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Bernie Sanders’ complicated record on guns

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., greets members of the audience after speaking at a campaign stop in Hanover, N.H. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik) Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., greets members of the audience after speaking at a campaign stop in Hanover, N.H. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., greets members of the audience after speaking at a campaign stop in Hanover, N.H. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Jon Greenberg
By Jon Greenberg February 10, 2020

If Your Time is short

  • In 1993, Sanders voted against the Brady Bill, a law that imposed a five-day waiting period.

  • In 2004, he voted for an assault weapon ban, and in 2005, for a bill that protected gun makers from lawsuits.

  • Since at least 2013, Sanders has consistently voted for stricter gun control laws.

From health care to climate change to college tuition, Bernie Sanders has a lock on every key progressive Democratic policy position, except one — gun control. He is now in step with where the party stands, but 15 years ago, he wasn’t, and he continues to face questions about his past.

At the New Hampshire presidential debate, panelist Adam Sexton captured Sanders’ mixed history.

"In the '90s, when you were in Congress, you voted against background checks and you also voted against a waiting period to purchase a firearm," Sexton asked. "Can you explain why you opposed these things that you now support?"

Sanders said that Vermont is a rural state, and in the past, he followed local sentiments.

"Until the last — two years ago — we had virtually no gun control legislation at all, and I represented that perspective," Sanders said. "The world has changed, and my views have changed. And my view is right now, we need universal background checks. We end the gun show loophole. We end the so-called strawman provision. We make certain that we end the sale and distribution of assault weapons in this country."

That is where Sanders is today. But to answer continuing questions, here’s a recap of where Sanders has stood on gun control.

Voted against waiting periods and for protecting gun makers 

Between 1991 and 2005, Sanders cast a number of votes that run against current Democratic priorities.

He opposed a mandatory waiting period of five to seven days several times — twice in 1991 and twice in 1993. That second 1993 vote was against the iconic Brady Bill, which passed and was signed into law by President Bill Clinton. Named after James Brady, President Ronald Reagan’s press secretary, who was shot in the head in an attempt to kill Reagan, the measure imposed a five-day waiting period before a handgun could be sold.

In April 1991, Sanders’ then-chief of staff Anthony Pollina told a reporter that Sanders was simply representing the will of his constituents.

"Bernie’s response is that he doesn’t just represent liberals and progressives. He was sent to Washington to present all of Vermont," Pollina said. "It’s not inappropriate for a congressman to support a majority position, particularly on something Vermonters have been very clear about."

Vermont’s Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy also voted against the Brady Bill.

In 2003 and 2005, the firearms industry pressed for a law to protect gun makers and sellers from lawsuits. While not granting complete immunity, it did say that if a sale was legal and there was no reason to believe a weapon would be used in a crime, then manufacturers and sellers would be held harmless.

Sanders voted for the bill in both years.

Sanders’ Democratic rivals have used these votes against him. Hillary Clinton did so in 2016, and Joe Biden has as well in the 2020 nomination race.

"While I was pushing the Brady background bill — background checks — Bernie voted five times against it when he was in the House," Biden said in the New Hampshire debate.

Including votes on amendments, Biden’s number is accurate. Sanders has pressed for tougher gun controls since those times.

Votes for an assault weapon ban, rolling back liability protections and other measures

At a campaign rally in Milford, N.H., Sanders listed his gun violence agenda.

"Universal background checks, ending the gun show loophole, and ending the sale and distribution of assault weapons in America," he said Feb. 4.

Sanders voted for the first assault weapon ban in 1994. He doubled down in 2013, voting for amendments that reimposed the ban that had expired, along with other stricter gun control measures.

He stayed on that track in 2019, co-sponsoring a Senate bill to ban the sale and ownership of semiautomatic assault weapons, along with a ban on high capacity magazines.

Sanders also signed on to a measure that supported states that passed so-called "red flag" laws that would temporarily take weapons away from people judged by a court to be a danger to themselves or others.

He joined 29 Democratic senators in co-sponsoring a 2019 bill to keep firearms out of the hands of people convicted of domestic violence or stalking

As for the liability protection law he supported in 2005, 14 years later, Sanders co-sponsored a bill to reverse it.

A shift in tone

Sanders has navigated an issue that has played out differently in his home state than nationally. Vermont has many hunters and low rates of gun violence. But across the country, the mood for stronger gun regulation has grown. In its polls, Gallup found the fraction of people saying gun laws should be more restrictive rose from 43% in 2011 to 64% in 2019. 

In 2013, Sanders told the Vermont publication Seven Days that "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."

Sanders’ campaign noted that Sanders went on in that interview to advocate for gun control, and for the need to push back against the gun industry.

In 2020, Sanders issued a call to action.

"Every person, regardless of his or her politics, recoils in pain and disgust when we turn on the TV and see another mass shooting, and and all of us know the toll in America that gun violence has had." Sanders said in Milford. "Under our administration, it would be the American people who write gun safety legislation, not the NRA."

"That’s what we’ve got to do," he said.

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