Bernie Sanders and the risk of being soft on guns

     Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt,  speaks during a campaign rally in Springfield, Mass., Saturday, Oct. 3, 2105. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

    Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt, speaks during a campaign rally in Springfield, Mass., Saturday, Oct. 3, 2105. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

    Unbeknownst to his liberal fans, Bernie Sanders is notoriously soft on guns — and that could hurt him badly in the left-leaning Democratic primaries.

    He doesn’t like to talk about guns; unfortunately for him, the Oregon massacre has made it imperative yet again. Hillary Clinton has actually been talking about guns for weeks, and attacking the NRA; in the wake of Oregon, she has doubled down. And this puts Bernie in a bit of a bind, because he has voted with the gun lobby and the gun manufacturers on key occasions.

    Say, for instance, that one of your loved ones was a victim in a mass shooting (God forbid), and you wanted to join with other families in suing the company that manufactured and marketed the warlike automatic weapon. Well, don’t bother. Because for the past 10 years, the gun industry — unlike every other industry — enjoys blanket immunity from lawsuits. Thanks to an NRA-sponsored law that Bernie voted for.

    You’re probably more familiar with the Brady Act, the historic 1993 law that mandated federal background checks for most gun buyers and curbed felons’ access to guns. Bernie voted against it. He had promised the gun lobby that he would oppose such a law, and he kept his word. This pleased the NRA, which had endorsed his successful election to the House in 1990.

    This track — he has also voted to allow people to tote guns on Amtrak — doesn’t jibe with the general Democratic belief, stoked anew by the Oregon shootings, that it’s high time for gun reform. He has inched in that direction since the Sandy Hook shootings, voting in ’13 for universal background checks and a new assault-weapons ban, but at times he still talks like a gun lobbyist — as evidenced by this outburst the other night on MSNBC:

    “You can sit there and say, ‘Well, I think we should do this and do that.’ But you got a whole lot of states in this country where people want virtually no gun control at all.”

    The socialist, standing up for state’s rights. Which is kind of funny, because the federal blanket-immunity law — the one he voted for, the one that protects the gun industry from lawsuits — actually tramples state’s rights. It decrees that the 50 states’ liability laws shall not apply to the gun industry; it means that if any state jury finds that a gun manufacturer is liable, the verdict is automatically invalidated.

    (The Sandy Hook parents are trying to sue the manufacturer of the Bushmaster, the war weapon that killed 20 kids and six adults by spitting 154 bullets in 264 seconds. The manufacturer markets the weapon to civilian dolts with this snappy slogan: “Forces of opposition, bow down. You are single-handedly outnumbered.” Thanks to the NRA’s blanket-immunity law, the Sandy Hook parents have virtually no right to sue.)

    Hillary, as a senator, voted against that NRA law, which is comically named the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act. Yesterday, she said that, as president, she would seek to overturn that law and curb gun access via a series of executive actions. She wondered “how many people have to die before we finally act.” Bernie, by contrast, rarely talks about guns unless prompted. In his first gig after the Oregon massacre, he spoke for nearly an hour before he brought it up.

    In Bernie’s defense, he hails from Vermont — a state with lots of law-abiding hunters and a low crime rate. As he remarked on NPR last June (after the Charleston massacre), “I think that urban America has got to respect what rural America is about.” You can argue that when he voted with the NRA, he was merely serving his constituents.

    That’s fine, as far as it goes. But in the current political climate, with the gun issue front and center, and with Democratic voters clamoring for reform, Hillary has found a way to outflank Bernie on his left. That’s not easy to do, and that’s an opportunity she is poised to exploit. Don’t be surprised if she works that angle during the first Democratic debate, slated for next Tuesday.

    As for the Brady law that Bernie opposed, a noteworthy American urged its passage in a 1993 column:

    “Every year, an average of 9,200 Americans are murdered by handguns, according to Department of Justice statistics. This does not include suicides or the tens of thousands of robberies, rapes and assaults committed with handguns. This level of violence must be stopped. Sarah and Jim Brady are working hard to do that, and I say more power to them. If the passage of the Brady bill were to result in a reduction of only 10 or 15 percent of those numbers (and it could be a good deal greater), it would be well worth making it the law of the land.”

    So wrote Ronald Reagan.

    Yes, even Reagan outflanked Bernie on guns. Think about that one.

    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1, and on Facebook.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal