Bill Clinton on Guns in the Obama Era


By Paul Helmke, Brady Campaign President

As former President of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, I attended a session two weeks ago
at their Winter Meeting here in Washington, DC, where an old law school
classmate of mine – former President Bill Clinton – was invited to speak.

In an extemporaneous speech, President Clinton offered the audience
his analysis of the changes that have rocked America's cultural, economic and
political landscape over recent years
, and put them in the context of
the last two generations.  He argued that understanding these changes helps
explain not only the rise of President Obama and his historic election to the
White House, but also the new "political culture" of today and the generation to

Interestingly, President Clinton also discussed gun violence prevention
policy in this context in a way that I thought was instructive.  The President

"…We are now poised, I think, to spend a generation operating as a nation the
way you operate in your cities on your best days.  That does not mean the
Democrats will win all the elections – if the Republicans reform themselves and
develop a 21st century version of the second great Republican President's –
Theodore Roosevelt's – philosophy, so that we have… a dueling
communitarianism.  That is, "my way of bringing us together is
better than your way of bringing us together."  One can be a little to the right
of center, one can be a little to the left of center.  But we will not
go forward anymore, I don't think, with the kind of politics of division and
destruction that drug us down for too long

"That's essentially what is different [about today's new political culture],
and what creates this great moment of opportunity – not just to bring the
economy back, but to pass comprehensive health care reform, to be a renewed
force of peace around the world – to do a lot of things that make sense – and to
have conversations with people, instead of screaming matches over things like
what former Mayor Helmke works on so much, over what is the best way to keep the
American people safe.  Nobody wants to repeal the Second Amendment, and
nobody wants to keep you out of the deer woods, but wouldn't it be nice if your
children didn't have to worry about being mowed down by an assault weapon when
they turn the corner?"

A little later, President Clinton said:

"…Again, I will say this, it's not that the country has moved way left.  That
is not what has happened….  It's not a leftward movement.  It's a
forward, communitarian movement
Shared opportunities. 
Shared responsibilities.  Shared values, including the most
important of all: "Our differences are really interesting, and they make
life in America much more interesting, but our common humanity matters
."  Those are the things that have driven us to this

I share much of President Clinton's analysis, as well as his belief that the
country is entering a time where voters – frustrated with "divide-and-conquer"
tactics – are asking candidates "how" they plan to do what they promise and
telling elected officials to solve real problems.  As someone who ran a city for
12 years, I know from experience that this pragmatic approach cuts
across ideological and partisan lines and gathers support across the political

Guns offer an opportunity to exercise pragmatism in this new political
environment.  Polling for the Brady Campaign shows – and other public opinion
help confirm – the popularity of key gun violence prevention
policies that cut across sectional, racial, gender, ideological and partisan
divisions.  People of goodwill may disagree on gun policy at the margins, but
over 80% of Americans do agree that we should require Brady criminal
background checks for every gun purchase
, and about two-thirds favor
restricting access to military-style assault weapons.

These and other proposals are popular, common sense ways to help keep guns
away from dangerous people while respecting the Supreme Court's reading of the
Second Amendment.  They also respect "our common humanity" rather than
cater to the interests of a few who want access to firearms with few or no
restrictions at all, allowing the easy access to guns that puts everyone at

In this context, President Clinton's prediction about "dueling
communitarianism" could present itself not only through President Obama's
actions from the White House, but also through someone like Sen. John McCain,
who defines his politics in the mold of President Theodore

For example, Sen. McCain might once more propose legislation to close the gun show loophole, while reaching across the aisle
to someone like newly-appointed New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, and ask her to be a co-sponsor.  Solving a
problem by working with members of the opposing party has been a hallmark of
Sen. McCain's service in the Senate.  Using that reputation to require
background checks for all gun sales at gun shows would allow Sen. Gillibrand to
begin to represent all New Yorkers on the gun issue.  In this way,
common sense gun policy can help build a bridge to moderate
across the ideological spectrum, while allowing both parties to
stake a claim as to whose "way of bringing the country together" is better.

Surprisingly, this new political culture could see similar competition
within the Republican Party, as well.  Last Friday, the Republican
National Committee chose Michael Steele as Chair of the RNC, and showed that
guns weren't a wedge issue even in an intramural Republican
.  At a candidate's debate at the National Press Club last
month (which I attended), while the other candidates fell over
to describe their gun collections and shooting prowess, Steele
stated distinctly and without qualification, that he owns no guns.  This was on
top of statements Steele made in 2006 about his stance on restricting
access to assault weapons that inflamed the gun
.  Meanwhile, Ken Blackwell, a member of the National Rifle
Association Board of Directors, came in lastplaceeveryballot he appeared on. If the gun issue didn't act as a wedge
issue to divide voters in an RNC election, no wonder it failed to divide voters nationwide last November.

That's a big change.  And if we want our elected officials to solve problems
instead of just attack their opponents, that's change for the better.



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