ridge, Waco, and Waco.

        1. Provide examples like Tamir Rice, Kelly Thomas, the entire population of Los Angeles while police went on a shooting rampage through the streets, firing at anything that moved during their search for Christopher Dorner.

      2. it’s about self-defense, possibly the most basic natural right

        Exhibit A: Western free speech vs. Radical Islam

        The rights of the former are easy to toss aside if you think the results might be death. I think that’s one reason progs are so quick to denounce people who insult Islam. But those freedoms become a lot easier to exercise if you’re ready for people who want to kill you for them.

    2. Armed revolution is the “reset” button of government.

  2. It really was an aid to our police officers, who are now, once again, because it has lapsed and the Republicans will not reinstate it, are being outgunned on our streets by these military-style weapons.

    No, they’re not. The “military-style” weapons you don’t need a hugely expensive license to legally own are easily matched or out-matched by the firepower of most PDs. And the crooks with fully-automatic rifles and fancy extra-lethal ammunition, as few (and I mean ridiculously few) as they are, wouldn’t likely bother to adhere to any out-and-out bans in the first place.

    But it’s not about disarming violent criminals, is it, you shrieking harridan?

    1. Again, her local occupation army is whining that they’re losing the war against American citizens. That’s what this is coming down to.

    2. Ask them to name one cop shot by a full-auto weapon.*

      They can’t. I’m sure its happened, but its vanishingly rare.

      *Not counting “friendly fire” from one of their fellows, that is.

  3. What’s with the pointing and gaping, anyway? I don’t get that at all.

    1. Ever seen a fish gasping for water when caught?

      She’s a fish out of water, a politician confronted by a contrary opinion instead of fawning obeisance.

    2. You’ve never seen the Invasion of the Body Snatchers remake?

      1. When I was a little kid I stayed up late and watched it one night. The ending fucked me up. Didn’t sleep much that night.

        1. To my generation it was an acid movie, and we didn’t get that much sleep after it either… It reminded me of Democrats and Republicans all rolled into one Vegetablarian Party. On Saturday Night Live the aliens were all Reagan supporters… as if there really were two distinct looter parties.

  4. Seven years is a long time in politics, especially in an age when pundits sometimes struggle to remember what forget anything that happened more than a month ago.

  5. That would have made an interesting paring, Obama and Webb.

  6. Jim Webb’s numbers go a long way toward explaining the LP’s low vote tallies. If the Dem half of the voters want your door kicked in for taxes and gun ownership, and the other half want your door kicked in for taxes and an ounce of hemp, how much does that leave for parties that do not want your door kicked in? Nixon’s law paying the media tax dollars to ignore us prolly helps too…

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