Bernie Sanders Walks A Fine Line On Gun Control

Jun 24, 2015
Originally published on June 29, 2015 3:23 pm

In the wake of last week's Charleston, S.C., church shootings, 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders explained his competing concerns between gun rights and gun safety.

"I think guns and gun control is an issue that needs to be discussed," Sanders told NPR's David Greene in an interview airing on Thursday's Morning Edition. "Let me add to that, I think that urban America has got to respect what rural America is about, where 99 percent of the people in my state who hunt are law abiding people."

In the wake of the shooting deaths of nine African-Americans at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, many Democratic politicians have renewed calls to tighten gun-control measures. Sanders said he's open to a conversation about what to do next on gun-control measures and would go along with stricter background checks, for example. But he noted in the interview that those measures alone wouldn't solve the problem of gun violence in America.

"So obviously, we need strong sensible gun control, and I will support it," Sanders told Greene. "But some people think it's going to solve all of our problems, and it's not. You know what, we have a crisis in the capability of addressing mental health illness in this country. When people are hurting and are prepared to do something terrible, we need to do something immediately. We don't have that and we should have that."

For left-leaning senators from largely rural, pro-gun states — like Vermont — it can be tough to strike a balance talking about guns. Sanders has had a mixed voting record on guns. He voted to end the "gun-show loophole" and in favor of the 2013 universal background check bill and assault-weapons ban following Sandy Hook Elementary school massacre that left 20 children dead. But, previously, Sanders voted to allow guns on Amtrak and against the Brady bill.

It's a stance that could prove problematic for the insurgent White House hopeful. While Sanders has staked out forthright positions mostly to the left of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, guns is one issue where he is more toward the middle of the current field. It's one he doesn't bring up as often as his other rivals, either.

Sanders explained that as a representative of his state, he has to have their interests at heart, but argued that could put him at a good place to bridge a compromise.

"I think the people of Vermont and I have understood for many years that what guns are about in Vermont are not what guns are about in Chicago, Los Angeles or New York, where they're used not for hunting or target practice but to kill people," Sanders said. "I think, interestingly enough, I'm in a very good position representing a rural state to bring forth common-sense legislation regarding guns."

He added, "I can understand if some Democrats or Republicans represent an urban area where people don't hunt, don't do target practice, they're not into guns. But in my state, people go hunting and do target practice. Talking about cultural divides in this country, you know, it is important for people in urban America to understand that families go out together and kids go out together and they hunt and enjoy the outdoors and that is a lifestyle that should not be condemned."

For more from Sanders on foreign policy, his 2016 chances and more, tune in to Morning Edition on Thursday.

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He was born in Brooklyn, built a life in Vermont, and now Bernie Sanders is running for the Democratic presidential nomination. He says if voters are truly sick of the status quo, look at him as an alternative.

BERNIE SANDERS: The reality of Washington, D.C. today is that we have one party, the Republican Party, completely dominated by big money and right-wing folks. And you have another party, the Democratic Party, too much controlled by corporate money. And what I have said over and over again is that no president, no matter how extraordinary, can deal with the problems facing the middle class, the disappearing middle class, the growth and grotesque level of income and wealth inequality, the high unemployment rate we have. No president can deal with that unless we mobilize the American people and create a strong grassroots movement that says, enough is enough; the billionaire class cannot have it all.

GREENE: Saying Bernie Sanders entered this presidential race as a longshot is an understatement. But he's got some momentum these days. He's inched up in the polls, and he's drawing some big crowds. We sat down with the 73-year-old Vermont senator away from the campaign trail in his office on Capitol Hill. And we began by talking about last week's massacre at a black church in South Carolina. Those killings have many Democrats pushing for gun control again. Bernie Sanders' record on that issue has been mixed. There are plenty of gun owners in Vermont.

SANDERS: I come from a state which is a very rural state. We have tens of thousands of people who are hunters, who enjoy the outdoors. We have virtually no gun control. But I think the people of Vermont and I have understood for many years that what guns are about in Vermont is not what guns are about in Chicago or Los Angeles or New York, where they're used not for hunting or target practice but to kill people.

