It’s very difficult for Hillary Clinton to position herself to the left of Bernie Sanders, but she’s spent much of the last month or so trying to do just that. One issue she seems to be getting away with it on is gun control. In debate after debate Clinton has kept Sanders defensive on gun control, touting her ‘F’ rating from the NRA against his ‘D-.’
The truth of the matter, as always, is a bit more complicated. Sanders has actually been given several different grades from the NRA. The most recent was a ‘D-’, but in 2002 – the last year a grade for Clinton is available – Sanders scored an ‘F’ as well. In fact Sanders was given an ‘F’ every two years from 1994 until 2002. In 2006 he received a ‘C-’ before settling down at ‘D-’ in 2012.
Apart from their NRA grades, much of the criticism of Sanders has come from his five votes against various iterations of the Brady Bill, which put in place mandatory background checks and a five-day waiting period for gun purchases. Sanders also supported a bill in 2005 that granted gun manufacturers immunity from lawsuit when their weapons are used for crime.
Sanders has clarified his position on both votes, defending his record as representing the gun-friendly, rural state of Vermont. On the Brady Bill, Sanders says he supported background checks but considered the mandatory waiting period to be overreach. He also moved to the left on the issue of manufacturers’ liability, drawing the distinction that “a small mom-and-pop gun shop who sells a gun legally to somebody should not be held liable if somebody does something terrible with that gun.”
Regardless of all that, Sanders is plenty liberal on the issue of gun control. Recently he voted to ban high-capacity magazines and supported closing the gun show loophole which allows guns to be sold by private vendors on the secondary market without the need to perform background checks.
Whenever Clinton has challenged Sanders on the issue, he has come across as defensive. He may be completely correct that to call him “pro-gun” is an unfair characterization, but he shouldn’t need to jockey with Clinton for position to her left on this issue. Being somewhat libertarian on guns while supporting the common sense gun control favored by a huge majority of Americans could well be an asset in the general election.
For one thing, his record should assuage the most panicked of gun owners that he isn’t going to pry anything from anybody’s cold, dead fingers. The NRA overstates its claim of speaking for all gun owners, but there are still a good number of Americans whose support Sanders will more easily be able to hold if he’s less authoritarian on gun control.
Sanders is actually in line with the mainstream of America on the issue of guns. Gallup recently found that 86 percent of Americans support background checks for all gun purchases, and Sanders agrees. Fifty-six percent support reinstating the assault weapons ban, which Sanders also agrees with. But only 27 percent support the strictest measure of banning all handguns and 26 percent of voters say they’ll only support a candidate who shares their views on gun control.
In other words, American public opinion on gun control looks a lot like Sanders’s positions. While it’s more likely to be a hindrance in the Democratic primary, Sanders’s libertarian flavor on the issue of guns should be an asset in the general election. Whoever wins the nomination in both parties, the Republican will paint the Democrat as a gun-grabbing lunatic. But if he’s careful, Sanders can keep the accusation from sticking by pointing to his record and his nuanced stance.
Clinton has definitely waged a dirtier campaign than Sanders. She suggested Sanders would destroy Obamacare without mentioning the part where he replaces it with universal coverage for everyone. When positioning herself to the left of Sanders doesn’t work, she accuses him of naivety and touts her more pragmatic approach without actually calling it centrist. And she’s just as disingenuous on the issue of guns. Sanders is a good force in the fight for common sense gun reform without being unnecessarily alienating.