Democrat Presidential Candidate frontrunners Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton clashed on a number of issues in Tuesday night’s debate, one of which happened to be gun control. While my own opinions on Hillary Clinton are rather well-formed at this point, I’ve tried to keep an open mind about the rest of the Dems who’ve tossed their hats into the ring. Well, to be fair, mostly Jim Webb. Such as he is. Nevertheless, an old friend invited me to watch Tuesday’s debate at a Bernie Sanders debate-watching party. Never being one to turn down an invitation for some free food, some free entertaining (in the form of both the debate and the attendees, or so I hoped) and getting outside of my political comfort zone, I decided to attend and see what I could see . . .
The event was held in a theater in the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Lawrenceville. Cunningly, I disguised my true nature as an associate member of the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy by riding a bicycle to the event and splashed on some patchouli to mask the smell of gunpowder.
They never saw me coming.
Moderator Anderson Cooper started firing questions on gun control soon after the debate started. Sanders took the brunt of it and (besides Jim Webb) seemed to be the one most willing to recognize that in a nation as large as ours, it would be difficult to simply impose some sort of gun control, however much the Democrats wanted it. (The leftists of the old generation always had a streak of pragmatism about them that seems to be rather lacking nowadays, I note.)
That isn’t to say that Bernie is a dyed-in-the-wool supporter of the right to keep and bear arms. He bragged about his “D-” grade from the NRA. But he was attacked Clinton anyway and those other two guys that no one really cares about from small eastern states. They apparently felt he didn’t go far enough in denouncing gun rights. Or something.
I was intrigued, however, by the reactions of the Sanders crowd in the theater. They cheered him, of course, and while they were quite willing to cheer and jeer when their sensibilities were flattered or offended, regardless of the issue. And speaking as someone who checks the “Hispanic” box when completing BATFE form 4473, it’s more than a little unnerving when a crowd of white people jeer angrily when a white candidate proclaims that “all lives matter.”
Nevertheless, the crowd sat on their hands during the gun control debate when Hillary and her two satellites spouted the same tired talking points — and, judging from the groaning, they seemed contemptuous of Her Royal Clintoness more than anything. Since I was there on a fact-finding mission, I talked to some of the others in attendance, all of whom were enthusiastic about Sanders and to a greater or lesser extent about guns. I present their stories below, for your consideration.
Audrey was a blonde woman of the baby boom generation, and was not exactly new to left-wing politics. What did you think of Bernie’s position on gun control? I asked.
“I think he’s weak on it,” she replied. “He doesn’t go far enough!” She wanted to ban guns entirely from private hands – leaving them only in the hands of the military or civilian law enforcement. “The Second Amendment says that you have to be in a militia to have a gun. There are no more militias,” she noted somewhat inaccurately, “so go ahead and form one if you want, but that’s the only reason! People shouldn’t be carrying guns around on the streets!”
“Well, every state in the Union — even New York and other ‘blue’ states — has a provision for private carry of handguns in some circumstances,” I replied. “That’s definitely a minority position you have. How did you come to it?” I asked.
It turned out that a good many years ago, Audrey had been mugged. She immediately went out and bought a gun for self-defense purposes. Some time thereafter, she had nearly shot her husband late one night, when she had mistook him for a burglar. She got rid of her gun after that incident. The fear she had between being victimized by crime, and then nearly killing a loved one with her own gun seemed to be the driving impulse behind her anti-gun position.
I pointed out that Sanders had talked a lot about the government, corporations, and the “one percent”. Why would you trust the same government that is manifestly not doing the bidding of the people it’s elected to represent? Ultimately, she replied, it came down to control versus anarchy for her. People were prone to violence and fighting, and with guns around, they would be likely to just open fire at the first provocation. It was a question between gun control and anarchy for her.
I also talked to a few younger, Millenial-types, who were outside the venue for a smoke break: A guy wearing a Bernie Sanders sweatshirt, a guy with a sweatshirt emblazoned with the logo of a local food co-op, and a young lady in a black hoodie.
