CNN moderator Anderson Cooper got the back-and-forth started when he laid out Sanders's gun-control positions:
- Voted against the Brady bill that mandated background checks and a waiting period
- Supported allowing riders to bring guns in checked bags on Amtrak trains
- Said [for a decade] that holding gun manufacturers legally responsible for mass shootings is a bad idea
Cooper then asked Sanders: "Now, you say you're reconsidering that. Which is it: Shield the gun companies from lawsuits or not?"
Sanders pointed out he got a D- rating from the group that liberals have come to hate, the National Rifle Association (though he was once endorsed by the NRA). He wants to be more aggressive on background checks. And when he first ran for Congress in 1988, he supported a ban on assault weapons; a brave take, he implied, from a man representing a rural, gun-loving state.
It took Cooper a follow-up question to get Sanders to respond directly to whether the senator thinks gun companies should be shielded from lawsuits. Sanders effectively voted in 2005 for a statute giving gun manufacturers and dealers broad immunity in state and federal courts.
"Of course not," Sanders said, going on to say there were parts of that 2005 bill that he liked (a shop owner who sells a gun shouldn't be held liable for what said gun is used for) and parts of the bill he didn't like (gun manufacturers shouldn't be able to knowingly give guns to criminals without repercussions).
Sanders's nuanced response was a meek answer for a Democratic Party increasingly headed in one direction on gun rights.
From there, it was open season on Sanders. Asked whether Sanders was tough enough on guns, Hillary Clinton was blunt: "No. Not at all."
"It was pretty straightforward to me that he was going to give immunity to the only industry in America," she said. "Everybody else has to be accountable, but not the gun manufacturers."
Then it was former Maryland governor Martin O'Malley's turn to poke holes in Sanders's argument.
Just because a politician comes from a rural state doesn't mean he or she can't get gun-control laws passed, said O'Malley, who is perhaps best known for shepherding through a gun-control package when he was governor of Maryland. He turned to Sanders, his voice rising, and gave arguably his best line of the night.
"Have you ever been to the Eastern Shore?" O'Malley said. "Have you ever been to Western Maryland? We were able to pass this and still respect the hunting traditions of people who live in our rural areas."
Sanders sniped at O'Malley for not understanding what it's like to be in Congress. He then summarized his gun policy this way: He's going to bring people together on the issue by finding a consensus and then acting on it.
But most of the Democrats on stage Tuesday had already developed a consensus: The gun lobby must be taken on at all costs, and Sanders isn't up to the task.
He didn't do much Tuesday night to prove otherwise.