Bernie Sanders, the 74-year-old senator from Vermont, is lighting up the 2016 presidential race. He’s denouncing the rich, raising money hand over fist, and soaring in the polls. His rivals for the Democratic nomination need an issue that can break Sanders’ grip on the party’s liberal base. And now they’ve found it: gun control.
Supporters of former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Sanders opponent, recently produced an ad that called Sanders soft on guns. Hillary Clinton’s campaign sent Dan Malloy, the Connecticut governor whose state endured the 2012 Newtown massacre, to New Hampshire to criticize Sanders’ 22-year-old vote against the Brady gun control bill. In the wake of last week’s mass shooting in Roseburg, Oregon, Clinton and O’Malley are turning up the heat.
Guns are an odd issue for Sanders. He’s a self-described socialist. He advocates redistributive taxation, trade restrictions, single-payer health care, an expansion of Social Security, and free college for everyone. But on guns, he becomes a bit of a libertarian. In fact, he becomes a contrarian. Sanders has surged to the front of the Democratic pack by telling the left what it wants to hear: that we’ll all get more goodies from the government for free, that we won’t have to fight any wars, and that business can have its leash jerked without killing economic growth. Guns are the one issue on which Sanders says liberals are wrong. Is he right? Let’s look at his arguments.
1. Gun laws are overrated. Sanders, like other liberals, peddles cure-alls for capital flight, wage stagnation, and inequities in campaign finance. But on guns, he’s a policy skeptic. After Newtown, he cautioned: “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.” This year, after the mass shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, he said of gun control, “Some people think it's going to solve all of our problems, and it's not.” Unlike the National Rifle Association, Sanders believes gun laws can make a difference. But he agrees with the NRA that mental health and “gratuitous violence in the media” are part of the problem.
2. Don’t be a bigot. Sanders represents a state with lots of hunting and little crime. He sees gun owners as a law-abiding cultural minority despised by liberal elites. He talks about hunters the way other lefties might talk about Muslims, saying gun ownership shouldn’t be “stereotyped” or “stigmatized.” He preaches against “cultural warfare” and “demagoguing against folks just because they go out and hunt and they own guns.” Sanders’ message to urban college-educated liberals is that we’re not as open-minded as we think we are. We have our prejudices, and disdain for gun culture is one of them.
3. Draw the line at hunting. For the most part, Sanders’ allegiance to hunters determines which gun laws he favors and which he opposes. Critics say his support for banning assault weapons in 2013 was a shift from his previous position. That’s not true. He has repeatedly voted to ban such weapons, along with high-capacity magazines. In interviews, Sanders consistently distinguishes between “hunting” weapons, which should be legal, and “military-type weapons,” which shouldn’t. When he thinks the rights of hunters are unfairly threatened—for example, by laws against firearm possession in national parks—he votes for the hunters, not for the gun restrictions.
4. Leave it to the states. Sanders believes that guns are used differently in different parts of the country—for street violence in cities, for sport in rural states—and therefore, “decisions about gun control should be made as close to home as possible.” That was his stated rationale for voting against the Brady Bill. On the same grounds, he voted against a Republican congressional amendment that would have repealed waiting periods imposed by states. In 2009 and 2013, Sanders also voted against federal legislation that would have extended the scope of concealed-weapons permits to states that hadn’t approved such permits.
5. No loopholes. Sanders’ opponents depict him as an NRA stooge because the organization helped him win a House seat in 1990. Actually, the NRA was only going after Sanders’ opponent (for switching sides on assault weapons), and gun advocates expected to vote Sanders out in the next election. They now regret helping Sanders, and he has a D-minus rating from the NRA. One reason is his steady support for background checks on all firearm purchases. He voted against gun-show loopholes in 1999 and again during the Manchin–Toomey debate in 2013, after Newtown. He also advocates a crackdown on “straw man” purchases, which circumvent background checks. Like the NRA, Sanders says the most effective gun laws are those that target who can buy a gun, not what kind of gun can be bought. Unlike the NRA, he thinks these laws should apply to all sales.
6. Compromise. The United States is a big, diverse country. If you want to pass any federal laws. says Sanders, you’ll have to respect gun owners. On that account, he brushes aside the idea of rounding up everybody’s firearms. Three months ago, he told an audience of liberals in Arlington, Virginia, that while they might prefer to ban guns, they should prepare to work with people from rural states on balanced legislation that “may not be your policy.”
You can question parts of Sanders’ record, and I would. I’ve yet to hear good reasons for his 2008 vote to exclude anti-firearm programs from the Indian Health Care Improvement Act or his 2006 vote to raise the burden of proof for federal agents investigating gun dealers. His most baffling decision, as Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern has noted, was his vote to insulate gun manufacturers from liability for crimes committed with their weapons. To this day, Sanders defends that vote, arguing that gun-makers, like hammer or bat manufacturers, shouldn’t be held responsible for abuse of their products. Yet he’s running for president as the scourge of bankers, traders, polluters, and CEOs. Why, when the conversation turns to firearms, does Sanders develop such faith in corporate innocence?
But if we’re going to scrutinize Sanders’ self-deceptions, we’d better not spare our own. His criticisms of gun-control dogma are worth considering. Do we really believe closing the gun-show loophole will prevent the next Roseburg or Newtown? Why should Chicago’s gun laws apply to northern New England? Do you personally know anyone who hunts? When you speak of clips or semiautomatic weapons, do you have any idea what you’re talking about?
Yes, Sanders has some hard questions to answer. And so do the rest of us.