Bernie Sanders came under fire on Tuesday evening for his mixed record on gun control, with his opponents seizing on a rare issue where Sanders has in the past staked out a moderate position and hammering him from the left.
As a congressman, Sanders supported the assault weapons bans but also voted to partially shield gunmakers and retailers from liability in court, a position his rivals attacked in a debate that offered them the final opportunity to face off before Saturday's primary in South Carolina.
The focus of the repeated attacks made clear that Sanders, who has notched impressive finishes in the first three primary and caucus states, is not only the clear frontrunner in the Democratic primary race, but also that his rivals may be more comfortable attacking him from the left than from the right. Over the past few days, Sanders's remarks praising the communist Castro regime in Cuba have come under fire—and they did so again on the debate stage—but Democrats spent more time pummeling Sanders on gun control than they did arguing why his socialist views are wrong for the country.
Former vice president Joe Biden attacked Sanders for his opposition to the Brady background check bill in the 1990s, arguing that a failed provision of the law Biden supported at the time would have prevented a 2015 church shooting in Charleston that left nine African Americans dead.
"My friend to my right and others have, in fact, also given the gun manufacturers absolute immunity," Biden said of Sanders. "Imagine if I stood here and said we would give immunity to drug companies. We would give immunity to tobacco companies. That has caused carnage on our streets."
Sanders, who has produced strong finishes in all three early primary states, did not try to defend his past votes. Instead, he apologized for opposing background checks and supporting limited liability for manufacturers. Over the past four years, he has moved to the left on gun control since Hillary Clinton savaged him on the issue in the 2016 primary.
"I have cast thousands of votes, including bad votes. That was a bad vote," he said of his support for the law that prevented people from suing gun companies over criminal acts committed with their products by third parties.
Sanders's apology, as well as his pledge to advance a strict gun-control agenda in the White House, did not deter further attacks from 2020 hopefuls.
Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren went on to attack Sanders and others on the debate stage for opposing the elimination of the legislative filibuster, which she argued is necessary to force gun-control legislation through the Senate. Former South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg, meanwhile, argued that it's not just Sanders's previous views on gun control—but his current positions—that pose a problem for Democrats.
"This is not some long-ago bad vote that Bernie Sanders took. This is a current bad position that Bernie Sanders holds," he said. "How are we going to deliver a revolution if you won't even support a rule change?"
Sanders parried the attacks by citing the low marks he has received from the National Rifle Association and promised to rally Americans against the gun-rights group.
"At the end of the day, we need to rally the American people," he said. "Here is the good news, because of all these disgusting and horrific mass shootings, the American people now understand that we must be aggressive on gun safety, not be dictated to by the NRA. And I am proud that I have a D- voting record from the NRA. If elected president, it will get worse than that."
Sanders is running a close second to Biden in the South Carolina primary, according to recent polls. The primary is scheduled to be held on Saturday.