San Bernardino Shooting Brings Gun Control Debate To Campaign Trail

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Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks to several hundred area residents during a town hall style meeting in the gymnasium at the McConnell Center on Thursday in Dover, New Hampshire. (Jim Cole/AP)
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks to several hundred area residents during a town hall style meeting in the gymnasium at the McConnell Center on Thursday in Dover, New Hampshire. (Jim Cole/AP)

The deadly rampage in San Bernardino, California, earlier this week is now a major focus on the presidential campaign trail in New Hampshire and around the country.

Candidates are talking about the shooting's possible link to international terrorism, and they're once again debating the need for tighter gun restrictions.

After a rousing introduction for Hillary Clinton at a town hall meeting in Dover, New Hampshire, Thursday night, the mood quickly grew somber as Clinton brought up the deadly shootings, allegedly by a heavily armed couple in California who killed 14 people.

"We will learn more about what went on and who these people were and what their motivation was, but it's becoming clearer that we are dealing with an act of terrorism," Clinton said to the crowd.

That's something federal investigators are still looking into. But what is certain is that the attacks were well organized and the assailants heavily armed with handguns and assault rifles that were easily and legally acquired.

"We won't be able to prevent every act of gun violence or every terrorist act," Clinton said. "But we sure could do a lot to lower the numbers and increase the odds for people."

Clinton says sensible gun safety measures should include expanded background checks, regulating private gun sales and passing a hotly debated bill in Congress that would make it illegal for anyone on a federal no-fly terrorist watch list to buy a gun.

"But on this issue, where people who are too dangerous to fly in America can still buy guns in America, there should be no debate," Clinton said to applause. "We are not violating anybody's rights."

But there is debate, and Thursday, Senate Republicans defeated the measure, arguing that the government puts people on watch lists without due process, effectively denying them their constitutional right to bear arms. They want to focus instead on ways to keep guns away from people with mental illness.

Clinton's Democratic challenger, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, also spoke out Thursday in favor of tougher gun control laws. Speaking in Washington, Sanders said the bad news is that the nation is divided over gun legislation.

"But the good news is, there is a broad consensus -- perhaps 60, 70 percent of the American people, who agree on commonsense gun safety legislation," he said.

Clinton has criticized Sanders for not being tough enough on gun control. But Thursday, Sanders said he favors a number of measures supported by Clinton, including expanded background checks and a ban on assault weapons.

Most of the Republican presidential candidates offered prayers for the victims in California but had little to say about the need for gun control.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz both said the California shootings are a sign that the U.S. is in a war.

And Donald Trump fueled characteristic controversy when he retweeted comments that said his poll numbers go up every time an event like a mass shooting occurs.

Robert Spitzer, a political science professor at SUNY Cortland, and the author of several books on gun policy, says the fact that some of the presidential candidates are talking about guns at all is something new.

"In the last two presidential cycles, the candidates of both political parties pretty much avoided the gun issue almost entirely," he said. "But we've already found ourselves in the current presidential cycle where some of the candidates have been bringing the issue into the political fray."

But Spitzer says, don't expect any action from Congress, which remains gridlocked on many issues, especially this one.

"Now there may well be action among the states — most importantly, California," he said. "The lieutenant governor of California, Gavin Newsom, is pushing a statewide ballot with a whole series of new gun control measures to be considered by the voters, and this may well provide a significant spur ... on his part when election day rolls around."

Thursday in Dover, many people who came to hear Clinton said, in the wake of the California shootings, said they're ready to see action on guns.

"There's no other country in the world that has the kind of death due to weapons as the United States," said Diana Strand, from Portsmouth. "And I think absolutely it is one of the most critical issues that we are facing."

Almost three years after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, with mass shootings occurring almost daily, many Americans agree with that.

This segment aired on December 4, 2015.


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Anthony Brooks Senior Political Reporter
Anthony Brooks is WBUR's senior political reporter.



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