Bernie Sanders flips on crucial gun control position days ahead of the first Democratic debate

Sanders now says he's willing to reconsider holding gun manufacturers liable for gun deaths

By Sophia Tesfaye

Senior Politics Editor

Published October 12, 2015 3:37PM (EDT)

  (AP/Steve Helber)
(AP/Steve Helber)

As the first Democratic presidential debate nears, both leading contenders are working to lessen the distance between themselves on two issues of great importance to the primary base. Last week, it was Hillary Clinton's opposition to the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade pact, with the former secretary of state citing its insufficient safeguards for American workers. This week, it is Bernie Sanders's reconsideration of his longstanding opposition to holding gun manufacturers liable for gun deaths in the wake of a rash of school shootings.

Sanders cited two shootings Friday at universities in Arizona and Texas as well as last week’s slayings at an Oregon community college when he told NBC's Chuck Todd during a "Meet the Press" interview on Sunday that he’d take another look at his past position. In 2005, Sanders supported legislation protecting gun manufacturers from civil liability lawsuits.

"That was a complicated vote and I'm willing to see changes in that provision," Sanders said. "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."

“On the other hand, where there is a problem, 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?” he asked. “So, can we take another look at that liability issue? Yes.”

Sanders, whose sparsely populated home state of Vermont has a good deal of gun owners, has a more conservative record on gun control than his main rival on Tuesday's debate stage despite having run to Clinton's left on nearly every other issue.

In the past, Sanders has opposed a five-day waiting period on gun purchases, supported guns in national parks and checked baggage on Amtrak trains but as CNN notes, his vote to protect gun manufactures from liability is the most curious given that "he has voted to make it easier to sue airlines for crashes over water, machine tool makers for injuries that happen after 18 years of use and restaurants over mislabeled food that contributed to weight gain."

“Instead of people yelling at each other, we have got to come together on common-sense approaches which, in fact, the vast majority of the American people support,” Sanders explained to Todd, adding that there is “widespread support to ban semi-automatic assault weapons, guns which have no other purpose but to kill people.”

Sanders voted against the Brady Handgun Violence Protection Act in 1993, a bill that established the current national background check system, before eventually backing the 2013 Manchin-Toomey bill closing the gun show loophole. He has also voted for a semi-automatic gun ban and a ban on high-capacity magazines.

Sanders, who now holds a D- rating from the NRA, has called himself "strong" on gun control issues in past interviews.

For her part, Clinton appears ready to set a contrast between her record on gun control and Sander's in Las Vegas this week. Days after nine people were killed by a lone gunman in Oregon, Clinton touted new proposals for gun reform on the stump in Iowa, including a repeal of the Sanders backed congressionally mandated immunity from civil liability for the gun industry.

“This epidemic of gun violence knows no boundaries,” Clinton said as her campaign expressed a willingness to enact new gun control measures through executive action.

Watch Sanders on "Meet the Press," via NBC:

By Sophia Tesfaye

Sophia Tesfaye is Salon's senior editor for news and politics, and resides in Washington, D.C. You can find her on Twitter at @SophiaTesfaye.

MORE FROM Sophia Tesfaye