Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.): “Let’s begin, Anderson, by understanding that Bernie Sanders has a D-minus voting rating from the NRA. Let’s also understand that back in 1988 when I first ran for the United States Congress, way back then, I told the gun owners of the state of Vermont and I told the people of the state of Vermont, a state which has virtually no gun control, that I supported a ban on assault weapons. And over the years, I have strongly supported instant background checks, doing away with this terrible gun show loophole. And I think we’ve got to move aggressively at the federal level in dealing with the straw man purchasers.”
— exchange during the Democratic debate on CNN, Oct. 13, 2015
Host Al Sharpton: “One of the things she [Hillary Clinton] came out strongly this week on is on gun control. And there’s been some that suggest that’s a problem for you … that you voted against the Brady Bill, you let guns in national parks, you voted for background checks and assault weapons ban. How do you deal with this?”
Sanders: “Number one, just to set the record straight, I have a D-minus voting record from the NRA. OK? … So anyone who says, ‘Oh, Bernie Sanders is a gun nut,’ you know, that’s just nonsense. Number two, I come from a state which has virtually no gun control. None. And you’ve had liberal Democratic governors, conservative Republican governors, who supported that position. I went to Washington, I voted to ban certain types of semi-automatic weapons. That was a pretty tough vote. I cast that vote. I cast a vote for instant background checks. I want to see them strengthened. So count me in as somebody who believes that we need to bring about a situation where we keep guns out of the hands of people who should not get them.”
— exchange on MSNBC’s “PoliticsNation with Al Sharpton,” Oct. 11, 2015
Host Chris Hayes: “You voted for some gun safety legislation and against others. You voted against the Brady bill, you voted for instant background checks, you voted against a bill that would have allowed lawsuits against gun companies. Has your thinking on this evolved over time? Have you been influenced in how you think about it in discussions with your constituents who are gun owners?”
Sanders: “Well, I think we are all disgusted and horrified by these mass killings. And as the president indicated, we’re tired of sending condolences and we know that it could happen tomorrow, it could happen again a month from now. I have voted, as I said a moment ago, for what I think is the most important provision — and that is strong instant background checks to make sure that people who should not have guns do not have guns. And I have voted to eliminate this gun show loophole, which is what we have got to do.”
— exchange on MSNBC’s “All In,” Oct. 1, 2015
One of the most talked-about moments from the first Democratic debate was Sanders’s answer about his voting record on gun laws. Former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton then challenged Sanders’s answer, saying he was not tough enough on guns because he voted five times against the Brady bill, which established a background check system and wait periods for people buying handguns from licensed dealers.
Sanders’s record on the Brady bill has been criticized by gun control advocates since he announced his run for the Democratic nomination. Yet Sanders rarely offers a direct answer when asked about his Brady bill votes; he instead highlights his other voting records, as he did during the debate and other recent interviews. In particular, he notes he has “very strongly” supported instant background checks, which he calls “the most important provision.”
Sanders did support instant background checks since the Brady bill debate, but there’s more to the story than that. Let’s dig in.
Congress passed the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act in 1993, a compromise bill that took six years to hash out. The legislation was named after James Brady, President Ronald Reagan’s press secretary who was shot during an assassination attempt and was permanently disabled.
The May 1991 version mandated a seven-day waiting period before a buyer could actually own the gun. Local law enforcement would conduct a background check, and the buffer would serve as a cooling-off period for anyone trying to buy a gun out of emotional impulse.
The National Rifle Association fought this waiting period, arguing it would not keep guns out of criminals’ hands, but instead deny law-abiding citizens from acquiring guns for self-protection.
The NRA instead offered another bill, introduced by Rep. Harley O. Staggers Jr., (D-W.Va.) amending the Brady bill to require instant criminal background checks. The Staggers bill required gun dealers to call a national telephone hotline at the FBI to check if the buyers had criminal records.
The problem was that the technology for such an instant check did not exist. Gun control advocates argued the Staggers bill would kill the Brady bill, rendering the background check provision ineffective. Criminal court and prison records were incomplete and not computerized in about half the states, the Miami Herald reported in 1991. So that meant the information could not be incorporated into the FBI’s criminal identification system to be checked with a phone call, as the Staggers bill required. This technology was projected to cost hundreds of millions of dollars over several years.
Ultimately, the compromise bill set up an interim five-day waiting period while the attorney general established a national instant criminal background check system for firearm licensees.
Sanders’s Brady bill votes
Sanders, then a member of the House, did vote against the Brady bill. His record:
- He voted against the May 1991 House version, which proposed a seven-day waiting period. It passed the House.
- The Senate proposed a five-day waiting period in June 1991, and sent it back to the House. He voted against it. The bill did not get a final vote in the Senate.
- He voted for the May 1991 Staggers instant background check amendment, which failed.
