Why Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders Aren't Talking Guns in California

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks on national security in San Diego on Thursday. Both Clinton and her opponent, Bernie Sanders, have focused much of their attention recently on the Golden State, which will hold its primary election on June 7. Mike Blake/Reuters

Earlier this campaign season, Hillary Clinton loved bashing her Democratic opponent, Bernie Sanders, for his gun-voting record. After all, it was one of the few issues where she could get to his left and rattle his progressive base. Sanders might be a Democratic socialist, but his congressional votes include support for a 2005 federal shield law that grants general immunity to gun manufacturers from lawsuits.

But following April's primaries in the Northeast, the former secretary of state instead has devoted more attention to other issues. That's surprising, given the California primary on June 7. Clinton and Sanders are in a huge fight for the most populous state, but so far there has been little talk of guns.

California arguably is ideal ground for Clinton to call out Sanders for his gun comments, tout her own history of supporting gun control and highlight her endorsements from prominent leaders and activists. This is a citadel of gun control. California has ranked No. 1 for enacting the country's strongest gun laws every year since the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence began ranking states in 2010 (the organization skipped 2011).

Sanders likely won't mention gun control in a Democratic state like California, unless he's acting in defense. In recent months, he has received widespread criticism for his previous vote in support of the 2005 shield law and for his belief that victims of gun-related crimes shouldn't be able to sue dealers for selling a firearm legally to a customer who then misuses it—such as in the December 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Ten families affected by the fatal shooting are suing three gun companies for the AR-15 rifle, which the gunman used to kill 26 people in less than five minutes on December 14, 2012, in Newtown, Connecticut.

U.S. Representative Adam Schiff, a Democrat supporting Clinton, says his state's late primary adds to the weakened focus on guns in the race. Earlier this year, he sponsored a bill that seeks to repeal the 2005 law. His measure, which currently awaits a hearing, was backed by Sanders.

"In light of the comments he made about the Sandy Hook litigation, I think it shows his commitment to repeal [the law] still remains very much in question," Schiff tells Newsweek. "I don't know how deep that commitment is to support my legislation."

Meanwhile, perhaps Clinton doesn't need to harp on her beliefs for stricter gun laws in California because the state already has some of the strongest measures in the country, says Dan Schnur, a former GOP political consultant.

"If she wins the primary next Tuesday, it won't matter much one way or the other. But if she ends up coming up short next week, the gun issue could end up being a tremendous missed opportunity for her and her campaign," Schnur, director of the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California, tells Newsweek.

On Thursday evening, Clinton tweeted generally about curbing gun violence, seemingly in recognition of National Gun Violence Awareness Day. But remarkably, neither candidate had directly addressed Wednesday's fatal shooting on the campus of the University of California, Los Angeles, on their Twitter accounts, as of 6 p.m. Eastern time Thursday, almost 36 hours after the incident.

Their silence is a stark contrast to their quick reaction in the hours following December's mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, where 14 people were killed at a facility for developmentally disabled individuals. Six months ago, they had stressed the need to take action to stop gun violence. Granted, the carnage at UCLA was less than in San Bernardino and there was no whiff of international terrorism. That said, mass shootings almost always send Democratic candidates racing to the microphones to call for more gun safety measures, while the National Rifle Association scurries to thwart them.

Likely California primary voters ranked gun laws in the bottom half of 21 issues they consider important in their decision, with just 47 percent saying the issue is significant, according to the Field Poll, California's preeminent survey completed May 26 through 31 among 1,002 likely voters in the state. There wasn't much partisan difference: 48 percent of Democrats and 43 percent of Republicans said gun legislation is significant in their choice for president.

"I don't think it rises to the salience of the other issues. It's just getting crowded out," says Mark DiCamillo, senior vice president and director of the Field Poll. "There are so many other issues on the minds of Democratic voters here." Among the California Democrats who participated in the poll, the issue landed below various other topics, including the economy, public schools, health care and race relations, but above such issues as trade policies, tax reductions and abortion.

Schiff says he is surprised at the results of the poll, but continues to believe Californians are committed to do everything possible to stem gun violence. That longtime view, he says, is "deeply held and unshakeable" among residents.

Survivors and victims' family members of the 1999 fatal shooting of a postal worker in Los Angeles gathered at the site of the incident Thursday—simultaneously with National Gun Violence Awareness Day—to contrast Clinton's position on guns to that of Sanders's view. In 2001, the shooting victims filed a lawsuit against the gun manufacturers, distributors and sellers. But the 2005 shield law forced a trial court to dismiss almost all of the defendants from the case, a decision later upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.

While she continues to fend off Sanders in the remaining days of the primary season, Clinton noticeably has shifted her focus on her likely opponent: presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump. On Thursday in San Diego, Clinton tore into Trump during a highly anticipated campaign speech, which focused heavily on foreign policy. She wore orange, in a nod to National Gun Violence Awareness Day.

If elected, Trump promises immediately to veto the executive actions President Obama issued this year to streamline the federal background checks system in an effort to curb gun violence. And the New York billionaire vows to eliminate gun-free zones in schools and on military bases during his first day in the Oval Office.

"It's difficult to see a scenario in which Trump is competitive here in the general election," Schnur said about California. "Clinton is probably in a better position to motivate her supporters on issues related to immigration than anything else."