Every candidate for president likes to emphasize certain aspects of his or her biography. This column is a part of an occasional Fact Checker Biography series examining claims 2016 candidates make about their political or professional record.
“I have a D-minus — that’s a D, like in David — voting record from the NRA. I likely lost an election, statewide election in 1988, because I was the only candidate running for Congress who said, you know what, military-style assault weapons should not be sold in America.”
— Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), interview on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Jan. 17, 2016
“I have a D minus, that’s a D minus, voting record from the NRA. In 1988, I probably lost an election because I was the only candidate who said we should ban assault weapons.”
— Sanders, interview on ABC’s “This Week,” Jan. 17, 2016
We’ve been hearing this defense a lot more lately, as former secretary of state Hillary Clinton ramps up her attacks on Sanders’s gun record.
Sanders’s most recent grade from the NRA was a D-minus. Since 1992, the first year the NRA issued a grade for Sanders, he has received between a C-minus and F. Sanders sometimes says he has a “lifetime” rating of D-minus, but NRA doesn’t issue such lifetime grades.
The second part of this claim is more interesting, and much more difficult to fact-check. Sanders says this almost every time he is attacked on his gun record, that he “probably,” “likely,” “quite likely,” or “may well have” lost the 1988 because of his anti-assault weapons stance. On at least one occasion, he’s drawn a direct causation: “In 1988, I lost an election because I said we should not have assault weapons on the streets of America.”
Yet it’s impossible to attribute the win or loss of a candidate to a single reason, especially in a close race like in 1988. Archived news articles from 1988 are not readily accessible, and memories fade.
We unearthed new evidence that gives a better sense of what really happened in that election.
The 1988 election
There was a three-way contest for the Vermont House in 1988: former lieutenant governor Peter Smith (Republican), state House majority leader Paul Poirier (Democrat) and Sanders, then the four-term mayor of Burlington.
Smith narrowly defeated Sanders for the state’s sole congressional seat by 3.7 percentage points. Sanders was seen as the unconventional upstart candidate for Congress who won over hard-line Democrats with his progressive message. (Sound familiar?)
Smith would serve just one term in Congress. Sanders unseated him in 1990.
Smith and Poirier signed the NRA pledge to not support “additional restrictive firearms legislation.” Sanders did the opposite, telling Vermont sportsmen’s clubs he would support a ban on semiautomatic rifles, the type now commonly called “assault weapons.”
The NRA endorsed Smith in 1988. But Smith changed his mind in Congress and supported a ban on certain semiautomatic rifles. It angered the NRA, which actively campaigned for Sanders in 1990 to oust Smith. In the NRA’s view, Sanders at least was consistent in his opposition to semiautomatic rifles.
“Senator Sanders has always explained that he made his position clear in 1988 and it is why he was not endorsed by the NRA,” said Warren Gunnels, Sanders campaign policy director.
In a June 1990 radio debate hosted by the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs, Sanders was asked again whether he would support additional restrictive firearms legislation. Sanders stuck by his answer from 1988:
In 1988, “I went before the sportsmen of Vermont and I said, ‘I have concerns about certain types of assault weapons that have nothing to do with hunting. … I said that before the election. Vermont sportspeople, as is their right, made their endorsement. They endorsed Peter Smith. They endorsed Paul Poirier. I lost that election by about 3.5 percentage points — a very close election. Was my failure to get that endorsement pivotal? It might have been. We don’t know. Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t. All that I can say is, I told the sportspeople of Vermont what I believe before the election, and I’m going to say it again. I do believe that we need to ban certain types of assault weapons.
(The exchange begins at 2:10 in this recording below, courtesy of Steven Rosenfeld, Sanders’s 1990 campaign press secretary.)
But here’s a twist. Sanders did not take a strong public stance on firearms bans in the 1988 campaign, according to a June 1990 Rutland Herald article (embedded at the end of this fact-check):
In the last congressional campaign, Sanders said repeatedly that gun control was a local issue and avoided taking a public stand on bans. He now denies that his support of assault gun legislation represents a change in his position.