GREENE: And Sanders ticked off what he calls common sense restrictions that he has supported, keeping guns away from the mentally ill, instant background checks, closing the background check loophole at gun shows, banning assault weapons. At times, though, he's also stood up for the rights of gun owners in his state. So we asked him what voters around the country should expect if he's elected president.

SANDERS: My state has virtually no gun control. But against strong opposition, I have voted for gun control. So that should tell people around this country that I am prepared to deal with this issue. Second of all, I think the people of Vermont and rural America are supportive of sensible gun control legislation. So the issue is, you know, what people say is, well, I come from a rural state which has no gun control; he's weak on gun issues. You know what my lifetime voting record with the NRA is?

GREENE: It's gone from F to D. I mean, it's...

SANDERS: Yeah, this does not exactly make me into a quote-unquote, "gun nut," when you get a D or an F from the NRA. But let me just say...

GREENE: But more supportive of guns than other - than some other Democrats.

SANDERS: Yeah, well, I can understand that if some Democrats or Republicans represent an urban area, where people don't hunt, don't do target practice, they're not into guns. But in my state, people go hunting. And people do target practice. You know, and talking about cultural divides in this country, it is important for people in urban America to understand that families go out together. And kids go out with their parents, and they hunt. And they enjoy the outdoors. And that is a lifestyle that should not be condemned.

GREENE: Let me ask you about a related subject. Ferguson, Mo., a community that obviously - the protests there after the death of a young black man brought a national conversation about race to the forefront. Hillary Clinton visited there, and some people complained about her word choice. She said all lives matter rather than using a phrase that's become very important to many people, black lives matter. What phrase would you use?

SANDERS: Well, the first point I would make about Ferguson is, in fact, the good news right now - is on an issue that has been taking place for decades, and that is police officers killing or beating up people who are under their custody. We are now beginning to pay attention. So the good news is we are talking about this.


SANDERS: And we need to address this issue. But what I would also say when we talk about issues - whether it's guns, whether it's police brutality - we should also understand something else about Ferguson. You know what the unemployment rate for young African-Americans in Ferguson is, which virtually nobody has talked about?

GREENE: Remind us.

SANDERS: Fifty percent. And in fact, a new study came out that for young African-Americans between the age of 17 and 20, the unemployment rate is 51 percent.

GREENE: But if I may return to my question, I mean, we had the voice of a woman on our air who protested in Ferguson. She said she needs to hear her president say the lives of my children matter; my little black children matter. I mean, are you ready to go to Ferguson and say, black lives matter?

SANDERS: Am I ready to go to Ferguson? What do you think I've been saying on the floor? When the lives matter, it means that we are not going to accept police brutality or illegal behavior against young African-Americans or anybody else. But when you talk about lives matter, sometimes what we forget is when 51 percent of young African-American kids are unemployed, are those lives that matter?

GREENE: But what do you make of Hillary Clinton being dinged by some people for not using that phrase?

SANDERS: Wait a minute; I want to get back to you. No, no, no, no - one second, all right? Fifty-one percent of young African-Americans are unemployed. That's in a generation. One out of 3 or 1 out of 4 young black males born today are likely to end up in jail. Do you think that's an issue we should be talking about?

GREENE: It sounds like you would have been ready to use that phrase if you were there.

SANDERS: Phraseology - of course I'll use that phrase. Black lives matter. White lives matter. Hispanic lives matter. But these are also not only police matters. They're not only gun control matters. They are significantly economic matters.

GREENE: But...

SANDERS: One minute - let me just answer this.


SANDERS: Because it's too easy for quote-unquote, "liberals," to be saying, well, let's use this phrase. Well, what are we going to do about 51 percent of young African-Americans unemployed? We need a massive jobs program to put black kids to work - and white kids to work and Hispanic kids to work. So my point is - is that it's sometimes easy to say, worry about which phrase you're going to use. It's a lot harder to stand up to the billionaire class and say, you know what? You're going to have to pay some taxes. You can't get away with putting your money in tax havens because we need that money to create millions of jobs for black kids, for white kids, for Hispanic kids.

