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Guns grab focus ahead of Democratic forum in South Carolina

ROCK HILL, S.C. Voters in South Carolina will have their first chance to see the three candidates vying for the Democratic nomination together here on Friday, when Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley appear at a forum at Winthrop University.

The event, hosted by the state party and billed as the "First in the South Presidential Candidates Forum," will be broadcast live on MSNBC and focus on both regional and national issues. One issue, however, has become a flashpoint in the race this week as the candidates campaigned across the country: gun control.

The issues of gun control and criminal justice reform have revealed differences between the candidates on the Democratic side of the race and, as it has grown more competitive, the candidates have sought to take advantage.

Clinton started her week in Chicago on Monday, when her campaign arranged a meeting with family members of victims of gun violence, including Sybrina Fulton and Lesley McSpadden, the mothers of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown.

"They are determined to do what they can to try to prevent this from happening to any other family, and so am I," Clinton said the next day at a town hall in Coralville, Iowa. Her newest campaign ad, which started running on television in Iowa and New Hampshire that day, echoed her commitment.

Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders argued ove... 01:45

Separately on Tuesday in Keene, New Hampshire, O'Malley laid out his plan to take seven separate executive actions as president to curb gun violence, including measures to effectively dismantle the law which shields gun sellers and manufacturers from liability if their firearms are used unlawfully.

O'Malley, who is trailing in national polls, has urged Clinton and Sanders to back certain parts of his plan to cut gun deaths in half by 2025. Clinton has also said she would work to repeal the shield law but stops short of suggesting she would use executive action to do so. Sanders, who voted for the law in 2005, said recently that he is willing to reconsider his position. And as the primary contests approach, O'Malley has started to go beyond calling for "consensus" into more personal, direct attacks.

"Secretary Clinton's been all over the place on this issue," O'Malley told NH1 News in an interview on Tuesday. "In the past when she was running against President Obama she was trying to portray herself as Annie Oakley. And in the past she has said she wasn't for universal background checks."

He took his rhetoric up another notch on Wednesday, when his campaign released an online video comparing Clinton's past position on guns to Jeb Bush's stance. The clip, modeled after a video released by the Clinton campaign hitting Republicans for their views on gun control, showed Clinton in a debate in 2008 saying "blanket rules" imposed by the federal government on guns "doesn't make sense."

It's an argument that O'Malley will continue to use in South Carolina and elsewhere as he fights to gain traction as a progressive alternative to Clinton.

Jaime Harrison, the chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party, said that the issue of gun violence will be "a very important discussion point" in Friday's forum, particularly in relation to policing. Harrison, who grew up in Orangeburg, South Carolina, said that while there is a strong "pro-gun culture" throughout many parts of the state, voters are now more ready to talk about making changes to gun laws.

"I think those conversations are becoming ripe," he said in an interview as he drove to Rock Hill. "They need to happen and I think the will is starting to develop for it to happen."

Especially in light of the church shooting that killed nine in Charleston, and the death of Walter Scott in North Charleston earlier this year, Harrison said he believes voters are interested in hearing the candidates' plans to end the violence and rebuild trust between communities and law enforcement agencies.

"There's strong support among Democrats here to try to come up with new initiatives that keep the guns away from criminals and come up with some sensible policies that can make our country safer," added former Gov. Jim Hodges, who has endorsed Clinton. He continued: "In a Republican primary, talking about gun issues is a third rail. That's not so true in the Democratic primary here."

More than 3,400 people will be in the audience at the Byrnes Auditorium with hundreds more expected to turn out for other party events scheduled around the main event.

"People are engaged," said Antjuan Seawright, a Democratic strategist and consultant based in Columbia. "Every time I go to the barber shop, there's always a discussion about national politics and talking about what's next."

Seawright, who worked on Clinton's first presidential campaign but is not involved with her second bid, added that bread and butter issues like jobs, infrastructure and education are also important to voters watching the forum, especially those from low-income, rural communities.

"When you come to South Carolina, it's important that voters feel as if you are going to talk about South Carolina issues," he said, "that you will remember the people in South Carolina."

According to a new Winthrop University poll out this week, Clinton is far ahead of her Democratic competitors in the Palmetto State. Seventy-one percent of likely Democratic voters surveyed said they would choose Clinton while 15 percent preferred Sanders and 2 percent chose O'Malley.

An aide to Sanders, who will spend a full day campaigning and in private meetings with community leaders in Rock Hill, Columbia and Aiken following the forum, said he is prepared to outline how he plans to widen his appeal with minority voters and win the South.

Questions about Sanders' record on guns and criminal justice have dogged him since he began his campaign. In an interview with NPR on Wednesday, he was pressed on his vote in 1994 for the Violent Crime Control Act, which established tougher prison sentencing guidelines.

"If I had voted the other way, somebody would have noted that I voted against the Violence Against Women Act which was also in that and voted against a bill banning certain type of assault weapons," Sanders said. "No matter what you do, people can criticize it."

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