ARLINGTON, Virginia — Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is in many ways the dream presidential candidate for the resurgent progressive wing of the Democratic Party, staking out unapologetically liberal policy positions in nearly every arena throughout his career.
But on one issue, Sanders could disappoint the party’s base voters, as was made apparent during a testy exchange with a local gun-control activist Thursday night.
Honora Laszlo, a volunteer with the Arlington, Virginia, chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, asked Sanders during the question-and-answer session of a policy forum to clarify his stance on gun reform, and to explain his vote in favor of a 2005 law that shields firearms manufacturers from liability if their products are used in the execution of a crime. The families of victims of the 2013 Sandy Hook massacre have tried the approach of taking legal action against manufacturers and unsuccessfully lobbied Congress to repeal the law.
Sanders defended his record on gun control, noting that he took “very, very difficult votes” in favor of the 1994 assault weapons ban and, in 2013, to close the gun show background check loophole.
“With all due respect, you also cast the vote to allow gun manufacturers to never be sued,” Laszlo interjected.
“Right I did, OK?” Sanders fired back, adding later, “Why would I have voted that way? Because if somebody has a gun and somebody steals that gun and they shoot somebody with it, do you really think it makes sense to blame the manufacturer of that weapon? If somebody sells you a baseball bat and somebody hits you over the head with it, you’re not going to sue the baseball bat manufacturer.”
Laszlo, 58, said in an interview after the event that baseball bats have other uses, whereas certain firearms are designed exclusively “to kill a lot of people in a short amount of time," which should open manufacturers up to liability.
Sanders, however, pinned the intractability of the gun control issue on a cultural divide between urban and rural America.
“I come from a state that has virtually no gun control and it turns out one of the safest states in the country. I come from a state where tens and tens of thousands of people hunt and do target practice. I understand that guns in my state are different than guns in Chicago or Los Angeles,” Sanders said. “People in urban America have got to appreciate that the overwhelming majority of people who hunt know about guns and respect guns, and are law-abiding people, that’s the truth. And people in rural America have got to understand that in an urban area, guns mean something very, very different.”
“We will not succeed on this terribly important issue if we continue the cultural warfare between urban America and rural America, and I think I’m in a good place to bridge that gap,” Sanders said.
Sanders also called for more understanding from both sides, a markedly different tack than his take-no-prisoners approach on economic and other social issues.
“There have to be some compromises on both sides, and I don’t apologize for that vote,” Sanders told Laszlo.
Despite his progressivism, Sander's voting record on gun control is mixed and his remarks on gun control reveal his doubts about its effectiveness. In 1993, then Rep. Sanders voted against the landmark Brady Background Check bill, which instituted the federal background check system. In 2009, he voted to allow guns in checked baggage on Amtrak. After the Sandy Hook massacre, Sanders told a Vermont magazine, “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.”
Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton, the Democratic frontrunner for the nomination, has of late been more vocal in voicing her support for gun control measures. It is one of the few issues where her record is more in line with the party’s base than Sanders.
"The stakes are too high, the costs are too dear, and I am not and will not be afraid to keep fighting for common sense reforms and along with you, achieve those on behalf of all who have been lost because of this senseless gun violence in this country," Clinton said in San Francisco shortly after the Charleston church shooting.
Laszlo, for her part, said she left her exchange with Sanders disappointed by his remarks.
“He’s using phrases that the gun extremists and the NRA use, saying things like it’s about people not liking guns,” she said. “He reinforces the idea in people on the other side of the divide that this is about people hating them and people hating guns, and it’s not, this is about safety.”
She added she thought his position and tone would prevent many passionate supporters of gun reforms from supporting his candidacy.
“A lot of us are super Bernie Sanders supporters and we were all really disappointed that he could talk about in this way,” she said. “It is [a deal breaker] for everybody in the gun violence prevention community.”