GREENE: If you're the commander in chief, it's obvious you'd have to make a lot of decisions dealing with foreign policy. And I wonder if we could talk briefly about one. Russia has emerged as a threat again. You have NATO countries, like the Baltics, asking for help. The U.S. and NATO are moving heavy weapons right to the Russian border. Vladimir Putin reacted in a very frightening way. Some are suggesting the U.S. and NATO are fanning the flames here. I mean, what would President Bernie Sanders do?

SANDERS: Well, Bernie Sanders would have learned the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan. Bernie Sanders voted against the first Gulf War. Bernie Sanders voted against the war in Iraq and helped lead the opposition to that war. And as the former chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee, Bernie understands what the cost of war really is - and not only 6,700 brave men and women killed but hundreds of thousands coming back with PTSD and TBI. And Bernie Sanders gets very, very nervous when he hears Republicans who apparently just can't get enough of war, whether it's going to war in Syria or going to war Iraq, or going to war in Iran, going to war with Russia. So obviously, these are very difficult issues. If I had a magic solution, you'd be the first to hear it. I don't have a magic solution.

GREENE: Do you...

SANDERS: What it means is that the entire world community has got to come together. It is not just the United States. I don't want the United States to be fighting wars in four separate parts of the world. The United States has got to work with our European allies and allies throughout the world to come up with an intelligent, rational approach to deal with Russia, to deal with ISIS and deal with other national security threats.

GREENE: Sounds like you would intervene less than this president has.

SANDERS: No, I didn't say that. You've got to look at each particular case, obviously. But I am concerned about Russia. We're very concerned about ISIS. But once again, the United States cannot be the only country in the world intervening in so many countries. I think we've got to learn that lesson.

GREENE: I want to look at history just for a second. There have been underdog candidates in past presidential elections who have ended up hurting their parties. 1968, Eugene McCarthy forces a fellow Democrat out of the race, Lyndon Johnson. A Republican, Richard Nixon, becomes president. 1992, Pat Buchanan really bruises President George H. W. Bush, and you end up with a Democratic president, Bill Clinton. Is it fair when people compare your candidacy to candidacies like that?

SANDERS: I'm not quite sure that I - is the point being that...

GREENE: When people...

SANDERS: Excuse me...

GREENE: Sure, sure.

SANDERS: Is your point being that people should not contest elections, that we should simply have the establishment bringing forth a candidate, and anyone who - is that your point?

GREENE: It's not my point. It's people...

SANDERS: It's an absurd point.

GREENE: It's not my point. People have made comparisons...

SANDERS: Well, people have made a whole lot of points. So the implication is, I guess, somebody should decide who the candidate is, and we all go to sleep. That's a good idea. That's what really democracy is about, right? It's an absurd point. The point is that we need serious debate about serious issues in this country. I have been in Congress for 16 years, in the Senate for nine years, mayor for eight years. I got a pretty good record. And what I'm trying to do is speak for the needs of the working families in this country and have an intelligent debate on serious issues. I've never run a negative political ad in my life. I personally respect Hillary Clinton, and I like her. But anyone who thinks that having debates on issues is a bad thing for America, frankly, I don't know what world they're living in.

GREENE: If you don't end up with the nomination but you feel like there was that kind of serious conversation, would you point to that as a success?

SANDERS: My goal right now is to win this election. We have hundreds of thousands of people who have made campaign contributions. We have even more who want to participate in this campaign. My goal is to win this campaign by running on the issues that the American people feel strongly about. And what they feel strongly about is that enough is enough. The middle class cannot continue to disappear while the rich and large corporations end up with almost all of the income and all of the wealth.

GREENE: Senator Sanders, thank you very much for the time. We appreciate it.

SANDERS: Thank you.

GREENE: That was Vermont senator and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. We spoke with him at his office on Capitol Hill yesterday. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.