In a gun-producing state scarred by one of the worst mass shootings in U.S. history, Hillary Clinton promised a Hartford audience Thursday she would use the White House to take on what she says is the toughest force in contemporary politics, the gun lobby.
Clinton, who sees next week’s primaries in Connecticut and four other states as an opportunity to neutralize Bernie Sanders and his economic justice crusade as factors in the Democratic presidential race, is claiming gun control as her movement.
In the gymnasium of a YMCA in the North End, a neighborhood familiar with gun violence, she surrounded herself with relatives of gun-violence victims, including a mother who lost a daughter at Sandy Hook and a daughter who lost her mother.
Clinton’s message was broader than guns. In a primary season where Sanders often has generated more passion, even as Clinton has gathered more votes, she was making a case that she, too, will tilt at seemingly unbeatable foes.
The annual guns deaths of 33,000 people in homicides, suicides and accidents that often take the lives of children, like a 4-year-old recently killed in Philadelphia, demands a political movement that she is ready to lead, Clinton said.
“I ask that you please join us in this effort. I am raising it everywhere I go, because we need a national movement,” Clinton said.
It is Sanders, the Vermont senator and self-described Democratic socialist, who’s consistently been seen as a movement politician, surprising even himself as his campaign caught fire, especially among new voters.
In Connecticut, where Sanders’ supporters say he is considering a primary eve rally on a college campus, a Quinnipiac University poll this week found the senator with an astonishing 3-1 lead over Clinton among likely Democratic primary voters under age 35. Overall, Clinton leads here by 9 percentage points.
Staples of the Sanders campaign are railing against Wall Street, a demand for economic justice – and tweaking Clinton for her lucrative corporate speaking fees after stepping down as secretary of state.
With gun control, Clinton fired back Thursday.
“You can talk about Wall Street, drug companies, insurance companies, big oil. They’re all powerful, don’t get me wrong,” Clinton said. “Nobody is more powerful than the gun lobby, because they have figured out how to intimidate elected officials at all levels, who basically just stopped thinking about this problem, because they’re too scared to stand up to the NRA. That’s why what happened here in Connecticut really needs to be a model.”
Connecticut passed one of the nation’s toughest gun control laws in April 2013, four months after a gunman carrying an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle and a bag of 30-round magazines attacked the Sandy Hook School in Newtown, killing six educators and 20 first-grade students in minutes.
“I know how hard it was to do what Connecticut’s governor and legislature did after Sandy Hook. So I am not here to make promises I can’t keep,” Clinton said. “I am here to tell you I will use every single minute of every day, if I am so fortunate enough to be your president, looking for ways that we can save lives, so we can change the gun culture.”
She was introduced by Erica Smegielski, a gun-control activist since her mother, Dawn Hochsprung was killed at Sandy Hook, where she was the principal. Smegielski, the face and voice of a Clinton commercial now airing in Connecticut and Rhode Island, called Clinton “my partner in that fight.” Also on stage was Nelba Marquez-Greene, whose daughter, Ana Grace, 6, was another Sandy Hook victim.
“There are six chairs on this panel, but the reality is we could fill it with a thousand chairs and it still wouldn’t be enough,” Marquez-Greene said.
Rounding out the panel were: Kim Washington, the founder of the New Haven chapter of Moms Demand Action; Deborah Davis of Hartford, whose 20-year-old son was killed in 2010, shot by a friend; and Iran Nazario, a reformed Hartford gang member who did prison time, then founded an anti-violence group. He also is the brother of a murder victim.
“I know I don’t have all the answers,” Clinton said.
Clinton’s husband was president when the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act became law in November 1993, creating a federal system of background checks for gun purchases that is less than comprehensive.
Hillary Clinton said Thursday one of her priorities would be elimination of the law’s “Charleston loophole,” so named because it allowed Dylann Roof to buy a .45-caliber pistol that authorities say he used to kill nine African-American churchgoers.
“Twenty-four hours later, they learned he never should have been able to buy the gun,” Clinton said.
Roof was found to be ineligible to buy a gun because of a criminal record, but the loophole allows the sale to go forward in three days, whether or not the check was completed.
Over more than an hour, Clinton engaged in an easy back-and-forth with the panel and a crowd that seemed to fill the gym, which had a capacity of 600. Her daughter, Chelsea, campaigned in Hartford the previous day, also to talk about gun violence.
By the end, a man who identified himself as an obstetrician, drew laughs when he told Clinton, “You are very human, I don’t care what they say.”
“Well,” Clinton replied, “I hope we have that on film, doctor.”