The Oct. 1 massacre at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg may have further exposed what could be U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ Achilles’ heel in his quest for the 2016 Democratic Party presidential nomination — his voting record on gun control.
Sanders, an Independent who served in the House of Representatives for 16 years and is almost halfway through his second term in the Senate, represents the 627,000 residents of Vermont, a state that’s politically deep blue but strong on gun rights. For many Vermonters, hunting is a way of life, so the progressive socialist has tacked to the right on Second Amendment issues, which has helped him win re-election eight times.
While Sanders’ position has kept him in favor in his home state, it may not play as well with Democratic primary voters across the nation.
Questions about his gun control record arose several months after the December 2012 shootings of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. After voting for subsequent failed legislation that would have expanded background checks on gun purchases and banned assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, he pessimistically observed, “Nobody believes that gun control by itself is going to end the horrors we have seen.”
While serving in the House, Sanders voted against the 1993 Brady Bill, which mandated background checks for gun purchasers, restricted felons’ access to firearms and imposed a mandatory waiting period for gun purchases. Sanders has consistently supported universal background checks and favors an assault weapons ban, but opposed having a federal waiting period, which he says should be decided by the states.
The vote that has especially rankled some left-wing Democrats is Sanders’ support of the 2005 Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which prohibits gun violence victims from suing gun manufacturers and dealers that make and sell weapons used in crimes. The legislation was the National Rifle Association’s No. 1 legislative priority for years and its passage wiped out gun liability laws in all 50 states. That’s the law that has kept Sandy Hook families from suing manufacturer Bushmaster for making the weapon used to kill their children.
After the race-motivated shootings at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., in June, Sanders told NPR that stricter gun control needs to be discussed but added that “urban America has got to respect what rural America is about, where 99 percent of the people in my state who hunt are law-abiding people.”
On Oct. 1, he adopted a stronger tone on MSNBC, saying, “We’ve got to do something We need sensible gun-control legislation,” then added, “And by the way, we need to significantly improve mental health services,” the line gun rights advocates often use to dilute arguments in favor of stricter gun regulation.
So far, Sanders hasn’t talked much about gun control in his campaign. At a Saturday rally in Boston, he was an hour into his speech before he alluded to the Roseburg shootings. After the Sandy Hook shootings he said, “If you passed the strongest gun control legislation tomorrow, I don’t think it will have a profound effect on the tragedies we have seen.” He remains skeptical that stricter laws can help prevent future gun violence, but said Oct. 1, “I think there is a consensus for serious gun control, including among people who own guns. And I think that’s what we have to bring about.”
After 247 mass shootings just this year, Sanders’ opponents aren’t likely to let him continue to waffle. On Monday, Hillary Clinton proposed a four-point plan on gun control that would repeal the 2005 law giving gun manufacturers and dealers legal immunity, prohibit domestic abusers from buying and possessing firearms, close private and Internet gun sale loopholes, and change the law that says gun sales can automatically proceed if background checks aren’t completed within three days.
Another candidate, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, has proposed a ban on assault weapons, fingerprinting every gun purchaser, barring the federal government from buying guns from any company that doesn’t use the latest and best safety technology and making gun trafficking a federal crime.
On Monday (Oct. 5), the day Clinton announced her plan, Sanders said his campaign is putting together a “comprehensive package” of measures to address gun violence. The voters in Vermont may not like it, but if he doesn’t bring his position more in line with the majority of Democratic voters — starting with Tuesday’s first Democratic primary debate in Las Vegas — he may find himself bringing up the rear.