As the primary race between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders tightens in the days before the Iowa primary, the former – already losing on the health care debate – is grasping for another hot-button issue on which to attack her rival. This past weekend, it was gun control. To hear Hillary tell it, Bernie is little more than another “tool” for the gun lobby – but as is the case with health care, she is either failing to understand the real issues, or she’s deliberately engaging in obfuscations.

Appearing with George Stephanopoulos on ABC This Week on Sunday, Democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton again went after rival Bernie Sanders on the issue of gun control. “One of the issues I have drawn a very stark contrast on has been guns,” she said, adding:

I have pointed out repeatedly – because I think it’s a critical issue – that Senator Sanders has for years voted many times on behalf of the NRA gun lobby position….one of the most egregious of those votes was the vote to give immunity from all liability to gun makers and sellers.

Yet, if Bernie is really the “gun nut” that Hillary paints him to be, why is it that our Progressive candidate rates  a “D minus” from the NRA?

It turns out that since 1994, Sanders has voted in favor of extensive bans on semiautomatic weapons. He also favors thorough background checks for gun purchasers. During an interview on CNN, Sanders spoke of finding a “middle ground”:

“We need a sensible debate about gun control…folks who do not like guns are fine, but we have millions of gun owners in this country  who are law-abiding citizens.”

Among those law abiding citizens are his own constituents. Vermont, a largely rural state, has a high rate of gun ownership – primarily among sportsmen and hunters. Furthermore, Vermont has few restrictions and laws governing gun ownership. Yet the Green Mountain State has one of the lowest homicide rates of any state in the nation.

Nonetheless, Sanders’ opponents continue to bring up the immunity question and why he appears to want to protect the gun industry from liability. As with most political issues, this is far from cut-and-dried. When asked during the Democratic debate this past October if he wants to shield gun companies from lawsuits, Sanders replied:

“Of course not. This was a large and complicated bill. There were provisions in it that I think made sense. For example, do I think that a gun shop in the state of Vermont that sells legally a gun to somebody, and that somebody goes out and does something crazy, that that gun shop owner should be held responsible? I don’t. On the other hand, where you have manufacturers and where you have gun shops knowingly giving guns to criminals or aiding and abetting that, of course we should take action.”

Pointing out that the overwhelming majority of his constituents are sportsmen and hunters, Sanders added, “I come from a rural state, and the views on gun control in rural states are different than in urban states. Our job is to bring people together around strong, commonsense gun legislation.” At a forum in Arlington, Virginia last summer, Sanders explained:

“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.”

In fact, the legislation that Sanders supported, the  2005 Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, lists six types of lawsuits in which a gun manufacturer or dealer can be held liable. For example, a gun dealer who is a convicted felon, and/or sells a gun knowing it will be used for assault or in a drug transaction can be sued by victims. Manufacturers and dealers can also be sued if they violated any underlying (or “predicate”) laws in the course of the sale if an injury or wrongful death was a result of said violation.

During the latest debate, Hillary accused Bernie of “flip-flopping” on the gun issue:  “[Sanders] said that he would sign on to a bill that is currently pending in the House and Senate to repeal that liability.” Hillary also accused her rival of voting to “let guns go on to Amtrak [and] guns go into national parks.”

Sanders response: “I think Secretary Clinton knows what she says is very disingenuous,” reminding the audience of his dismal record with the NRA.  The 2010 legislation to which Clinton referred – which Sanders supported – allows people who are legally permitted under state and federal laws to carry such weapons, to bring them into those places (with the exception of certain types of buildings). It does not allow just any gun-toting individual to carry their weapons on to trains and into national parks.

The problem of gun violence in the U.S. is a complex one. As a true statesman, Bernie Sanders is committed to practical and effective solutions, understanding that the issue requires a nuanced approach that addresses multiple aspects of the problem. When interviewed by Stephanopoulos, Sanders pointed out:

“What is most important is that we have a strong instant background check. I have supported that from day one. At the end of the day, what almost every American understands is we have got to keep guns out of the hands of people who should not have them. That has been my position since as far back and I can remember.”

On that, we can all agree.

SHARE
K.J. McElrath is a former history and social studies teacher who has long maintained a keen interest in legal and social issues.