PHILADELPHIA -- Hillary Clinton today declared a goal of cutting the nation's big-city murder rate in half, addressing an issue that has dominated politics here but avoiding a mention of the one thing that local officials see as a consensus solution to their crime problem: new gun laws.
"We've got to get back to doing what works," Clinton said in a speech at a YMCA in a working-class black neighborhood of West Philadelphia, where she announced that she would as president use federal funds to help municipalities hire 100,000 new police officers. "I'm old-fashioned like that."
Clinton was traipsing delicately through the complex politics of guns in Pennsylvania and nearby Appalachian states that will vote in coming weeks. Her announcement marked a turn towards urban issues that have gone largely unaddressed in the primary campaign, but in a way that appeared unlikely to compromise Clinton's appeal among rural white voters who have been a key part of her coalition here and in previous contests.
Clinton talked about gangs and drugs as a cause of homicides, but mentioned guns only in passing. She noted “a direct correlation between the illegal gun sales and homicides,” as she proposed a new initiative to crack down on interstate gun trafficking and allow federal agencies to share information on the transfer of guns. In addition, Clinton said she would work to renew the assault-weapons ban, signed by President Clinton in 1994 but allowed to lapse a decade later.
"She's being respectful of what’s really her base," said Ken Lawrence, a Pennsylvania Democratic consultant neutral in the presidential campaign. "But I don't know how you talk about homicide in Philadelphia without talking about guns."
Philadelphia's rising homicide rate -- 292 murders last year, the highest in a decade -- has been a dominant concern in city politics, including during a mayoral campaign last year. Democratic candidates who had never focused on crime issues reinvented themselves as law-and-order types committed to aggressively enforcing existing gun laws and fighting for the city's right to implement new ones.
One of them, Michael Nutter, is the city's new mayor and a Clinton supporter who introduced her here today. Yesterday he hosted a high-profile City Hall photo op -- complete with a table of confiscated guns -- to sign five new gun laws designed to provoke a court fight over the city's ability to regulate guns on its own. Nutter likened his defiant gesture to those that earned the country's independence and ended slavery.
Philadelphia-area politicians have found little success in past gun-control efforts: hunting is central to Pennsylvania’s culture -- in much of the state, schools close for the first day of deer season -- and legislators of both parties have typically resisted any efforts to rewrite the state laws that regulate guns. Similar attitudes toward guns reign among Democratic constituencies in upcoming contests in nearby West Virginia and Kentucky, and in the frontier states of Montana and South Dakota.
"It's really hard to walk that fine line," said Lawrence. "To win Pennsylvania, she needs her greatest margin in the middle part of the state, which would be more of a gun-bearing constituency than in Philadelphia."
On the campaign stop here that her aides trumpeted as an important visit to Obama-friendly turf to address urban concerns, neither Nutter nor Clinton talked about the need for new restrictions on gun ownership. In fact, Clinton -- who has nostalgized learning to shoot a gun as a girl visiting Northeastern Pennsylvania -- defined crime as broadly as possible, with a localized problem for everyone: meth in rural communities, online crimes in the suburbs, and white-collar crimes on Wall Street.
"People are being victimized in so many ways in America today," Clinton said.
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.