The guy wearing the co-op sweatshirt came right out and said that he probably wasn’t the typical Bernie supporter. “I grew up in a rural part of Pennsylvania and I believe in the right to own guns. I think you should be able to go to any store and buy a gun, just like anything else. It’s a right.”
The Bernie sweatshirt guy said that he really liked what Sanders had to say about gun control. He liked the idea of background checks. But he did think that owning guns was a right. (It wasn’t quite clear what “right” meant to him in that context.)
The young lady proclaimed herself open to the idea of people owning guns, but she felt there needed to be some sorts of restrictions to make sure that the ‘wrong people’ didn’t get their hands on them. She didn’t think gun ownership should be a right, though – she termed it a privilege along the lines of driving a car. We talked a little bit about constitutional law. She was (of course) in favor of legalized abortion. I pointed out that while the right to own a gun was enshrined in the Bill of Rights, the right to an abortion rested on nothing more than court decisions, easily overturned. Was she concerned that chipping away at one would chip away at another. She seemed to accept this position, but also asked if, perhaps, this meant the Constitution was “outdated”.
Every member of the trio, of course, thought that background checks were needed to keep firearms out of the hands of criminals or the mentally ill. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they were open to the idea of a way to restore the rights of ex-felons to own firearms after serving their time. The co-op guy analogized it to the right to vote.
The last person I spoke with was a woman in her early 40s (we’ll call her Diane,) who hailed from the South. (Note to self: is anyone in this city actually *from* Pittsburgh anymore?) Diane was a hardcore Sanders supporter, but also owned guns and, she averred, supported the second amendment. Unprompted, she analogized her support for gun rights to her support for abortion. Diane—um, well, she had quite a lot to say:
“If I have a right to bodily integrity to have an abortion,” she said, “I should also have the right to protect myself. People should have that option.”
Did she like what Sanders had to say about gun control?
“Both Sanders and Jim Webb,” she suggested, “had common-sense middle-ground positions [on guns]. We’re never going to get anywhere by screaming at each other. We should have the right to own guns, just as I should have the right to an abortion. People make bad decisions with guns sometimes, people make bad decisions about abortions, too, but it’s a right, and we can’t stop people just because we don’t like them.”
“We do have to ask, though, what we’re going to do about mentally ill people with guns.” Diane thought that Sanders could talk about the issue, and was trying to be “understanding” about the issue and said “I hope that someone on the Republican side would be brave and willing to talk about the issue, too.”
As for Hillary…well, let’s just say she wasn’t a fan. The word “corrupt” came up a few times, as well as this gem:
“I don’t know what the first woman president is going to look like, but Hillary isn’t it.”
As expected, the starting position for everyone on the Democrat side — even the most pro-gun people I talked to — leans more toward restriction than anyone on the GOP side or anything I’d prefer. Still, I was surprised by what I didn’t hear: I didn’t hear thunderous applause for typical gun control talking points. I didn’t hear people wanting to ban guns. In fact, I didn’t hear much passion on the issue at all, apart from Audrey and Diane (who was in favor of gun rights.)
Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. Most of the people I talked to were focused on getting a job, paying the rent, hoping that their benefits didn’t run out — the sort for whom Sanders’ socialist nostrums would appeal. No, they’re not exactly going out and joining the NRA, but they didn’t seem to be talking about the usual gun control suspects on the left either. I’ve long suspected that for the left, gun control is an issue that preening, plutocratic elites can brag about to other preening elites to show what awesome things they’re doing to earn their place in heaven. Gun control is a policy prescription whose goals are achieved in the debate leading up to the vote.
If there is one take-away I have from this night behind enemy lines, it’s that for some people, guns, gun control, just aren’t an issue. The kind of passion you see about the issue in conservative circles doesn’t really seem to be there. At least, not in the crowd I mingled with last night.
DISCLAIMER: The above is an opinion piece; it is not legal advice, nor does it create an attorney-client relationship in any sense. If you need legal advice in any matter, you are strongly urged to hire and consult your own counsel. This post is entirely my own, and does not represent the positions, opinions, or strategies of my firm or clients.