FILE - A gun store employee speaks to a customer about the purchase of a 9mm handgun in Bridgeton, Missouri, Nov. 13, 2014.
FILE - A gun store employee speaks to a customer about the purchase of a 9mm handgun in Bridgeton, Missouri, Nov. 13, 2014.

NEW YORK - Many voters are focusing on U.S. gun ownership laws in the 2016 presidential campaign, particularly those voters who know victims of gun violence.

In New York City on Friday, grieving family members of people killed by guns gathered at City Hall to urge for more restrictive gun measures to try to prevent tragedies like the ones they’ve endured.

On behalf of four families present — representing slain relatives from recent mass shootings across the United States — New York City Public Advocate Letitia James called for background checks on all gun purchasers, a requirement for safe storage of guns, closure of gun manufacturing loopholes and greater accountability from gun makers.

James said she supported former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for president, in part because of her record on tightening restrictions on firearms. When Clinton was a senator for New York, she co-sponsored legislation to close the “gun show loophole,” pertaining to sales in a secondary private firearms market, and opposed giving liability protection to gun dealers and manufacturers that would make it more difficult to sue them.

U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sand
U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, shown campaigning in Akron, Ohio, March 14, 2016, has been criticized by some Democrats for his opposition to some gun laws, yet he touts his low NRA rating on the campaign trail.

On the other hand, James blasted Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, Clinton's rival for the Democratic nomination, for voting for a 2005 bill that protected gun manufacturers and sellers from such lawsuits.

In an interview this week with The New York Daily News editorial board, Sanders said he opposed holding gun manufacturers liable for gun-related crimes.

“But I do believe that gun manufacturers and gun dealers should be able to be sued when they should know that guns are going into the hands of wrong people," Sanders said.  "So if somebody walks in and says, ‘I’d like 10,000 rounds of ammunition,’ you know, well, you might be suspicious about that.”

Gun lobby grades

Sanders has been criticized by Clinton and other Democrats for his opposition to some gun laws. However, the National Rifle Association, a gun-rights advocacy group that largely opposes restrictions on the sale of firearms, awarded the Vermont senator a near-failing grade of D-minus in 2012, a rating he boasts about on the campaign trail.   

Sanders has also expressed his support for expanded criminal background checks and a renewal of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban, which expired in 2004, prohibiting the civilian use of specified semiautomatic firearms and large-capacity ammunition magazines. In January, he announced support for a new bill reversing legal immunity for gun manufacturers.

Clinton, by comparison, received an F, while both Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Ohio Governor John Kasich, both seeking the Republican Party's nomination, received ratings of A-plus and A, respectively.

During a January interview, former NRA President David Keene, now a commentary editor for The Washington Times, said it is “part of the American DNA” to appreciate firearms and firearms freedom.

Keene has blamed American culture wars for politicizing the gun debate along party lines, which he says began when the Democratic Party took a firm stance on the issue in the 1970s.

“Among voters at the state level, it’s not as partisan as the president or others might have us believe. ... It’s in [the NRA’s] interest not to let it become a partisan issue,” he said.

Candles are lit during a vigil for victims of the
FILE - Candles are lit during a vigil for victims of the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. and other victims of gun violence at the National Vigil for Victims of Gun Violence at the National Cathedral in Washington, Dec. 12, 2013.

Connecticut native Erica Smegielski disagrees. She lost her mother, elementary school principal Dawn Hochsprung, during the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, in December 2012. Today, she says she is a single-issue voter, and the issue is gun violence.

“I have been asked time and time again why I’m politicizing my mother’s death,” Smegielski said. “My response? Why would you not politicize something that kills 30,000-plus Americans every single year?”

For Sandy Phillips, who lost her daughter, Jessica Ghawi, to gun violence during a 2012 mass shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, the issue is about protecting others from assassins like James Eagan Holmes, who purchased ammunition online.

“Jesi was shot six times with these bullets … one time in the head," Phillips said. "That wound caused a 5-inch hole in my daughter’s face, blowing her brains out onto the theater floor, onto the seats and onto the young man that was accompanying her to the theater.

“How many others out there today have the same intent or worse?  And yet we allow it to happen.”

Fight on the right

Gun-rights proponents argue that restricting the sale of firearms only keeps them out of the hands of law-abiding citizens, while criminals will still be able to acquire them.

Cruz believes anti-gun measures put the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment, which protects "the right of the people to keep and bear arms," at risk. During a Republican debate last month in Detroit, Cruz criticized rival candidate Donald Trump for once supporting a ban on powerful assault weapons, but now opposing it.

Trump, who has not yet been rated by the NRA, is a member of the organization and a concealed-carry permit holder.  While campaigning for the Republican nomination, he has said he believes an increase in gun ownership will make the U.S. safer.