Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., may be a self-described “Independent Socialist,” but his surprisingly moderate views on gun control have definitely set the Internet ablaze of late; and, in the process, revealed a huge problem within the pro-gun movement.
It all started when Sanders appeared on CNN’s "State of the Union" with Jake Tapper on Sunday: “If somebody has a gun, and it falls into the hands of a murderer, and that murderer kills somebody with the gun, do you hold the gun manufacturer responsible?” Sanders asked. “Not any more than you would hold a hammer company responsible if somebody beats somebody over the head with a hammer. That is not what a lawsuit should be about.”
In theory, Sanders’ position provides pro-gun conservatives with the perfect opportunity to show that they are above partisanship. After all, while they may vehemently disagree with Sanders on a number of other issues, they should at least be able to give him credit where it’s due when there is overlap between his views and their own.
Instead, the trend among online conservatives is to assume the worst of Sanders, as this quick, unscientific review of Internet responses reveals:
“All you peeps hoping this guy will leave the 2nd Amendment alone think again,” writes Wadsworth34, the author of a popular Reddit thread on Sanders’ gun control position. “If he gets elected he will attack it like flys on your dogs yellow turd.” Another Reddit poster, drpetar, claimed that Sanders is “not pro-gun despite what people may claim,” citing his voting record on issues like the 1994 assault weapons ban (which he supported), a 2009 bill authorizing carrying concealed weapons across state lines (which he opposed), and the various gun control measures introduced by President Obama in 2013 (which he supported).
The reaction hasn’t been much better elsewhere in cyberspace. “This Leftist attempt of justifying #BernieSanders stance on guns involves some true Jedi mind tricks,” tweeted one critic. Another Twitter user named went even further, tweeting that he “Can't believe this is our last Independence Day before Bernie Sanders takes away our guns & makes us all speak Swedish.” When American Conservative tweeted that “unlike most Democrats, Bernie Sanders’ embrace of the working class includes their guns,” their corresponding article was replete with comments like that of “libertarian jerry,” who dismissed Sanders’ stance by declaring that “the whole issue of Bernie Sanders being right on the gun issue and wrong on most of the other issues only goes to prove that a stopped clock is always right twice a day.”
So what gives? Why is it so hard for so many online conservatives to give Sanders a modicum of credit for agreeing with them, especially when he has peeved liberals from Mark Joseph Stern of Slate to fellow 2016 presidential candidate Martin O’Malley in the process?
The main problem is that, for a large number of pro-gun advocates, support for their interpretation of the Second Amendment is an all-or-nothing deal. “For more than three decades, the NRA has consistently argued that pretty much any new regulation of firearms would move the country a step closer to more draconian regulations, like gun registration and confiscation,” writes Michael Scherer of Time magazine, adding that “in the longtime logic of the Second Amendment activist, all gun regulations are suspect because of what might happen next.”
As Alan Berlow explained here at Salon, the NRA is “an organization whose Web pages are replete with paranoid conspiracy theories” and “whose top leaders are quite literally predicting—based on not a scintilla of actual evidence—that all Americans will be disarmed by the end of President Obama’s second term and that the Second Amendment will be ‘excised from the Constitution.’”
Hence, even though Sanders opposed the Brady Act of 1993 (one of the earliest gun control bills), supported prohibiting lawsuits against gunmakers and manufacturers, voted in favor of allowing firearms in checked baggage on Amtrak trains, and defended gun owners from liberal critics by asserting that “99.9 percent of [gun owners] obey the law,” he is distrusted because he hasn’t always toed the NRA line. As former NRA lobbyist Richard Feldman explained to the Trace, the organization views voting in favor of any kind of firearm ban or regulation as irredeemable “unless you vote the other way later on.”
Although the NRA was thus willing to fund a campaign against one of Sanders’ opponents (who supported an assault weapons ban) in a 1990 congressional race, it has subsequently fluctuated in grading him; he reached his peak in 2006 when they gave him a C-, but after his support for President Obama’s ultimately unsuccessful proposed gun control law in 2013, Sanders now sits at a D-minus.
Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with gun control, this type of thinking is dangerous because it oversimplifies a complex issue. Even though most polls find Americans closely divided on the broader issue of gun regulation (a CNN/ORC poll from June 2015 found Americans split 49/49 on whether we should have stricter gun control laws and believing by a 3-to-2 margin that stricter gun laws wouldn’t reduce the amount of violence or gun-related deaths), there are specific gun-related reforms that receive overwhelming support.
Take President Obama’s aforementioned gun-control proposal, which focused on mandatory background checks and reinstating the 1994 assault weapons ban: Although the NRA and militantly pro-gun Internet denizens have taken Sanders to task for supporting the doomed bill, a Quinnipiac University Poll from June 2014 found that 92 percent of Americans (including 86 percent of Republicans) supported requiring background checks for all gun buyers, a finding backed up by a CBS News poll taken throughout 2013 (it determined that 85-to-92 percent of Americans supported mandatory background checks, including 84-to-89 percent of Republicans). Similarly, a Pew Research Center survey also taken throughout 2013 found that 54-to-56 percent of Americans supported an assault weapons ban, even though 54 percent believed the NRA had either the “right amount” or “too little” influence over gun control laws.
In short, although Americans may be split when it comes to potentially major changes in gun regulation, this doesn’t mean that they oppose smaller (and arguably common sense) reforms. By applying such a strict purity test to our political leaders, the NRA and the online pro-gun activists who share their views have made it impossible for people like Sanders to build a bridge between the two sides of this issue. Even worse, they have grossly distorted our nation’s gun control debate, creating a climate in which genuine supporters of the Second Amendment are lumped in with those radicals who actually do want to seize every citizen’s firearms. While most Americans are moderate enough to recognize that mild gun control measures won’t inevitably lead to mass firearm confiscation or the repeal of the Second Amendment, the vocal minority that refuses to admit this is currently playing a disproportionate role in influencing our debate … and, as the failure of Obama’s gun control bill demonstrated, our public policy.
One can only hope that the pro-gun zealots, both online and off of it, will eventually catch up with the rest of the country.