The Candidates on Gun Control

October 18, 2015

In this brief Teachable Instant classroom activity, students survey the 2016 presidential candidates' positions on gun control and begin exploring some of the complex underlying issues.   

Another tragic shooting

Share with students that at about 10:30 am on October 1, 2015, Chris Harper-Mercer opened fire on the campus of an Oregon community college and killed nine students, wounding nine others. It was the latest in a string of mass shootings in the U.S. Those who watched the news about the shooting might have noted the familiar pattern of the reports, which included minute-by-minute details of the killings, emotional accounts by witnesses, psychological profiles of the killer and updates on the progress of the investigation. 

By the next day, politicians had begun to weigh in on gun control.  Today, we'll take a look at where the candidates stand. 

Quick Quiz

Before moving on to the politicians, give students this quick quiz on gun violence:

1. In 2013, how many deaths were caused by guns?

a)  451,339
b)  33,169
c)  15
d)  66,338

2. True or False:

Most of these deaths were caused by suicide.

3. True or False:

Most of the deaths were caused by accidents.

4. How many people in the U.S. were killed in mass shootings (incidents in which more than four people were killed) in 2013?

a) about 900
b) 1299
c)  137
d)  511

5. True or False:

The most common circumstance for these killings was within a family.


1. B, 33,169

2. True  (about 64%) 

3. False (about 1.5%). Homicides accounted for about 34%

4. c, 137

5. True (41%)

2016 presidential candidates on gun control

Ask students what we mean when we say "gun control"? What kinds of proposals have people made to restrict gun deaths?  Answers include:

  • enact background checks for gun buyers
  • ban certain weapons and ammunition
  • enact new safety requirements
  • pass laws about where guns may be carried
  • regulate sales at gun shows

In the wake of the Oregon shootings, how have the candidates positioned themselves on gun control?  Ask students to share what they know, then provide some basics about the candidates’ positions, using the following summary.

Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton has been most vocal of the presidential contenders in strengthening gun controls. She has long been critical of the Republicans for blocking gun control and for kowtowing to the National Rifle Association's agenda. Clinton's proposals include:

  • make it easier to sue gun manufacturers for negligence
  • eliminate the loophole that allows some sellers at gun shows to skip background checks on their buyers
  • tighten laws to prevent domestic abusers from obtaining guns
  • tighten laws that allow gun sales to go through before the background check has been completed

Donald Trump

Trump in the past has supported limited gun control measures such as banning assault weapons and lengthening the waiting time before a gun purchase. After the shooting spree in Oregon, Trump has emphasized the mental illness argument: that the problem lies not with  access to guns in general, but with the number of mentally ill Americans.

"You know, no matter what you do, guns, no guns, it doesn’t matter. You have people      that are mentally ill. And they’re gonna come through the cracks."

However Trump did not discuss proposals to help those with mental health problems cope with their illness.

Jeb Bush

Former Gov. Jeb Bush has a long record of supporting gun rights. Though as governor of Florida, he supported background checks for gun show customers, Bush still earned an A+ rating from the NRA. When questioned about gun control after the Oregon shooting Bush's response was:

            "Look, stuff happens and the impulse is always to do something and it’s not necessarily the right thing to do."

The "stuff happens" part made its way around the media and the internet as summarizing his attitude toward mass killings.

Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders has favored limited gun legislation. He has consistently voted for laws that ban military style weapons, but has opposed longer waiting times for gun purchases. His Democratic opponents sense a  political vulnerability in his refusal to consistently vote with other liberals for all gun control measures.

Ben Carson

 Carson opposes laws restricting military-style assault weapons.  He also argues that schools should have armed guards:

"If I had a little kid in kindergarten somewhere I would feel much more comfortable if I knew on that campus there was a police officer or somebody who was trained with a weapon."

Carly Fiorina

Fiorina opposes new laws to control gun sales and insists that the current laws are not being enforced. She opposed the ban on military style assault weapons and considers herself to be a strong supporter of gun rights.

Marco Rubio

            "You can pass all the gun laws in the world — like the left wants — criminals are going to ignore it because they are criminals."

In March Sen. Rubio introduced legislation which would roll back the gun control laws of Washington DC.


Ask students:  Based on these sound-bite descriptions of the candidates’ positions on guns, which candidate do you agree with most?  Why?

Some deeper questions

Sound-bites on gun control don’t allow for a deeper exploration of  the many complex issues surrounding this issue.  If there is time, discuss one or more of the following issues with students.

The role of "mental illness" in gun violence

The NRA and their advocates in Congress often cite "mental illness" as the main cause of mass shootings and other gun deaths. At least some of the relatively small number of mass killers  seem to have a mental illness. And a majority of the gun deaths in the United States are suicides. But no candidate of either party has actually proposed a plan to help those with mental illness.  Instead, the focus of proposals has been on enacting stricter background checks on gun buyers so that those with mental illness are screened out. The federal Brady bill currently requires limited background checks on some gun sales.   

Ask students:

  • What do you think about proposals for stricter background checks to prevent gun deaths?
  • How could such laws be effective in screening out those at risk of committing gun violence?  Would stronger support for the mentally ill be a better approach?

The rural/urban divide on guns

Bernie Sanders has pointed out that people living in rural areas (such as in his home state of Vermont) tend to think very differently about guns than those in urban environments, in part because of a stronger rural interest in hunting. While a majority of the country may favor stricter gun control laws, our system of government gives citizens of rural states more of a voice in the Senate than those in urban states. As Marc Ambinder (at puts it:  Nevada’s two senators are as powerful as New York’s two senators, even though New York’s population is six times the size of Nevada’s.

Ask students:

  • If a majority of the country are in favor of a law, but the law cannot be passed through Congress, does that mean the system is broken? 
  • How could the different interests of rural and urban voters be reconciled - or can they be?

The role of drugs & the criminal justice system in gun violence

About 30% of gun deaths are murders. Up to one quarter of these are related to drugs. Some proposals for reducing gun deaths focus on reforming drug laws and the criminal justice system. 

Ask students:

  • Could reforming drug laws reduce gun violence related to drugs? If so, how? If not, why not?
  • Do you think that reducing the joblessness rate among teens and young adults would affect the rate of gun deaths? If so, how? If not, why not?

Additional discussion questions

  1. The NRA and many Republican candidates propose arming teachers, professors and school staff to protect students at schools and colleges. What do you think?
  2. Many Americans are unwilling to give up their guns. Can you think of laws that would both protect the rights of gun owners and protect people from gun violence?
  3. The prevalence of gun violence has spawned many organizations dedicated to gun control (e.g., Moms Demand Action, Student Pledge Against Gun Violence). What is the best way for ordinary people to help stop gun violence?

Optional Extension Activities

  1. Break the class into four groups, representing students, the media, gun sellers and religious organizations. In their small groups, ask students to brainstorm ways their group could work to reduce gun violence.  Then have students report on and discuss their ideas with the class.
  2. Break the class into four groups, assigning each to one of the positions on gun control below.  In their small groups, have students discuss arguments for their position, and if possible research their positions as homework.  Then ask students to represent their position in a class discussion.

a) Enact no new laws. Better enforce the present laws.

b) Close the loopholes in background checks so that virtually all gun sellers have to submit their customers' names to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

c) Require licenses and insurance for gun owners similar to those required of car owners.

d) Fund free mental health care at every hospital.