With the Iowa caucuses quickly approaching, Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton are both focused on Sanders’s gun record: Sanders on the defense and Clinton on the offense, using the issue to cast a significant difference between Sanders and herself.
The Fact Checker has written extensively about Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) record on gun laws. In fact, Sanders’s new mail ad campaign in Iowa defending his gun record carried several claims we previously fact-checked. For voters wondering about the facts underlying claims by Sanders and Clinton about Sanders’s gun record, we’ve compiled a complete round-up of our related fact-checks, with links to each original fact-check in the headline. You can see that the mailer glosses over or obscures key aspects of his record and is worthy of some Pinocchios.
Sanders frequently makes two points about his gun record: He has a D-minus rating from the NRA, and the NRA’s endorsement of his opponents during his first congressional race in 1988 may have cost him the election. 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. Since 1988, Sanders has been consistent on restricting the use of semiautomatic firearms (often called “assault weapons”). But now, he suggests that his stance against assault weapons cost him the 1988 election — because his two opponents in the three-way race opposed banning such firearms and had the NRA’s support. Was that really the case? 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.
Clinton has attacked Sanders for voting five times against the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, which established a background check system and wait periods for people buying handguns from licensed dealers. Sanders often responds to this attack by highlighting his long-time support for “instant background checks.” That’s true, but there’s more to the story. When the Brady bill was being debated, the “instant” background checks that Sanders supported actually would’ve killed the Brady bill. That’s because the technology for such an instant check did not exist then, and the provision would’ve rendered the background check ineffective. After the 2012 shootings in Newtown, Conn., Sanders did vote in support of several amendments seeking to expand background checks for all firearm sales and to prohibit straw purchases.
Clinton repeatedly has drawn a direct link between a vote taken by Sanders to a recent gun tragedy — the June 17, 2015, killing of nine people by Dylann Roof at a historic black church in Charleston, S.C. Roof legally purchased his .45-caliber Glock pistol from a store, even though he had been charged with possessing a Schedule III narcotic without a prescription. This was not caught before the three-day waiting period ended because of clerical mistakes, so the store went through with the purchase. The “Charleston loophole” refers to the three-day waiting period. Sanders did not specifically vote for a three-day period, he did vote for an even shorter one-day window — and eventually, he voted against requiring any background checks at all. The vote in question took place almost a quarter-century ago, but there is a relatively straight line from the 1993 vote to the 2015 shooting. Clinton earns the elusive Geppetto Checkmark.
Since the beginning of his campaign, Sanders has been confronted about his vote for a controversial 2005 law giving broad federal immunity to gun manufacturers. Clinton repeatedly has attacked him on this vote, noting she voted against it. Sanders now says he would support repealing the law. Sanders has described the law as protecting gun manufacturers from being held responsible if a murderer uses their gun to kill someone — just as a hammer company should not be responsible if somebody used a hammer as a weapon. But the law does more than that; it provides a unique federal legal shield that most consumer goods manufacturers do not have — protecting them from most claims of negligence, and even certain claims relating to the gun’s design. His characterization earned Two Pinocchios.
Ahead of the Connecticut primary, Clinton has been focusing on the consequences of the 2005 law on victims of gun violence, such as the families of the 20 children and six adults killed at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn. The families are suing the Remington Arms Company, manufacturer of the type of gun used in the shooting: the AR-15 rifle, which is among the guns often referred to as “assault weapons.” But the families are now having to use a complicated legal process in order to avoid restrictions in the gun immunity law, which Sanders supported and Clinton opposed. The case is pending, and manufacturers can raise the immunity law as a defense to get the lawsuit dismissed. Such lawsuits against manufacturers are already difficult to win, but the immunity law makes it difficult to even bring to court. Clinton correctly characterizes the law’s potential impact on the Sandy Hook lawsuit, and earned a Geppetto Checkmark.
At the Jan. 17, 2016, Democratic debate, Clinton listed off a series of Sanders votes: to allow law-abiding passengers to bring firearms in their checked baggage on Amtrak; to allow law-abiding, licensed gun owners to bring firearms into national parks and wildlife refugees; and to reject additional funding to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for research on issues related to firearms. Those three points checked out, as we noted in our debate fact-check round-up (we don’t issue Pinocchio ratings during live fact-checks). On the campaign trail, Sanders has called on more funding for CDC to fund gun violence studies.
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