Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) has cautiously begun to walk back his support of certain gun measures.
But the candidate who has been heralded as the progressive alternative to Hillary Clinton still isn’t ready to go quite as far as his Democratic rivals, even as the issue is poised to take center stage in Tuesday night’s debate.
In an interview on “Meet The Press” on Sunday, Sanders said he would reconsider his support for a controversial gun law called the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act.
That legislation shielded gun manufacturers and distributors from most potential lawsuits from family members of gun-violence victims.
“Is there is evidence that manufacturers, gun manufacturers, do know that they’re selling a whole lot of guns in an area that really should not be buying that many guns, that many of those guns are going to other areas, probably for criminal purposes?” Sanders said. “So, can we take another look at that liability issue? Yes.”
But as recently as this summer, Sanders had stood behind his support for the legislation. His rationale, despite criticism from gun-control advocates: Don’t blame the messenger.
“If somebody sells you a baseball bat and you hit somebody over the head, you’re not going to sue the baseball bat manufacturer,” Sanders said at a town hall event July. “I don’t apologise for that vote.”
He also suggested that gun-shop owners in rural areas should be held to a different standard than owners in urban areas.
“The overwhelming majority of people who hunt know about guns and respect guns and are law-abiding people. That’s the truth,” he said. “We will not succeed on this terribly important issue if we continue the cultural warfare between urban America and rural America.”
Even with the recent telegraphed shift, Sanders doesn’t appear prepared to ditch the law. On “Meet the Press,” he said the original reason he supported the 2003 version and the 2005 bill that passed is that he wanted to keep victims of shootings from attempting to exact retribution for shootings on small gun shops.
“Here’s the reason I voted the way I voted: If you are a gun shop owner in Vermont and you sell somebody a gun and that person flips out and then kills somebody, I don’t think it’s really fair to hold that person responsible, the gun shop owner,” Sanders explained to “Meet The Press” host Chuck Todd.
A spate of high-profile mass shootings has thrust guns into the center of the 2016 presidential campaign. Following a failed push to enact universal background check legislation for gun purchasers two years ago, Democrats have become more vocal in their advocacy of measures that curb gun ownership.
Sanders has galvanised the liberal base with his fiery rhetoric and what he termed a “consistent” embrace of progressive ideas. Since announcing his run earlier this year, Sanders has chipped away at Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton’s support within the party, and has buried former Gov. Martin O’Malley’s (D) attempt to introduce himself as a liberal alternative to Clinton.
But both of those campaigns have developed notably different positions on guns, an area where Sanders’ record is more complicated. Sanders has been pressed to explain long-ago support from the National Rifle Association, as well as a series of votes opposing gun-control measures in the 1990s and early 2000s.
Earlier this month after a shooting at a community college in Oregon that left 10 dead, Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton unveiled a comprehensive plan that called for, among other things, repealing the protection that keeps victims of gun violence from suing gun manufacturers.
For his part, Sanders has attempted to walk a fine line — one that satisfies liberal gun-control advocates who may otherwise be attracted to his status as a progressive alternative to Clinton but that also does not alienate the rural, more pro-gun voters that have supported him in Vermont.
But Sanders’ explanation for his support of the law doesn’t necessarily square with its reality. As Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern has reported, the legislation eliminated gun companies’ responsibility for violent gun use across the country, superseding state laws which held companies responsible to varying degrees.
“If I crash my Prius because its accelerator malfunctions, I can sue Toyota for negligently manufacturing a faulty pedal,” he wrote. “If my child dismembers himself with a blender at Sears, I can sue Sears for negligently leaving that blender within a child’s reach. If I get stabbed by a teenager with a switchblade, I might be able to sue the pawn shop owner who illegally sold a knife to a minor.”
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