Can South Carolina Forgive Bernie’s Gun Record?

The memory of the Charleston church massacre is still raw in South Carolina, where Bernie Sanders’s positions on the Brady Bill and background checks may not play well with voters.

02.12.16 9:05 PM ET

Hillary Clinton is taking a message to South Carolina: Bernie Sanders is soft on guns.

In a newly released campaign ad, Clinton is hitting the Vermont senator straight in his progressive bona fides. The 30-second spot features Rev. Anthony Thompson, who lost his wife in the Charleston church massacre last year.

In debates and town halls, Clinton has repeatedly pointed out that Sanders—in addition to voting against the Brady Bill—has failed to support the most basic tenet of gun control: background checks. And being in favor of civil immunity for gun manufacturers likely played well in the Green Mountain State, where gun violence is relatively uncommon.

“I come from a state that has virtually no gun control,” Sanders said at a gala dinner hosted by the South Carolina Democratic Party over the King holiday weekend. “We must bring this country together under those provisions that the majority of the country supports.”

However, a public opinion poll conducted by CBS News and The New York Times found that the vast majority of Americans—92 percent— “favor background checks for all gun buyers.”

South Carolinians have been grappling with gun control since the day 21-year-old Dylann Roof murdered nine people—including South Carolina State Sen. Clementa C. Pinckney —after a prayer service.  The mass shooting at Emanuel A.M.E. Church, one of the largest and oldest historically black churches in the South, whipped up the political winds.

State Sen. Marlon Kimpson, who endorsed Clinton this week, introduced a comprehensive bill aimed at curtailing the flow of illegally obtained guns and tightening restrictions on buyers. Senator Sanders, who talked to the state lawmaker about his legislation, has said he voted against the Brady Bill because he “opposed a provision in the bill that would have held gun shop owners responsible if a gun they sold was used in a terrible crime.” He favors, according to a statement provided to The Daily Beast, holding “manufacturers and sellers responsible for knowingly or negligently selling a gun to the wrong person.”

None of that has stopped the Clinton campaign from attempting to exploit what they see as a weakness. By targeting Sanders with an ad that features an “Emanuel 9” widow, just 15 days before the Democratic primary contest in South Carolina, Clinton is out to show that Sanders is out of the mainstream and that he doesn’t understand the needs of people who live in the line of fire. That message is being dispatched by surrogates—including state elected officials and members of the Congressional Black Caucus, to houses of worship in every corner of the state.

In debates, Sanders has vigorously defended himself on the issue—pointing to his D-minus rating from the National Rifle Association and saying he will continue to fight for “common sense gun safety measures” as president.

The Sanders campaign said the senator does support closing the gun-show loophole, which allows unlicensed dealers to sell weapons without a background check. He also wants to make “straw man” purchases a federal crime, ban semi-automatic assault weapons, and launch a renewed focus on mental health.

While gun control is not a featured issued on the Sanders campaign website, says the candidate believes in a “middle ground solution.”

“Bernie believes that gun control is largely a state issue because attitudes and actions with regards to firearms differ greatly between rural and urban communities.”

The website is built and maintained by volunteers who have no official affiliation with Sanders.

By comparison, Clinton’s proposals are much more aggressive and she lays out her public record on the issue—as first lady when she supported the Brady Bill and background checks, and as a U.S. senator when she co-sponsored legislation to reinstate the assault weapons ban. Clinton has vowed to close the “Charleston loophole,” which allows a gun sale to proceed without a background check if that check has not been completed within three days.

There are few who believe that Sanders stands a real chance of winning in states like South Carolina—with its markedly more diverse electorate. Clinton, with the new ad and a throng of issue-driven surrogates, is out to prove that Sanders is disconnected, that he doesn’t know how “real” Americans live, and that he doesn’t know how to govern.

Clinton isn’t just saying that Sanders is soft on guns, but that his all-or-nothing positions are dangerous.