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Is Bernie Sanders really a 'gun nut'?

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(Read caption) Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) of Vermont speaks at the Alliance for Retired Americans National Legislative Conference in Washington on July 9, 2015. But it's his support of some anti-gun-control positions backed by the NRA that trouble some Democrats.

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Is Bernie Sanders a “gun nut”?

As the Vermont senator’s political stock gains ground, buoyed by rising polling support in both Iowa and New Hampshire, journalists and pundits are beginning to look more closely at his record on the issues. For many progressives, perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this element of Sanders’s candidacy is what they view as his lukewarm record on gun control. Echoing the sentiment of many progressive, the Slate’s Mark Steyn recently blasted Bernie on this issue in a blistering online critique: “[B]efore liberal Democrats flock to Sanders, they should remember that the Vermont senator stands firmly to Clinton’s right on one issue of overwhelming importance to the Democratic base: gun control. During his time in Congress, Sanders opposed several moderate gun control bills. He also supported the most odious NRA-backed law in recent memory – one that may block Sandy Hook families from winning a lawsuit against the manufacturer of the gun used to massacre their children.” As Steyn points out, in 1993 then-Representative Sanders opposed the Brady bill, which proposed federal background checks for gun purchasers and restrictions on felons’ ability to own guns. Bernie’s voting record on gun control has also come under attack by groups backing Bernie’s Democratic rivals, including this attack ad aired by the pro-Martin O’Malley Super Pac Generation Forward.

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But Bernie’s defenders point out that in recent years he has taken a stronger stance on gun control, including voting for expanded background checks on gun buyers and for a ban on assault weapon in the aftermath of the Newtown school shooting. The truth, however, as this Politifact story makes clear, is that while Bernie may not be the NRA’s poster child for the Second Amendment rights, neither has he been in the vanguard of gun control. And while progressives find this troubling, conservative pundits – while no fan of Bernie’s – are finding progressive discomfiture on this issue more than a little amusing.

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Taken as a whole, Bernie’s record on this issue is, as Steyn suggests, more conservative than that of his main Democratic presidential candidates, with the exception of former Sen. James Webb (D) of Virginia. Why would a candidate who is staking his campaign on progressive reform be so soft on gun control? The simplest explanation, as my Middlebury colleague Bert Johnson argues, is that, like it or not, Bernie is representing the preferences of a good number of his Vermont constituents. As Johnson notes in his comments to Politifact in its review of Bernie’s record on guns, “As a rural state with a large number of hunters and other gun owners, Vermont has been less liberal on guns than on most other issues, historically … [Sanders] seems to support more regulation of guns than the US presently has, but he recognizes his constituents’ preferences so does not make gun control a priority.”

For the Prius-driving, urban-dwelling, tree-hugging, Chablis-drinking secular humanists among you, it might be difficult to fathom why a former Socialist mayor of Burlington representing possibly the most liberal state in nation could care very much about the political preferences of a group of knuckle-dragging goose-stepping paramilitary neo-Nazi gun owners. But the reality is that those who own guns in Vermont, while predominantly conservative in outlook, are nonetheless a somewhat diverse and, perhaps more importantly, rather substantial group of voters. In 2014, as part of her senior honors thesis, Middlebury College student Brianna Morse surveyed a representative sample of Vermonters to see how many owned guns, and why. Morse found that a substantial number – about 42% – of Vermont adults indicated they owned guns, a total consistent with what other sources have shown. Needless to say, this is a potentially sizable voting bloc. It is true that gun ownership in Vermont is positively correlated with a more conservative political ideology; Morse found that for every unit increase on a seven-point ideological self-placement scale (from extremely liberal to extremely conservative), the odds of gun ownership increase by 1.2, controlling for education, ideology and income. (Ideology did not seem to affect the number or types of gun owned, however.) Gender also influenced gun ownership, with males five times more likely than females to own a gun, again controlling for socioeconomic status. Interestingly, in contrast to the prevailing media stereotype, higher levels of education also had a statistically significant and positive relationship with gun ownership; Morse found that for every increase in the level of education the odds of a respondent owning a gun increase slightly as well (although more educated individuals were less likely to own multiple guns.) Neither income nor age seemed related to gun ownership, however.

When asked their motivations for owning a gun, respondents gave multiple reasons, but the most popular answer was for hunting. While liberal gun owners were most likely to cite target practice or skeet shooting as a reason for owning a gun, 42% of conservatives cited hunting most frequently, followed by 25% of conservatives citing their Second Amendment rights as the second most popular response. (Morse speculates that liberals are more squeamish than conservatives in shooting living creatures.) This compares to only 6% of liberals and 13% of moderates who listed the Second Amendment as a motivation for owning a gun. (Morse’s survey allowed respondents to cite more than one motivation for gun ownership.) In looking at these descriptive statistics, Morse suggests that, “Conservatives place a higher importance upon the acknowledgement of their rights as a citizen in the decision to own a gun than liberals or moderates.” But she cautions that because of multiple responses, combined with low response numbers for some categories, it is difficult to attribute a primary motivation for gun ownership among Vermonters with any degree of statistical confidence.

Viewed from the perspective of constituent preferences, Bernie’s ambivalence toward stricter gun control legislation is politically pragmatic, even if it seems to clash with his more progressive ideological outlook on other issues. But how will this play at the national level among Democrats? It is doubtful that Clinton or other Democrats are going to make this much of an issue, at least in the early going. The percentage of gun owners in Iowa, at about 42% of voting-age adults, rivals that of Vermont, and New Hampshire’s proportion, while lower at about 30%, is still substantial. Yes, these aren’t necessarily predominantly Democratic voters, but why take a chance on alienating a politically active group of voters? Nationally, support for more stringent gun control has been lukewarm at best, except for brief fluctuations in the aftermath of highly publicized shootings such as Newtown, and it ranks quite low among the issues that concern most Americans. If Bernie is going to lose this race for the Democratic nomination, it is highly doubtful that his stance on guns will be the issue that takes him down.  Most progressives, I suspect, will be willing to look past what they will likely view as an anomaly in Sanders’ record.

Matthew Dickinson publishes his Presidential Power blog at http://sites.middlebury.edu/presidentialpower/.


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