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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Bill Clinton Quote Taken Out of Context

Q: Did Bill Clinton say, "We can't be so fixated on our desire to preserve the rights of ordinary Americans"?

A: Yes, but that's a snippet of his full quote, and it's used unfairly to make Clinton seem to dismiss all rights of ordinary Americans.


This partial quote is as misleading as those that one often sees in political ads or movie reviews. Clinton was talking about gun rights and had much more to say.

On March 1, 1993, Clinton (who had been sworn in as president a little more than a month earlier) was in New Brunswick, N.J., talking with volunteers about national service. One volunteer asked him about the New Jersey Legislature's attempt to overturn a state ban on assault weapons. At the time, the Brady bill that would require a waiting period for handgun purchases was pending in Congress; the National Rifle Association opposed it. In addition, a day earlier, federal agents had raided a Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas, resulting in the deaths of four agents and six Branch Davidians and beginning a standoff between the government and the heavily armed Davidians that would last into April. 

In other words, firearms were in the news. Here's what Clinton said, which was a critique of the NRA:

Clinton: You know, you can't have – be so fixated on a desire to preserve the rights of ordinary Americans to legitimately own handguns and rifles. It's something that I strongly support. You can't be so fixated on that that when you're unable to think about the reality of life that millions of Americans face on streets that are unsafe, under conditions that no other nation – no other nation – has permitted to exist. And at some point, you know, I still hope that the leadership of the National Rifle Association will go back to doing what it did when I was a boy and which made me want to be a lifetime member of it – (laughs) – because they put out valuable information about hunting and marksmanship and safe use of guns. But just to ignore the conditions we face today in a lot of our cities and other places in this country and the enormous threat to public safety is amazing.

– Viveca Novak

Correction, Feb. 12: We originally identified the city in which Clinton spoke as Brunswick, N.J.


"President Clinton discusses national service with volunteers in New Brunswick, NJ." Federal News Service. 1 March 1993.

King, John. "Clinton says NRA makes 'error' in opposing some gun control efforts." Associated Press. 1 March 1993.