Gun control push complicates Sanders’s 2020 ambitions

Gun control push complicates Sanders’s 2020 ambitions
© Greg Nash

New Democratic energy for gun control legislation could complicate the presidential ambitions of Sen. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersAnti-abortion Dem wins primary fight Lipinski holds slim lead in tough Illinois primary fight Overnight Defense: Senate sides with Trump on military role in Yemen | Dem vets push for new war authorization on Iraq anniversary | General says time isn't 'right' for space corps MORE (I-Vt.), who’s less hawkish on the issue than other potential 2020 candidates.

The Vermont senator’s record on gun rights has already proved to be a hurdle on the national stage. While Sanders won over many on the left on economic issues, Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonKoch-backed group launches six-figure ad buy against Heitkamp Trump keeps up 'low IQ' attack on Maxine Waters GOP leaders to Trump: Leave Mueller alone MORE attacked Sanders during the 2016 Democratic presidential primary for being too moderate, especially early in his political career, on gun control.

Now the gun control movement’s new spotlight after the mass shooting at a Florida high school could put Sanders in a bind. 

“Bernie is not the only person who the ground has shifted under, and he’s going to have to get ahead of it,” said former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, a former presidential candidate and Democratic National Committee head.

“It can’t be any more window dressing. ... Now, everything is different, even in Vermont.”

The recent mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., has dominated the headlines for weeks, with progressives picking up some of the survivors’ calls for new gun control measures.

While some Democrats want to tread carefully on the issue, wary of alienating moderate voters ahead of this year’s midterm elections, Democratic lawmakers eyeing 2020 bids have pushed for a more aggressive stance.

Sanders has tried to go on offense too, supporting various gun control measures, including a ban on semi-automatic weapons. He met with Parkland students on Tuesday, before calling for gun control on the Senate floor.

Shannon Watts, the founder of gun control group Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense, said that her group is happy to embrace Sanders if he takes a more vocal stance on gun control.

“Everyone can turn over a new leaf. And a lot of times, polling will help you do that,” Watts told The Hill.

Still, Sanders is far from a pro-gun Democrat. His National Rifle Association (NRA) rating has never rose above a “C-minus,” and his recent record on the issue is far more in step with Democrats.

Sanders also voted against the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, which expanded background checks and established a waiting period for purchases, multiple times in 1993.

He also voted for allowing Amtrak passengers to check bags containing guns, as well as for a measure that gave firearm manufacturers broad legal immunity.

But Sanders has also voted for gun control more recently. PolitiFact, which intensely scrutinized Sanders’s record on guns during his primary campaign, wrote in 2015 that “his most recent pro-gun vote was in 2009.”

Sanders has long supported banning semi-automatic weapons, voting for the federal assault weapons ban in 1994. He’s also voted against concealed carry reciprocity — a top agenda item for the NRA — and for 2013 legislation conceived after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting that would have banned high-capacity magazines and reinstituted the assault weapons ban.

Arianna Jones, a Sanders campaign spokeswoman, told The Hill in a statement that presidential politics isn’t factoring into Sanders’s gun views. She specifically cited his stance on the assault weapons ban in a statement to The Hill, arguing that Sanders is on the right side of the issue.

“The senator is not concerned about any potential 2020 race — he’s concerned about the very real epidemic of gun violence and mass shootings plaguing our country,” she said.

“Sen. Sanders stands with the vast majority of the American people who are in the shared fight for safer gun laws and against the NRA’s corporate influence and ability to buy candidates and elected officials. This isn’t the time to play politics, it’s time to work together in order to create policy that reflects the urgency of our current situation.”

Clinton’s presidential campaign hit Sanders hard on his gun record in 2016 — specifically on the immunity vote, the Brady bill vote and an amendment to the Brady bill that shortened how long the government has to return a background check before a store can sell a weapon.

Clinton labeled that amendment the “Charleston loophole,” because the gunman behind the shooting at a black church in Charleston, S.C., in 2015 was only able to purchase a gun because his background check wasn’t returned in the three-day window.

The pressure prompted Sanders to reverse his stance on the immunity legislation in the midst of the 2016 presidential campaign. And Clinton’s “Charleston loophole” slams gained particular salience ahead of the South Carolina primary, which Clinton won.

Sanders allies admitted those attacks were successful.

“It did become a problem for him in the 2016 primary and frankly, I didn’t think he handled it well,” said Bill Press, a progressive radio host and Sanders confidant.

“He could have explained his vote better and moved on, but he was too defensive about it.”

One former Clinton campaign staffer agreed.

“If it wasn’t the most effective contrast point, it was one of the top three or four,” the former staffer said.

“He took on real water with Democratic voters once they heard his record and defense of this.”

The former Clinton aide went on to note that Sanders chose not to break from his past votes during the campaign, arguing that could make the issue “disqualifying” for Sanders in a future bid.

“Part of his brand is that the Bernie Sanders of today is the Bernie Sanders of the past 40 years,” he said. “He has less room than other politicians to argue he had a change of heart.”

But Press and other Sanders allies don’t believe the issue will be as salient in a hypothetical 2020 campaign because of Sanders’s more recent positions and comments.

“He is where he should be and has to be on the gun safety issue,” said Press, who writes a regular column for The Hill. “It tripped him up then, but I don’t think it will be a problem today.”

Sanders may not be the only 2020 Democratic candidate with a spotty background on gun control. Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten Elizabeth GillibrandGillibrand endorses Cuomo for reelection Coalition presses Transportation Dept. for stricter oversight of driverless cars Do Dems need someone people like to beat Trump? MORE (D-N.Y.) had an “A” rating from the NRA when she represented a rural area in the House.

But she’s since had a public mea culpa on the issue, recently saying during an interview with CBS’s “60 Minutes” that she was wrong.

Gillibrand’s new stance is in line with her new position in the Senate, representing a deep-blue state. Watts, of Moms Demand Action, described Gillibrand as an ally, but was more tepid on Sanders’s record.

“If he’s willing to come out and say ‘I was wrong on these things,’ the proof is in the pudding,” Watts said. “He’s going to have some opportunities to do some voting between now and [2020].”