The VICE Guide to the 2016 Election

What Trump's Second Amendment 'Joke' Says About Gun Politics in 2016

The Republican nominee's suggestion that "Second Amendment people" could deal with his opponent puts the gun debate front-and-center for the general election campaign.
August 9, 2016, 10:30pm
Photos by Evan Vucci/AP and John Sommers II/Getty Images

A version of this post originally appeared on The Trace.

Last month, as Republicans gathered in Cleveland to nominate Donald Trump as their presidential candidate, Chris Cox, the chief lobbyist for the National Rifle Association, addressed the gathered delegates, becoming the first NRA official to speak at such a major party gathering. A week later, in Philadelphia, Democrats had their own unprecedented moment in the gun debate, devoting an unprecedented amount of attention to the impact of gun violence and Hillary Clinton's plans to reduce it.


And that was before the nominee drove the message home herself. "I'm not here to take away your guns," she told the crowd as she accepted the party's nomination. "I just don't want you to be shot by someone who shouldn't have a gun in the first place."

The dueling convention moments were a sign that the country's heated debate about gun laws and gun violence would rage on through the general election—one that was apparently confirmed Tuesday with Donald Trump's suggestion that "Second Amendment people" could do something about Clinton. With the perennial political gun fight now firmly lodged in the campaign narrative, here are five storylines to watch as the candidates and their parties head into the homestretch.

1. Can gun reformers match the intensity of their gun-rights counterparts?

In April at an MSNBC town hall, Clinton called on voters who share her embrace of tighter gun laws to flock to the polls. "I'm going to keep talking about it, and we are going to make it clear that this has to be a voting issue," she said.

To do that, as Clinton knew, her campaign will need to change an electoral status quo: voter intensity for gun issues has typically been much stronger among the Republican base than in her party. As Vox's German Lopez has noted, the political scientist Kristin Goss believes that for the pro-gun side, the issue is simply more visceral: its voters feel they have something to lose.


But Democrats are betting that's changing, as the combination of increasingly frequent mass shootings and congressional gridlock bring new urgency to the issue. The massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 spawned activist groups that have pushed other forms of gun violence into the spotlight. Rising urban homicide rates have increased media attention on gun deaths in American cities. And following the June shooting at Orlando's Pulse nightclub, gay rights groups have joined the fold.

"The cumulative effect of these tragedies is starting to increase the intensity of the attention we give this issue," Democratic Senator Chris Murphy, of Connecticut, said recently.

Polling shows that progressives' newfound focus on guns has translated into political will. In 2013, polls showed that conservatives were far less likely than liberals to vote for a candidate that disagreed with them on guns, and more likely to donate money to an organization that matched their position on guns. By the end of 2015, though, a similar number of Democrats and Republicans said they would only vote for a candidate who supported their position on guns. According to an Associated Press-GfK survey released last month, overall support for tougher gun laws is at the highest it's been in the US since the Sandy Hook shooting.

2. Can gun reform rally the Obama coalition?

For all their criticism of Donald Trump's shortage of specific plans, the Democrats who addressed the gun issue in Philadelphia mostly kept things gauzy—and likely did so deliberately, suggesting that the party plans to rally supporters around the gun issue for reasons only indirectly related to policy.

Before President Barack Obama took the stage Wednesday night, a video played in the arena that presented the 2012 mass shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School—and a string of high-profile mass shootings that followed—as the moral crucible of his presidency. Obama—and, by association, the Americans who elected him—was portrayed as a heartbroken leader eager for gun reform, but stymied by Republicans beholden to the NRA.

The video—and the speech that followed—cast gun reform as an essential reason for Obama supporters to turn out again this November. As The Trace has reported, Democratic strategists hope that a strong stance against gun violence will unify the "Obama coalition" against a common enemy: A Republican party supplicant to a heartless gun lobby. It also holds the promise of cathartic progress, perhaps making up for a lack of enthusiasm voters feel for the current Democratic nominee.

"We need to take action, and we need to take action now," said producer and director Lee Daniels in his convention remarks. "There's only one candidate willing on the gun lobby and keep our families safe."


Political journalists have observed that with Obamacare on the books, Democrats have lacked a cause that galvanizes the progressive base, and stirs the soul in a way that pocketbook issues do not. Emily Tisch Sussman, campaign director for the Center for American Progress Action Fund, argued that gun reform can be a replacement issue, with the potential to drive Democratic turnout in 2016 in the same way that gay rights and marriage equality did in the 2012 race.

"LGBT issues don't present the same big clear villain," she told The Trace this fall. "Democrats are going to have to reconvene the Obama coalition for 2016 and [gun policy] has very high interest."

