Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are focusing heavily on guns, believing the divisive issue will energize base voters in their respective parties and help them capitalize on their front-runner status as they fight to take the White House in 2016.
Clinton has openly mulled a national gun buyback program and has sought to draw a distinction between herself and liberal rival Bernie Sanders, who has, in the past, opposed some of the gun control measures championed by the left.
Trump, having reversed course on his past positions, has accused President Obama of plotting to confiscate Americans’ guns and is seeking to convince skeptical conservatives that he can be trusted on the issue.
Both candidates believe they’ll benefit from focusing on the hot-button topic in the wake of the mass shootings in Oregon and South Carolina that have re-energized activists on both sides.
“You’re seeing this injected into the campaigns in a way I don’t think we’ve seen before,” said Mark Prentice, the communications director for Americans for Responsible Solutions, the gun control reform group started by former Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-Ariz.) and her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly.
That’s especially true on the Democratic side: An analysis by The Trace found that there were more mentions of the words “gun” and “guns” at the first Democratic presidential debate this month than in all 14 Democratic debates in 2007, which took place in the wake of the Virginia Tech mass shooting, the worst in U.S. history.
For Clinton, gun control is of paramount importance politically because it’s one of the few areas where she’s staked out a position to the left of Sanders, the Independent senator from Vermont.
Clinton’s supporters tout her long commitment to gun control reform, but it became a more frequent touchstone for her on the campaign trail after a young white shooter killed nine people at a predominantly black church in Charleston, S.C., in June.
The former secretary of State has since pledged to take executive actions to close loopholes that allow for gun purchases online and at gun shows without background checks and has vowed to close the “Charleston Loophole,” named after the South Carolina shooting, in which the gunman was able to obtain a weapon because his background check wasn’t completed within three days.
Clinton is also touting reforms she says will keep guns out of the hands of those with a history of domestic violence, and she wants to repeal a law that gives gun manufactures legal immunity from civil suits.
Supporters say Clinton isn’t just running on energy from the recent mass shootings or seeking to capitalize politically.