Hillary Clinton Goes Big On Gun Policy, Creates Contrast With Bernie Sanders

She promises to take administrative action on background checks if Congress doesn't act.

WASHINGTON -- Hillary Clinton called Monday for substantial new limits on the availability and distribution of firearms, stepping aggressively into the debate over gun control in the wake of last week's mass shooting at a community college in Oregon.

The former secretary of state outlined four specific proposals during a pair of town hall events in New Hampshire, all of which are sure to inspire intense opposition from gun rights advocates. One of the proposals puts her directly at odds with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), her top competitor for the Democratic presidential nomination.

At the top of the list is a pledge to take administrative action if Congress fails to tighten the so-called gun show and Internet sales loopholes. Under current law, licensed dealers are required to conduct background checks and certify that potential buyers are not prohibited from owning guns. But unlicensed vendors, including some individual sellers at gun shows, don’t have to go through these steps.

Clinton called for lawmakers to address the issue. But if they don't, she would require that anyone “attempting to sell a significant number of guns be deemed ‘in the business of selling firearms,’” which would “ensure that high-volume gun sellers are covered by the same common sense rules that apply to gun stores -- including requiring background checks on gun sales.” Asked what would constitute “a significant number of guns,” a Clinton aide responded, “There are a number of studies being conducted currently regarding illegal gun sales that could inform an eventual rulemaking.”

Such an administrative action would be a bold step, one bound to spark massive pushback. And it’s not clear how it would legally work. President Barack Obama said at a recent press conference he had exhausted all the tools available to him to strengthen gun control laws. Clinton’s campaign did not elaborate as to what legal avenues it is exploring.

A vigil is held for victims of the shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon.
A vigil is held for victims of the shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon.
John Locher/Associated Press

Clinton's second proposal would close a gap in the current background check process that “allows a gun sale to proceed without a completed background check if that check is not complete within three days.” The so-called “Charleston Loophole” has been pinpointed as a contributing factor in the mass shooting at the Emanuel AME Church in the South Carolina city in June, though some have also argued that the shooter would have been stopped from obtaining a gun had there simply been better communication between state and federal agencies. Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C) has introduced a bill to end that "default proceed" rule.

Clinton also called for legislation that prohibits domestic abusers from buying and possessing firearms. Such a bill has already been introduced in the Senate, where it has had a hearing before the Judiciary Committee. Similar legislation has been pushed in state legislatures as well, where the National Rifle Association has notably backed down from the fight. According to a report from the Center for American Progress, nearly 12,000 convicted stalkers can legally purchase firearms in the U.S.

Finally, Clinton called for a repeal of the legal immunity that gun manufacturers and dealers currently enjoy under a 2005 law called the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act. This could be the most politically provocative of the four proposals. Not only is the immunity a prized possession of the NRA, but it is something that Sanders voted for while a member of the House of Representatives. Clinton, who was a senator representing New York at the time, voted against it.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has been criticized for his record on gun policy, specifically his 2005 vote to give legal immunity to gun manufacturers.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has been criticized for his record on gun policy, specifically his 2005 vote to give legal immunity to gun manufacturers.
Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

Sanders has defended his vote by arguing that the alternative would be akin to punishing a hammer-maker if someone used a hammer as a weapon. But gun control advocates argue that the law opens the door to negligent manufacturers who don't fear being penalized when their firearms flood a community or market.

Clinton’s gun control push doesn’t appear to be an attempt to out-progressive Sanders so much as a thorough rethinking of how to patch up a hole-laden system of gun laws. Still, even with these offerings, she will probably fall short of another Democrat in the race. Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley has released a four-point plank of his own, which he called on both Sanders and Clinton to endorse on Sunday:

  1. A ban on the sale of combat assault weapons;
  2. A requirement that every person who purchases a gun gets a license and is fingerprinted;
  3. Using the full power of the federal government—the largest purchaser of firearms in the country—to refuse to buy guns from any company that doesn't use the latest and best safety technology;
  4. Making gun trafficking a federal crime.
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