Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders on Sunday backed away from a controversial vote he cast in 2005 on legislation to grant immunity to gun manufacturers and dealers from liability if their firearms are used criminally.
On NBC's Meet the Press, one week after his chief rival, Hillary Clinton, called for repealing that law, and two days before the first Democratic debate, the U.S. senator from Vermont said he's willing to see that law changed.
"That was a complicated vote and I'm willing to see changes in that provision," Sanders said. "Here's the reason I voted the way I voted. If you are a gun shop owner in Vermont and you sell somebody a gun and that person flips out and then kills somebody, I don't think it's really fair to hold that person responsible, the gun shop owner. On the other hand, where there is a problem is there is evidence that manufacturers, gun manufacturers, do know that they're selling a whole lot of guns in an area that really should not be buying that many guns. That many of those guns are going to other areas, probably for criminal purposes. So can we take another look at that liability issue? Yes."
A Sanders campaign spokesman didn't say if he's open to repealing the law, or if he regrets that vote. "He's willing to take another look at it and consider supporting changes," Michael Briggs, the spokesman, said in an e-mail.
Sanders defended his 2005 vote as recently as July. "If somebody has a gun and it falls into the hands of a murderer and the murderer kills somebody with a gun, do you hold the gun manufacturer responsible? Not any more than you would hold a hammer company responsible if somebody beats somebody over the head with a hammer," he said on CNN. "That is not what a lawsuit should be about."
Gun control may be Sanders' Achilles heel in the Democratic primary—a rare high-profile issue on which his record is out of step with progressives. Along with voting against the 2005 measure known as the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (which was passed by a Republican-controlled Congress and signed into law by President George W. Bush), he opposed the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993 as a member of the House; it required background checks for gun sales and included five-day waiting periods. He has also voted to allow guns on Amtrak.
Clinton, then a U.S. senator from New York, voted against the liability shield law, which was a high priority for the National Rifle Association. Recently after a mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon, she elevated the issue by rolling out a series of gun-control proposals. "What is wrong with us that we can't stand up to the NRA and the gun lobby and the gun manufacturers? This is not just tragic," she said. "We don't just need to pray for people, we need to act. We need to build a movement." Gun-control advocates praised her aggressive tone and her vow to use executive authority to close background check loopholes if Congress doesn't act.
A third Democratic candidate, former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley, has proposed the strictest gun-control laws in the presidential field, including mandatory licensing and fingerprinting, as well as a firearm registry.
After Clinton unveiled her proposals, Sanders issued a statement condemning the shooting and calling for tougher background checks and a ban on assault weapons. He voted in favor of those measures in 2013, months after elementary school children were massacred by a gunman in Newtown, Connecticut. They didn't pass. At the time the senator, who represents a rural hunting state, downplayed their importance.
"If you passed the strongest gun control legislation tomorrow, I don't think it will have a profound effect on the tragedies we have seen," he told his home-state paper Seven Days Vermont in an interview published March 2013.
He added, "This is not one of my major issues."
Two and a half years later, Sanders on Meet the Press called for "common sense gun reform plus a revolution in mental health" care but emphasized that if the two parties "keep shouting at each other, which is what's been going on here for 20 years," the issue "ain’t going nowhere."