Bernie Sanders has campaigned on his reputation as an outsider to become the Democratic presidential frontrunner, but the independent Vermont senator, who long took moderate positions on gun control, is now fully embracing left-wing positions on the issue as he works to become the Democratic Party's standard bearer in 2020.
Sanders long reflected the sensibilities of the rural gun culture of low-crime Vermont, even as the Democratic Party embraced increasingly restrictive gun control. He voted against a law establishing gun dealer licensing and background checks while supporting a law protecting gun dealers and manufacturers against frivolous lawsuits. For much of his career, he defended Vermont's gun culture and said that he hoped to bridge the gap between his constituents and high gun-crime cities such as Chicago and Los Angeles.
No longer. Political experts say that Sanders has moved to the left along with the rest of his party after he issue became a major vulnerability for him in his 2016 primary campaign against Hillary Clinton, who found and exploited Sanders' rare vulnerability on the left.
"Bernie shifted with the Democratic Party (even as an independent)," Professor Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said in an email. "And he saw in 2016 his gun record could be a real detriment to his presidential ambitions."
Clinton repeatedly hit Sanders for his views on gun rights during the 2016 campaign, arguing that he was a shill for gun manufacturers and lobbyists rather than for victims of gun violence.
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"When it really mattered, Senator Sanders voted with the gun lobby, and I voted against the gun lobby," Clinton said in January of 2016. While Sanders repeatedly said that his views reflected those of his constituents in pro-gun Vermont, Clinton also pointed out that his views fell to the right of his fellow Vermont senator, Patrick Leahy.
Since 2016, Sanders has slowly abandoned his independent streak. He cosponsored a number of new gun-control measures in the Senate and has embraced anti-gun rhetoric on the 2020 campaign trail.
"I’m running for president because we must end the epidemic of gun violence in this country," Sanders said in his campaign launch video. "We need to take on the NRA, expand background checks, end the gun show loophole, and ban the sale and distribution of assault weapons."
Sanders did not respond to a request for comment.
He has faced scrutiny for his so-called evolution, however. When pressed on his vote against the 1993 Brady background check bill by New York Times editorial board in January, Sanders said, "the world has changed a little bit."
"I certainly have changed on that issue," he added.
Political experts, as well as partisans on both sides of the debate, have picked up on Sanders's move the left. NRA spokeswoman Amy Hunter said the senator's position has fallen into line with a primary electorate that has moved further left on the issue.
"Sanders's increased intolerance of the NRA and law-abiding gun owners fits in perfectly with the larger narrative of a Democratic Party that is increasingly hostile toward the Second Amendment," Hunter told the Washington Free Beacon. "Each year, anti-gun Democrats become more extreme and their policies become more dangerous. Now, candidates are openly supporting registration, confiscation, and bans. Law-abiding gun owners must recognize the threat to their rights and turn out in November to elect a pro-gun president."
Gun-control supporters have also noticed Sanders's changing approach to the Second Amendment. Christian Heyne, spokesman for the pro-gun control Brady Campaign, acknowledged that the Democratic frontrunner has "a complicated history" but said he is convinced that Sanders has embraced an agenda in favor of gun control.
"Sen. Sanders has a complicated history on the gun issue, and we are encouraged by the new messaging we are hearing from him and his campaign," Heyne said. "This demonstrates an evolution and growing commitment to preventing the gun violence epidemic in the United States. This evolution is welcome and similarly reflects trends we see in voters and constituents nationwide."
Despite the change in tone and approach, Sanders's competitors in the Democratic primary have still attacked his past support of gun rights. Former vice president Joe Biden criticized Sanders for voting to shield gun makers from lawsuits over criminal misuse of guns, calling it the "biggest mistake that Bernie made."
"I introduced the first assault-weapons ban," Biden said at the New Hampshire debate. "I, in fact, got it passed. I’m the only guy that beat the NRA twice. I was, while I was pushing the Brady background bill, background checks, Bernie voted five times against it when he was in the House. So, look, the other thing is that we have to be held accountable for the things we did."
Sabato said candidates—even those who have portrayed themselves as outsiders challenging party orthodoxy—have increased incentives to fall into line on social issues as primary voters demand ideological purity.
"This is all a part of the polarization that has taken place in our politics," he said. "When Bernie was first elected, there were loads of Democrats who were endorsed by the NRA and who fought gun control. Most were in the South, Border States, and interior West. So, Bernie didn’t stick out like a sore thumb."
Alan Gottlieb of the Second Amendment Foundation put it more bluntly.
"Bernie Sanders early on in his political career had to be against gun control to win elections in Vermont," he told the Free Beacon. "To compete on the national stage of the Democratic Party he has abandoned that position. The Democrats have become the party of gun prohibition."