“I made my positions very clear to the sportsmen of Vermont, which is why I did not get the NRA’s endorsement,” Sanders said in an interview.
How much did Sanders’s gun stance affect the 1988 race?
One leading explanation for Smith’s victory is that Sanders and Poirier split the Democratic vote. In contrast, the Democratic candidate in 1990 was a little-known candidate who wasn’t supported by the state’s major Democrats.
It’s not clear how prominent a potential ban on semiautomatic rifles was in 1988. Archived news articles leading up to and following the 1988 election don’t cite the NRA’s endorsement as a deciding factor in the election. Yet two years later, the Associated Press reported that Smith “edged out Sanders” in 1988 “with the help of a strong endorsement from the National Rifle Association.” (The article is embedded below.)
“It was a non-issue in ’88. No one discussed it. It wasn’t until 1989,” Richard Feldman, former president of the Independent Firearm Owners Association Inc. and former NRA legislative director.
In January 1989, a gunman shot and killed five children in California with an AK-47 rifle. States began enacting semiautomatic weapons bans in response. Then came Smith’s flip-flop vote. So naturally, it was a major issue in 1990.
The NRA’s support for Smith in 1988 campaign carried “huge weight” for gun owners, Feldman said. But he added that gun owners in the Northeast in 1988 already leaned Republican: “So it’s not so much switching votes as encouraging them to do something they were probably going to do already.”
Some recall the NRA actively campaigning for Smith. The NRA could not track down records from its 1988 legislative campaigns.
John McClaughry, founder of public policy think tank Ethan Allen Institute in Vermont who was an NRA member at the time, recalled the NRA sending postcards and setting up a phone bank urging voters to support Smith. McClaughry said NRA “went all out at Peter Smith’s urging the last week of the campaign,” tipping the votes to Smith’s favor.
“Bernie was clearly the outsider from the NRA and the hunting clubs’ [perspective],” Poirier, now a Sanders supporter, told The Fact Checker. “They said, ‘Don’t vote for him. Paul Smith is our candidate. Paul Poirier is acceptable.’ … [Sanders] did have the NRA, through the different associations in Vermont, actively working to make sure that nobody voted for him. That’s an accurate statement [by Sanders]. I don’t know why people are questioning that.”
Interestingly, Poirier also had the backing of the NRA, who endorsed him in his primary election. Yet Poirier placed a distant third behind Sanders. So if the NRA’s endorsement truly swayed Smith’s victory, it didn’t have the same effect on Poirier.
A representative from Vermont Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs said generally that candidates’ stances on firearms restrictions “undoubtedly” was an “essential factor” in the election because gun rights are a major issue in Vermont politics.
The Pinocchio Test
We’ve taken an extensive look at Sanders’s gun record — on his vote for the gun manufacturers liability law (which he now says he would repeal), his votes on the Brady bill and instant background checks, his vote on the “Charleston Loophole” and a slew of other votes (firearms on Amtrak checked baggage, guns in national parks and funding for gun research).
This part of Sanders’s record is less clear. Sanders has opposed assault weapons since 1988, so he has been completely consistent on that issue. But can he really suggest that stance cost him the 1988 election? The evidence is mixed. He could have just as easily lost the election because he split votes with a Democrat, as opposed to being the only candidate without an NRA endorsement.
In 1990, even Sanders was less sure that his failure to get an NRA endorsement two years prior was a major factor in his loss (“It might have been. We don’t know. Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t.”) Somewhere between 1990 and 2016, Sanders seems to have decided it’s played a bigger role than he originally thought.
[Update: During the Jan. 25, 2016, Democratic presidential town hall on CNN, Sanders modified this talking point to more accurately reflect the role of NRA’s endorsements in 1988. Kudos to Sanders for the change: “In 1988, I ran [for] Vermont’s lone seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. I ran as an Independent against a Democrat and a Republican. The gun lobby said vote for either the Democrat or the Republican, don’t vote for Bernie Sanders. This is 1988. Because Bernie thinks that we should not be selling military style assault weapons in the United States of America. Back in 1988. I lost that election by three percentage points. I cannot tell you that that was the only reason, but I had the gun groups working against me back then.”]
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