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Presidential Artillery

By Haleigh Zillges

This election season boasted some of the most-watched presidential debates in televised history[1]. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump faced off in three separate debates, while Tim Kaine and Mike Pence participated in one vice presidential debate. The debates covered a wide range of topics, including immigration, foreign policy, national economics, and gun violence. The public nature of presidential debates make them good forums by which to characterize leading national sentiments on various issues. Gun violence was one of these issues, and it came up in very different contexts throughout each of the four debates.

In the first presidential debate held on September 28, 2016, gun violence was brought up within the framework of race and police relations. Owing to recent events in Charlotte and Tulsa, moderator Lester Holt asked the candidates how they would “heal the divide” between the African-American and police communities. Hillary Clinton responded by calling gun violence an “epidemic” that was the “leading cause of death of young African-American men,” and she offered up the strategy of putting more resources toward community policing and dealing with implicit bias in the police force. Tim Kaine backed his running-mate by alluding to the police-shooting case of African-American school teacher Philando Castille, who was fatally shot by a police officer after a routine traffic stop in July. Tim Kaine also declared that “implicit bias ought to be discussed openly” to “fight the scourge of gun violence.”

While both Donald Trump and Mike Pence agreed with their opponents regarding the need for community policing, their emphasis was on the restoration of law and order. Donald Trump brought up the controversial stop-and-frisk policy, claiming that it “brought the crime rate way down” in both Chicago and New York City. This was a contentious assertion since stop-and-frisk tactics was ruled unconstitutional in 2013,[2] and data shows that nearly nine of ten arrests from stop-and-frisk tactics in New York were completely innocent.[3] Pence deviated from his running mate by refraining from mentioning the policy, but hit back hard on Tim Kaine’s point about implicit bias. He claimed that its acknowledgment assumes “the worst of men and women in law enforcement,” thereby inhibiting the restoration of law and order.

Overall, the two sides’ objectives to preventing gun violence were similar—to get “guns out of hands of people who shouldn’t have them,” but they disagreed sharply on how this should be achieved. Both sides support the Second Amendment right to bear arms, and in the last two presidential debates, gun violence got swept up in this constitutional framework. According to Donald Trump, protecting the Second Amendment means to institute a national right-to-carry law and opposing any limits on assault weapons and high capacity magazines. According to Hillary Clinton, supporting the constitutional right is predicated on instituting “common sense safety measures” such as expanding background checks, revoking gun privileges to anyone on the no-fly list, and closing the gun show and internet loopholes.

In the second and third presidential debates held on October 9, 2016 and October 19, 2016, the Second Amendment became the topic of conversation vis-à-vis the selection of a Supreme Court justice. Moderator Chris Wallace brought up the 2008 Columbia v. Heller case, in which the court ruled that while there is a constitutional right to bear arms, that right has attached reasonable limitations. Despite Hillary Clinton’s positive stance on these reasonable limitations, which include prohibiting firearm possession by felons and imposing conditions on the commercial sale of firearms[4], she still had defend her support of the Second Amendment—“I see no conflict between saving people’s lives and defending the Second Amendment.” On the other hand, Donald Trump, who has the backing of the NRA[5], promised the nomination of a Supreme Court Justice who will protect a Second Amendment that is currently “under siege by people like Hillary Clinton.”

Given the life tenure of each Supreme Court justice, perhaps the intense focus on gun control and gun regulations vis-à-vis the Second Amendment is understandable. However, with nearly 13,000 lives lost each year in the United States from gun violence[6], this is an extremely reductive framework. In the United States, the misuse of firearms disproportionately affects its most disenfranchised members, namely people of color.[7] This is clearly an issue that goes beyond the mere debate about Second Amendment rights—this is a social justice issue as well as a public health issue. To create the most effective and comprehensive policies, politicians and policy-makers ought to be approaching gun violence in the United States as such.

Haleigh Zillges

[1] The first presidential debate on September 28 garnered 84 million viewers, according to Nielsen ratings. <>

[2] US District Judge Shira A. Sheindlin of the Southern District of New York ruled that the stop-and-frisk practice violated the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. Goldstein, J. (2013). “Judge rejects New York’s Stop-and-Frisk Policy.” New York Times. <>.

[3] “Stop-and-Frisk Data.” New York Civil Liberties Union. <>. Accessed 2 November, 2016.

[4] “Understanding DC vs. Heller.” Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. <>.

[5] According to the National Rifle Association – Institute for Legislative Action website.

[6] “Number of Deaths” Gun Violence Archive. <>. Accessed 2 November, 2016.

[7] Reeves, R.V. & S. Holmes (2015). “Guns and race: The different worlds of black and white Americans.” The Brookings Institution. <>.


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