Anyone who was listening to the Democratic debate on Sunday, March 7, and heard Sanders make the comment that the NRA promptly endorsed knew that this was a bad moment for him. If you're a progressive candidate of any sort, you don't want to wake up the next morning and find the NRA standing by your side, particularly when your opponent, Hillary Clinton, has been for months unflinching in her criticism of that organization and their reckless gun policies.
But that happened to Sanders, and now, as if having the NRA sing your praises weren't bad enough, The Washington Post published on Friday, March 18, an op-ed by Mark and Jackie Barden. The title of the piece is chilling, direct, and heart-breaking: "Sanders Is Wrong About the Lawsuit We Filed After Our Son's Murder in Newtown."
Their son, Daniel, of course, fell victim to Adam Lanza and his Remington Bushmaster AR-15 on December 14, 2012, at Sandy Hook Elementary. In a matter of days, Senator Sanders had hit a dangerous double: he gained the NRA as a supporter and the parents of a child murdered at Sandy Hook as an adversary.
By any stretch of the progressive imagination, this was a bad run for the Senator from Vermont.
But it speaks to one of the problems that faces the Senator as he turns to face a nation increasingly hostile toward the NRA and the destructive culture it has produced—he comes from a state that is a "gun-rights paradise" and has led the nation in allowing, even encouraging, unrestricted gun ownership. Sanders' constituency is about the size of Memphis, TN, but is 97% white, and as of 2012, was the most rural state in the Union. Vermont also has one of the lowest rates of gun-homicide in the country, a result of its largely rural population and still very active tradition of hunting, an activity, as opposed to self-defense, where gun-violence is relatively rare.
But Senator Sanders has now entered the national stage—diversity, complexity, and hard, nuanced choices are the order of the day, and he arrives there from a racially homogenous, rural, and gun-friendly state. His constituency is white, and they are well armed. Go after guns in Vermont, and you will go out of office.
So his problems now are more complicated, and he shows signs of lacking the tact to negotiate them. He finds himself wedged into the difficult position between a gun-toting constituency in Vermont and the NRA, the radical and dangerous organization that speaks for many of Sanders' supporters back home and has the potential to weaken his progressive stance.
That he has compromised here by leaning toward the gun manufacturers is particularly unfortunate for him. And particularly telling—the massacre at Sandy Hook has emerged, whether rightly or wrongly, as a litmus test on gun-control for our politicians, and Sanders has chosen sides. He has chosen to avoid directly confronting the gun manufacturers and their unfettered marketing of a specific kind of weapon to an untrained public—a weapon that is capable of killing quickly and widely, and would seem unnecessary for civilian purposes.
The law suit that the Bardens and others are filing against Bushmaster does not, as Sanders inexplicably indicated, hold Remington accountable for manufacturing the weapon that Lanza used in his killing spree. Manufacturers cannot, of course, be responsible for every misuse of their product. That is simplistic, and Sanders must know that, but his insistence on misrepresenting the law is baffling. The law suit, instead, holds Remington accountable for their marketing of the product, an entirely different issue:
Indeed, Remington promotes the AR-15’s capacity to inflict mass casualties. It markets its AR-15s with images of soldiers and SWAT teams; it dubs various models the 'patrolman' and the 'adaptive combat rifle' and declares that they are 'as mission-adaptable as you are;' it encourages the notion that the AR-15 is a weapon that bestows power and glory upon those who wield it. Advertising copy for Remington’s AR-15s has included the following: 'Consider your man card reissued,” and “Forces of opposition, bow down. You are single-handedly outnumbered.'
The law that looms both over Sanders' comment and the suit against Remington is called the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA). The bill was signed into law by George W. Bush on October 26, 2005, and was heavily supported by Wayne LaPierre and the NRA. It provides unprecedented immunity for gun manufacturers and their products, and is partly responsible for the violent ad campaigns that some of these manufacturers are now waging. The law does not, as the gun lobbyists rightly point out, give them immunity from selling defective products. Still, as many legal historians argue, in passing this law, Congress was particularly aggressive in allowing the gun industry this particular kind of shield. Clearly, no other product on the market has quite this kind of protection.
From the beginning, Clinton has aligned herself against the law, and said that she would act to repeal it if elected. Repealing the law could potentially do much to alter the militaristic, macho culture that gun-manufacturers like to promote in their advertising. Sanders, on the other hand, voted for the law in 2005—his constituency would have supported it—but under increased national scrutiny, has recently back-pedaled a bit, indicating that he might consider repealing portions of it. He is clearly trying to avoid the issue. Clinton is embracing it.
Every political candidate at the national level is involved in the project of winning votes. Period. And in the most difficult moments, winning votes encounters a bedeviling problem: What happens if personally held and private convictions, when publicly articulated, will not sway as many voters as a slightly modified version of those same convictions certainly would?
Most of the time, our candidates compromise, and offer up a version of their convictions that will appeal to the largest demographic that seems palatable to them at the moment.
Senator Sanders, of course, has made a career out of claiming that he refuses to make these compromises, and I respect him for that.
But as he enters the national spotlight, the Senator has found that life for a so-called "principled" candidate is hard. And compromises must be made.
The first one he made, of course, was running as a Democrat, the party that he has spent decades vilifying, condemning, and disparaging. But to mount a viable campaign for the Presidency, he also saw that he must become part of the system he disparaged for years.
But now he finds himself praised by the NRA and corrected by a Sandy Hook family, and that's not a good mix for him.
So maybe he's making compromises; maybe he's trying to garner votes from an unlikely demographic. Perhaps Senator Sanders is dog-whistling members of the NRA with his refusal to attack the PLCAA, hoping to attract a few of their votes. I can easily see how more moderate, gun-owning Democrats would desert Clinton and move toward Sanders based on this tactic alone (many gun-owners are single-issue voters, and their single issue is guns). Clinton has led Sanders, however, kicking and screaming, into a more centrist position concerning firearms (as he has led her on economic matters), but it is precisely this kicking and screaming that makes many gun-violence prevention advocates uneasy and unwilling to support him.
And since gun-violence in America is unparalleled among developed countries, for many voters this has become a central issue in the 2016 election. I count myself among that number.