In an interview with CBS News, Bernie Sanders was asked what he’d say to Sandy Hook families. His response is making news. And not in a good way. He acknowledged Sandy Hook was a tragedy, then quickly and angrily pivoted to Hillary’s Iraq vote and middle class job losses.
At an inflection point in the Democratic primary when Hillary is closing in on the nomination (and Bernie’s campaign is adopting a scorched earth strategy in response), Bernie’s cozy history with the NRA — at extreme odds with his progressive positions — is putting him on the wrong side of the gun debate.
Here’s what Bernie told CBS News in response to the question, “What do you say to Sandy Hook families who say you should apologize for your position?”
I would say that I think we all are aware of what happened, and Sandy Hook is a tragedy beyond comprehension. But maybe Secretary Clinton might want to apologize to the families who lost their loved ones in Iraq or Secretary Clinton might want to apologize to the millions of workers in this country who lost their jobs because of the disastrous trade agreements that she supported.
There’s a rich irony in Bernie complaining that Hillary has been “on this gun thing forever” and then defaulting yet again to her Iraq vote. Not to mention that this “gun thing,” as he calls it, causes immense pain and suffering on a daily basis.
Watch the clip:
It’s dismaying that Bernie would pivot to job losses when addressing families who have faced the ultimate loss. But his history with the NRA provides context for his unfortunate outburst.
It was Bernie’s stance on gun control laws that first led NRA honcho Wayne LaPierre to endorse him in his 1990 Vermont congressional race over the Republican incumbent. At the time, he wrote to members: “Bernie Sanders is a more honorable choice for Vermont sportsmen than Peter Smith.”
According to the Washington Post, the NRA “made Smith the only incumbent that it actively opposed in 1990. The group eventually spent between $18,000 and $20,000 on advertising and direct mail in Vermont, according to an estimate from the time. The beneficiary was Sanders, who was Smith’s main opponent in the 1990 House race.”
Bernie didn’t let the NRA down. On five occasions, he voted against the Brady Bill that would have established a waiting period for handgun sales. It eventually passed.
Last July, The Washington Post called Bernie’s move proof that, at his core, he is a “pragmatic politician.” He knew he couldn’t win the state without support from rural gun owners.
Amanda Marcotte explains Bernie’s relationship to the gun industry:
There’s probably no industry that better epitomizes the way that corporate greed leads to ruined lives than the gun industry. That’s what the Sandy Hook lawsuit is about: The gun industry lobbies for weak restrictions and heavily markets guns to people with ugly power fantasies, which is why mass shootings happen so frequently in our country. But when given an opportunity to actually do something to hold major corporations responsible for their greed that leads to loss of lives, Sanders balks. It makes him seem like someone who talks a big game, but has no follow-through.
Bernie uses a well-worn set of NRA talking points. The first one is: Guns are different in a rural state. The implication is that rural areas are peaceful, bucolic places where manly men in hunting gear shoot majestic animals to feed their family — and urban areas are free-fire zones filled with gang members.
The invocation of a watercolor painting of men stalking deer in the morning mist is a carefully designed bit of obfuscation to conceal hard truths about men stalking women. Guns are a regrettable centerpiece of domestic violence in rural areas; they are not merely used for sport.
Bernie gives a shrug, then a look: What can you do? Each state should decide what they should do about guns, he says.
This is, to use an old-fashioned word, misleading hooey.
You know where most of the guns used in Chicago’s gun violence come from? The suburbs, or neighboring states like Indiana, with famously lax gun laws. Even Vermont, as small as it is, is the source for several dozen guns a year recovered in New York crimes — probably because private sellers don’t have a mandatory background check.
A gun recovered from last year’s Paris terror attacks was traced to Century International, a Vermont arms refurbisher and dealer.
And while Vermont is a small and sparsely-populated state, it’s still notable that more residents die from gun violence than car crashes.
In 2005, he voted for The Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA). This was the wish-list legislation the NRA tried to pass for 20 years, a law that granted gun manufacturers blanket exemption from tort liability laws.
He defends that vote as a way to protect the “small mom-and-pop gun shop” from frivolous lawsuits. During the first Democratic debate last year, he used another favorite NRA talking point to elaborate:
“If somebody has a gun and it falls into the hands of a murderer and that murderer kills somebody with the gun, do you hold the gun manufacturer responsible? Not any more than you would hold a hammer company responsible if somebody beats somebody over the head with a hammer. That is not what a lawsuit should be about.”
That hammer argument isn’t as reasonable as it sounds. For one thing, frivolous lawsuits are not easy to mount. Courts are reluctant to clog up their schedule with a lawsuit that lacks a sound legal basis, and it’s unlikely that innocent gun businesses would suffer.
Furthermore, hammers are not designed, manufactured, and sold for the purpose of harming people, unlike guns, the majority of which are explicitly designed to be used to harm other humans, not to “go hunting.”
So with his vote, Bernie essentially put a thumb on the scales of justice to give gun manufacturers the edge. His characterization of the bill earned him two Pinocchios from the Washington Post.
Now that he’s running for president, Bernie continues to defend that vote — while co-sponsoring a bill that would repeal the law he voted for. Confusing, to say the least. Because when the New York Daily News published their editorial board interview with him this week, he said he didn’t support the efforts of the Sandy Hook parents to sue the gun manufacturers. This was his response:
No, let me just … I’m sorry. In the same sense that if you’re a gun dealer and you sell me a gun and I go out and I kill him [gestures to someone in room] …. Do I think that that gun dealer should be sued for selling me a legal product that he misused? [Shakes head no] But I do believe that gun manufacturers and gun dealers should be able to be sued when they should know that guns are going into the hands of wrong people. So if somebody walks in and says, “I’d like 10,000 rounds of ammunition,” you know, well, you might be suspicious about that. So I think there are grounds for those suits, but not if you sell me a legal product.
In other words, he still supports the PLCAA — even though he’s supporting a bill to repeal it.
On a Clinton campaign call with the Sandy Hook parents, Sen. Chris Murphy (CT) said, “Senator Sanders’s continued focus on shielding the firearms industry from responsibility for the gun violence epidemic is hard to understand. His comments earlier this week in an interview that he gave to the New York Daily News are disturbing. In that interview, he said with disturbing clarity that he does not support the ability of Sandy Hook parents to sue the gun manufacturers, in order to be made whole for the murder of their children.”
[John Paul Brammer, Peter Daou and Melissa McEwan contributed to this article]
(AP Photo/Matt Rourke)