SHOTS FIRED

Bernie Sanders Parrots the NRA

The left’s favorite presidential candidate defends his record on guns with the right’s talking points—and even voted to protect gun manufacturers from lawsuits.

07.12.15 4:01 AM ET

Bernie Sanders is the tell-it-like-it-is candidate of the left’s dreams: He takes on “the billionaire class” and wants Medicare for all. Thousands are drawn to his unapologetically liberal (even democratic socialist) message at events in Iowa and New Hampshire. In both states he’s closing in or even tied with Hillary Clinton in presidential polls.

So why on the issue of guns is he parroting wholly inane, sometimes racist talking points from the National Rifle Association?

“If somebody has a gun and it falls into the hands of a murderer and the murderer kills somebody with a gun, do you hold the gun manufacturer responsible?” he said to Jake Tapper on CNN. “Not any more than you would hold a hammer company responsible if somebody beats somebody over the head with a hammer.”

Now listen to one of the most viciously stupid men in Congress, Representative Louis Gohmert of Texas, a mere few weeks after the Sandy Hook Massacre.

“I refuse to play the game of ‘assault weapon.’ That’s any weapon. It’s a hammer.”

Sanders was defending his vote for a 2005 law that protected gun manufacturers from lawsuits by victims of gun violence in a manner that big corporations in no other sector of the economy have received. It’s the same law that has prevented parents of the Aurora massacre victims from suing the manufacturer who didn’t think twice about selling 4,300 rounds to James Holmes via the Internet without so much as a cursory check. Whether marketing guns to kids or bullets designed specifically to kill cops, there is no getting around the fact that Sanders joined Blue Dog Democrats and right-wing Republicans in giving arms-dealer conglomerates a get-out-of-jail-free card.

Meanwhile, Sanders sells himself as an anti-corporate warrior who tells inconvenient truths, bows to no special interest, and abides no corporate malfeasance. Yet he still defends this breathtakingly corporatist vote. It’s a vote he’d be savaging in every speech, had it been Senator Chuck Schumer voting to provide blanket immunity for Wall Street or Senator Mitch McConnell voting to put a force field around Big Coal.

Even worse, and actually more offensive, was Sanders’s recent response to his support for weak guns laws. It sounds innocent to the untrained ear, but if you follow the debate over gun violence and gun-safety regulations, then right away you’ll have no trouble hearing the dog whistle that usually emerges from the most right wing, racist precincts of Gunistan:

“I come from a state that has virtually no gun control, but the people of my state understand—pretty clearly—that guns in Vermont are not the same as guns in Chicago or guns in Los Angeles. In our state, guns are used for hunting. In Chicago, they’re used for kids in gangs killing other kids or people shooting police officers, shooting down innocent people.”  

It’s states like Vermont that fuel Chicago’s gun violence! Firearms are illegally sold in Chicago after being legally purchased in neighboring states with little to no regulations. In fact, Sanders’s own Vermonters, whom he claims are above this kind of behavior, notoriously use the state’s lax firearms laws to ship guns into Boston and New York City (often in return for drugs).

That doesn’t even touch the astronomical suicide rates plaguing rural America and disproportionately high rural in Vermont, because of this easy gun access. You’d think a progressive with a passion for health care and improving his constituents’ lives would care deeply about that.

Of course, the worst part of this answer is the blatantly racist mention of “Chicago,” the go-to city (honorable mentions to Detroit and Washington, D.C.) for the far right ever since a certain half-Kenyan left that city and moved into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Birmingham, Alabama and Jacksonville, Florida, just to name two of many cities, have much worse gun homicide rates, but they just don’t have that certain something that brings Chicago into so many conversations like this.

“If we burned every Confederate Flag today, would they stop shooting each other in Chicago?” asked NRA board member and pants-pooper-for-freedom (from serving in Vietnam), Ted Nugent.

Sanders, in discussing gun violence in America, has said he can bring the “two extremes” together. Yes, “extremes.” As if some guy living in a bunker, recycling his own urine and surrounded by enough weaponry to reenact Antietam, is the equivalent of a mom who wants background checks, an assault-weapons ban, and her kids not have to do “active shooter” drills in third grade. The “extreme” label is the one that is often applied to Sanders by more conservative Democrats to dismiss his candidacy. You’d think he’d understand that when he does the same, he is using the same propaganda techniques as those he claims to deplore.

This is not to say there can’t be a debate within the Democratic Party over the role of guns in our society and which regulations should be federal and which should be decided by the states—but that is not what Sanders is doing. He is conflating legitimate objections to gun fetishism with a fantasy crusade against hunters and sportsmen. If this tactic is familiar, it is because it is what the NRA does all the time (see “Obama planning to ban guns”).

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At a July 9 town hall meeting in Arlington, Virginia, potential Sanders supporter Honora Laszlo, of Moms Demand Action, noticed this.

“He’s using phrases that the gun extremists and the NRA use, saying things like it’s about people not liking guns… A lot of us are super Bernie Sanders supporters and we were all really disappointed that he could talk about it this way.”

I don’t know why Sanders is aping the NRA in his rhetoric, only that he is. That it has cost him the support of many anti-gun violence activists, and certainly hasn’t helped his appeal to minority voters, whose support he needs to grow exponentially if he is to have any chance of winning the Democratic nomination.

Don’t “bring us to the middle” on guns, Senator Sanders, just have an honest conversation about their role in our society, in your own words, and not that of a virulently right-wing corporate lobby. If you think Scandinavia has economics figured out, as you’ve said time and again, then it only stands to reason they might have better ideas on how to prevent gun violence, too.