It was back in 1990. Perennial candidate Bernie Sanders had yet to win state-wide office after trying six times. He saw his chance when Republican incumbent Congressman Pete Smith (R-Vt) happened to have a moment of clarity on the issue of gun violence. Congressman Smith decided to vote to ban assault weapons. This angered the NRA, and it gave Senator Sanders his opening.
What came after that was an apparent alliance between Bernie Sanders and the NRA. Senator Sanders will not talk about what deal or deals he made with the gun lobby group during this election. His campaign clams up.
Questions abound, however, including why Congressman, and then, Senator Sanders would vote for more than 15 pro-NRA pieces of legislation. Why has the NRA failed to donate a penny to a single political opponent of the Senator from Vermont? Why did he vote against versions of the Brady Bill 5 times? Why did he vote to give the gun industry immunity on two occasions?
Then, there's the issue of hypocrisy. Why has the Senator been implying that Secretary Clinton is not being transparent, that she has been "corrupted" by the process, when he will not be transparent about his dealings with the gun lobby?
These are the issues and questions discussed in this piece. We'll start with some backgroumd.
Peter Plympton Smith won Vermont’s lone congressional seat in 1988 in a multi-candidate race that included Bernie Sanders. As the Republican in the race, he had been a staunch advocate for guns. During his short time in Washington, however, he grew something of a conscience. After a hearing on the subject of gun violence in the inner cities of America, Smith looked at the man in the mirror:
“I’ll never forget, [the next day] brushing my teeth, looking in the mirror in my bathroom and realizing, as clear as day, I’m going to have to look at this face for the rest of my life in the mirror, and I want to be proud of the person I see,” Smith said. “I went back and looked up the gun bills.”
Smith looked up gun legislation the next day and found a bill to co-sponsor: The Semiautomatic Assault Weapons Act of 1989. The co-sponsorship of the bill and Smith’s subsequent vote for it infuriated the NRA.
ENTER WAYNE LAPIERRE
The NRA then entered the picture in a big way. They invested heavily in that Vermont race, and they also put in the hours. Wayne LaPierre actually decided to endorse Bernie Sanders in his election bid. In supporting Sanders over the Republican incumbent, Wayne LaPierre wrote a letter to 12,000 Vermont NRA members, noting:
“Bernie Sanders is a more honorable choice for Vermont sportsmen than Peter Smith.”
A July, 2015 article in the Washington Post stated: “As a candidate in 1990, Sanders won over gun rights groups by promising to oppose one bill they hated — a measure that would establish a waiting period for handgun sales. In Congress, he kept that promise.” Was that the only promise he made? Did he have one-on-one conversations with Wayne LaPierre, or was this all done with the ubiquitous NRA candidate questionnaires?
THE NRA QUESTIONNAIRES
The gun lobby sends out questionnaires to candidates to “feel out” their positions on gun- and murder- and suicide-related issues. I found a copy of one proudly displayed by Jeremy Peterson on his personal website:
The thing goes on and on for four pages, and some of the questions are pretty disconcerting, including one on page three that asks if the candidate would be in favor of having the state pay a criminal defendant’s “reasonable costs” if, at the trial, the defendant used a successful “self-defense” argument.
If you read through Jeremy Peterson’s answers, you can see that he is quite the gun nut. He also began serving in the Utah state legislature in 2011.
Senator Bernie Sanders must have scads of these questionnaires laying around. Can we see them? How did he respond to questions about guns in National Parks or on Amtrak trains? Were there questions about immunizing the gun industry from lawsuit? If so, what were his answers? We may never know the answers to these questions because Senator Sanders and his campaign have clammed up about this issue.
HIDING FROM THE PRESS
Shortly after the slaughter of children in Newtown in 2012, the Vermont press attempted to get the attention of Senator Sanders but failed. The “Independent Voice of Vermont,” in its section entitled the “Bernie Beat,” wrote:
And this isn’t a sometimes thing. In 2011, after two kids committed suicide with guns in Vermont and shortly after Gabby Giffords was ruthlessly attacked in Arizona, the Vermont Senator did not want to speak directly about the issue. “The members of Vermont’s congressional delegation are clearly reluctant to talk about gun issues.” Instead, the people of Vermont got this:
It has happened quite a bit, in fact, going all the way back to April 11, 1991. As noted in that article from almost 25 years ago, Senator Sanders was further right on the issue of guns than Ronald Reagan.
And it continues to the present. In the July, 2015 article in the Washington Post, the same reticence to discuss any ties to the gun lobby are apparent. The article provides:
“Sanders declined to comment for this article. So did LaPierre, the NRA executive who wrote the 1990 endorsement letter.”
Perhaps the Senator from Vermont has been right all along about not talking gun control with the press. When he finally sat down with NPR to specifically discuss that issue, “[i]n the wake of the shooting deaths of nine African-Americans at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church,” he said things like, “I think that urban America has got to respect what rural America is about,” and “some people think [sensible gun control is] going to solve all of our problems, and it's not.”
That interview on NPR took place about a week after the slaughter in Charleston and a day or two after the last body was buried.
THE HYPOCRISY / DOUBLE STANDARD
Senator Sanders has used his artful smear technique to claim that Secretary Hillary Clinton (and just about everyone else elected to office in Government) is corrupted and tainted by money, and especially Wall Street money. Implied in the innuendo is that there is some kind of deal between the politician and the special interest group.
Senator Clinton, by the way, did not vote 15+ times to help Wall Street, nor did she vote to grant them immunity from suit. She has faced millions of Wall Street dollars donated to her opponents. Senator Sanders has voted 15+ times for NRA-backed legislation, and he voted to immunize the gun industry from suit.
At this link for opensecrets.org, you can view how much the NRA has spent against the Senator from Vermont and when. I’ll save you the trouble of looking up all of those years. The NRA spent zero ($0) dollars in donations to Senator Sanders’ opponents from 1990 to the present. You have to go through each cycle, and there are multiple pages for each election, as the NRA donated to a lot of people. They never donated to an opponent of Senator Sanders. Not once.
I wonder if, for example, Goldman Sachs has ever donated to an opponent of Secretary Clinton? That’s a pretty interesting question, isn’t it? Well, yes, they have:
And that doesn’t include the 20 million or so dollars that Rudy Giuliani raked in during that election cycle. Who knows where that money came from. But what about Citizens United? Not the Supreme Court case, I mean the actual group Citizens United. Have they ever donated to an opponent of Senator Sanders? I know they’ve donated to an opponent of Secretary Clinton:
You can find those charts at opensecrets.org.
And yet, what we get from Senator Sanders on his dealings with the NRA is silence, leaving us with questions. From the Washington Post article about the Sanders/Smith race and the NRA’s involvement:
“Upfront”? Upfront about what?
“With people”? What people? There are lots of unanswered questions.
It is time for Senator Bernie Sanders to stop hiding from the news media and get honest about his gun record and his relationship with the NRA. It is time for him to #RevealtheDeal. You will never see a Wall Street Victory Fund website fluffing Secretary Hillary Clinton. Yet, we had the NRA Victory Fund website pimping Senator Sanders for his New Hampshire victory. You can point to more than 15 pieces of pro-NRA legislation voted for by Senator Sanders, and he even gave the whole industry immunity from suit. Twice!
Does this mean that Senator Sanders has been corrupted? No. In my opinion the answer is much simpler. I believe that Senator Sanders is afraid of the NRA.
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