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Clinton stakes out forceful, liberal position on guns

Democratic candidate vows to use executive authority if Congress does not act, placing her left of Bernie Sanders

WASHINGTON — After a shooting rampage at Umpqua Community College in southwestern Oregon that left nine dead — the latest in a string of high-profile gun massacres in recent years — the Democratic presidential candidates are upping the ante on proposals to clamp down on the free flow of firearms in the United States.

Hillary Clinton, the Democratic front-runner, on Monday released her farthest-reaching gun control proposals yet. Her plan includes measures that would extend background checks to those who purchase firearms at gun shows and over the Internet, a group currently exempt from such screenings; repeal a 2005 law backed by the National Rifle Association that shields gun manufacturers from legal liability in suits by victims of gun violence; and crack down on people who knowingly sell to those who cannot pass background checks.

Most notably, Clinton said that if Congress once again refuses to close the background check loophole — as it did in a failed 2013 Senate vote, only a few months after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut — she would use executive authority to do so, if elected.

Appearing alongside Nicole Hockley, the mother of a 6-year-old killed in the Newtown shooting, Clinton said Monday afternoon at a town hall in Manchester, New Hampshire, that her newly unveiled policies were neither new nor unique but that she was determined to see them enacted.  

“This epidemic of gun violence knows no boundaries, knows no limits of any kind,” she said in an emotional plea. “How many people have to die before we actually act, before we come together as a nation? It’s time for us to say we’re better than this.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 33,000 Americans die from firearm injuries annually, at a rate higher than in most other developed nations. Mass shootings have become a recurring problem in recent years, with an FBI study conducted from 2000 to 2013 finding that such shootings rose to 16.7 a year, on average, for the last seven years. 

In tackling gun control, Clinton joins fellow contender former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who has released his own battery of gun policy reforms, including fingerprinting and licensing every person who purchases a firearm and imposing a new rule on the federal government to purchase guns only from manufacturers that use the latest safety technology.

Clinton’s vocal and forceful position is significant because it is rare terrain where she is to the left of her liberal challenger for the Democratic nomination, independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Sanders has delighted progressives with unabashedly liberal positions on issues like income inequality and the environment but has thus far earned the skepticism of gun control activists with his reticence to support more gun regulations. That reluctance may be in part because he hails from Vermont, a state with a widespread hunting culture and high rates of gun ownership.  

He has a mixed voting record on the issue. In 1993 in the House of Representatives, he voted against the Brady Handgun Violence Protection Act, which created the current background check system for licensed sellers. In 2005 in the House, he voted for the law that grants legal immunity to gun manufacturers and has since defended his stance. But in the Senate he voted for the failed 2013 bill that would have expanded background checks to gun shows and Internet sales.

Whether Clinton’s plan would be feasible — legally or politically — if she is elected president remains the larger question looming over the ambitious platform. The majority of the measures would be nearly impossible to pass through a Republican-controlled Congress, with GOP lawmakers showing little appetite to revisit the issue. And her authority to act alone on gun control would undoubtedly be called into question.

The Clinton campaign has said her administration would do so by categorizing anyone “attempting to sell a significant number of guns” as a licensed firearms dealer, thereby removing that exemption from having to conduct background checks.

It’s a tactic that has been championed by some advocacy groups. Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense America, a group under the umbrella of the Michael Bloomberg–backed Everytown for Gun Safety, released a report Monday urging the White House to issue just such executive actions.

“It isn’t fair to the 88 Americans that are shot and killed every day that they should have to wait for Congress to act. The White House could take several steps to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people,” said Shannon Watts, the founder of the group. “We do need to Congress to act, but in lieu of that, we need the president to act.”

Robert Spitzer, a political science professor at the State University of New York at Cortland who studies gun control and the presidency, said whether such actions from a Clinton administration could withstand scrutiny largely depends on the details of their legal rationale.

“There is no bright dividing line between executive actions and things that usurp the power of Congress,” he said. “As to whether you can achieve it through executive action, you would have to see the text of the order and the legal basis on which it has been issued.”

President Barack Obama has issued 23 executive actions on guns during his presidency and has indicated that he has exhausted the tools at his disposal to address gun violence.

Gun control advocates on Monday praised Clinton for making gun violence a centerpiece of her presidential campaign — a departure, they said, from years past, when even Democrats shied away from taking on the third-rail issue.

“Just four years ago, it seemed unthinkable that a major presidential candidate would make gun violence prevention a cornerstone of his or her presidential campaign. It’s a major victory for the 90 percent of Americans who support expanding background checks,” said Dan Gross, the president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. “This is the type of bold leadership that we’ve been missing in Washington, and I hope politicians in both political parties are paying attention.”

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