3. How much can the NRA help Trump in key Rust Belt states?

Since securing their parties' respective nominations, both candidates have turned their focus almost entirely to the Rust Belt battleground, caravanning across states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan with lofty policy promises and dispatching their surrogates to the farther flung cornfields of the Midwest.

It's a region where the NRA's message provides Trump another avenue for boosting support among disaffected white male voters—a voting bloc that Trump needs, and that accounts for a large portion of the NRA's membership. that the NRA takes pains to keep happy. Both Ohio and Pennsylvania swung for Obama in 2008 and 2012, and have chosen state leaders from both sides of the ticket in recent years. And in 2016, both states will also vote in competitive Senate races, in which the candidates are already pushing gun laws to the fore. The NRA seems especially eager to make an example of Ohio Democratic Senate candidate Ted Strickland, a relatively pro-gun former governor who has modifying his position since leaving office. Already, the NRA has spent $1.2 million against the Democrat—only slightly less than it has spent against Clinton.


But the political geography of the Rust Belt gives Clinton an urban counterbalance to the support that Trump and the NRA hold among white men and rural residents. In Pennsylvania for example, the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh metro areas account for a disproportionate share of the state population—so much so that Democrats can carry the Pennsylvania electoral votes by just by racking up big margins in those cities, even if they lose everywhere else. Data collected during the Democratic primaries found that areas with the most voters in a state also tended to have the voters who were most enthusiastic about stricter gun control.

4. What's the deal with the NRA's Benghazi obsession?

In late June, the NRA spent $2 million to launch its first ad of the 2016 presidential election cycle. But the spot did not mention guns or the Second Amendment—instead, its focus was Benghazi.

The ad, which aired in key battleground states, features Mark "Oz" Geist, a former Marine and one of the private security contractors who interceded during the deadly 2012 siege on the US diplomatic compound in Libya. "A lot of people say they're not going to vote this November because their candidate didn't win," he says, walking through a cemetery. "Well, I know some people who won't be voting this year either."

"Hillary as president? No thanks," he concludes. "I served in Benghazi. My friends didn't make it. They did their part. Do yours."

The ad spot is a way for the NRA to double down on the story it likes to tell about itself and its members, who are encouraged to view themselves as society's "sheepdogs," protecting the defenseless flocks from wolves—which include mass shooters and terrorists. If the US government would simply butt out and leave citizens to protect themselves, the argument goes, Americans would be much more secure.

Geist is the NRA's latest military hero, following in the footsteps of deceased Navy Seal Chris Kyle, who authored American Sniper, and Marcus Luttrell, also a Navy Seal, who wrote Lone Survivor. Both books were made into blockbuster films, and are celebrations of toughness, perseverance, and rugged individualism in the face of grave danger.


Geist helped author 13 Hours, a book about his experience in Benghazi; it, too, was made into a blockbuster film. According to its version of events, Geist and his fellow commandos were delayed in their intervention by the chain of command. Against the orders of superiors, they finally headed over to the nearby compound to fend of the attackers on their own: an international spin on the sheepdog story.

Geist, whose account of the Benghazi attack helped inform the book 13 Hours, was a speaker at the RNC last month, and also one of the chief attractions at this year's NRA convention. There, in a speech that perhaps laid the groundwork for Trump's recent Second Amendment comment, Geist told thousands of people that Clinton could not be relied upon to protect Americans, and that it was up to people like him—like them—to stop her. "The NRA is America's safest place," he declared.

5. How Will Democrats Take On the NRA?

Clinton's willingness to address gun violence as an issue has been clear since the early days of the 2016 primary campaign, when, in a September debate, she announced that she was proud to have the NRA as an enemy. Since then, she's often employed the rhetoric on the trail. Announcing Virginia Senator Tim Kaine as her running mate last month, for example, she applauded his "backbone of steel," adding with a smirk: "Just ask the NRA."

But despite Clinton's readiness to bash the NRA by name, Democrats remain divided on how best to tackle the issue. Some gun reform advocates—including Americans for Responsible Solutions, the gun control group formed by former Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and her husband Mark Kelly—recommend that allies avoid directly criticizing the gun lobby outright.

The reasoning is that, thanks to the NRA's popular gun safety and training programs, a lot of Americans feel positively about the group. Despite a spate of bad press around the Orlando shooting, for instance, a July AP poll found that equal proportions of the electorate—37 percent each—viewed the NRA favorably and unfavorably.

It's a reminder that, while there may be no backing down now for Democrats on this issue, going on offense on the gun issue is still new territory for liberals. And in a political era when every key phrase is relentlessly focus-grouped, it's clear that Clinton and her compatriots are still sorting out some of the details.

A version of this article was originally published by the Trace, a nonprofit news organization covering guns in America. Sign up for the newsletter, or follow the Trace on Facebook or Twitter.