- The bill was re-introduced in 1993 and passed the House on Nov. 10. Sanders voted against it. He voted for an amendment allowing people to request the reason for ineligibility if they did not pass the background check. He voted for an amendment to replace the five-day waiting period with the instant background check, five years after the law is enacted. He voted against an amendment to preempt state waiting period laws with the Brady bill.
- In November 1993, the House approved a conference committee report. Sanders voted against it. It passed both chambers and was signed into law on Nov. 30, 1993.
There are no congressional records showing Sanders spoke on the floor for instant background checks or against the Brady bill. Sanders came out against the Brady bill in early 1991. A review of news coverage at the time showed he believed Vermont voters did not want a federally mandated waiting period. Moreover, he believed handgun violence was not a priority issue for his constituents.
Sanders said the Brady bill did not address the “hopelessness and despair” that cause crime. He called the measure “not significant.” According to a June 1991 Reuters article, he said: “I can give you 50 issues that are more important than the Brady issue,” he said, citing education, job opportunities and drug rehabilitation. “What we are trying to do in Vermont is build a movement of workers, farmers, women and poor people.”
Critics said Sanders caved into the demands of the NRA, which supported him in his 1990 election. Sanders’s opponent had changed his position on the ban on assault weapons, drawing the ire of NRA.
Sanders brushed off the criticisms. The Washington Post reported in July 1991:
“He can give you all the lofty reasons he wants for opposing Brady — but it was strictly a survival vote,” maintains a source close to Vermont politics. “He wants to get reelected next year. Period.”
Sanders dismisses the notion that he “caved to the NRA.” He offers a multitude of vague reasons for opposing the bill, not surprisingly ending with lofty principle. “I have a problem with a Congress and media that spend an enormous amount of time talking about the Brady bill, which even the strongest proponents know will not have a major impact on crime. I view it as hypocritical.”
When pressed in 2013 about his gun policy votes, including on the assault weapons ban, Sanders offered little explanation beyond his standard response: “This is not one of my major issues. It’s an issue out there. I’ve told you how I feel about it. If there’s anything else you want to ask me about, I’m happy to answer. But that’s about it.” He said even if Congress “passed the strongest gun control legislation tomorrow, I don’t think it will have a profound effect on the tragedies we have seen.”
Eric Davis, Middlebury College professor emeritus of political science who has followed Sanders’s political career, said: “Guns are not an issue that’s really ever been something that he’s placed emphasis on. … I think he’s realizing this now, and he’s growing in this as he deals with voters that are more diverse, in the Democratic primaries and caucuses. He’s hearing more about African Americans, Latinos and other diverse voters … in a way that he didn’t have to in Vermont because those voters didn’t make up much of his constituency.”
Sanders did vote to ban assault weapons. He voted to close the so-called “gun show loophole” (a term referring to person-to-person sales through unlicensed sellers) in 1999 and supported the Public Safety and Second Amendment Rights Protection Act of 2013, which would have required background checks for firearms transfers between unlicensed sellers on the Internet or at gun shows. (Background checks are required for guns sold through licensed dealers, and 17 states have laws requiring background checks on at least handgun sales at gun shows. For more, read our recent fact-check.)
He voted in support of several amendments seeking to expand background checks through the Safe Communities, Safe Schools Act of 2013 after the Newtown, Conn., shootings. There is an important distinction here between the “instant background checks” he supported in the Brady bill. The background check provision in the post-Newtown legislation was to require a check through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System for all firearm sales and to prohibit straw purchase firearms. Sanders supported this. The provision in the Brady bill essentially would have rendered background checks moot, because the technology did not exist at the time. Sanders also supported this.
He also supported a provision to allow people to carry firearms in checked baggage on Amtrak trains and to give gun manufacturers immunity from lawsuits “resulting from criminal or unlawful misuse” of their product by a third party.” (For the rest of his votes on gun policy, check out this extensive compilation by PolitiFact.)
Sanders’s campaign did not provide a response to our requests for comment.
Sanders has a complex history with gun policies, and for decades, it was not a priority issue for him. At the time, he did not offer many explanations for his votes against the Brady bill other than that he believed it was not a significant issue for his constituents, and that he wants waiting periods to be decided on a state level.
Now, on the presidential campaign trail, his defense has shifted. He instead points to his other votes, including his long-time support for instant background checks and expanded background checks. But this is misleading language. The instant background check provision in the Brady bill would have had quite a different — if not, almost the opposite — effect than the instant background check provision in the post-Newtown gun proposal. In effect, it would have killed the Brady bill. Yet to the public, this technical difference is not clear.
In the context of the Brady bill, “instant background checks” are a different provision than in the context of the Newtown bill. Sanders needs to make that clear and be transparent, rather than creating a misleading impression using technical terms that mean little to ordinary people.
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