Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the independent who has announced he will run to the left of Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic presidential primaries, was first elected to Congress with the help of the National Rifle Association.
In 1990, Sanders — then the mayor of Burlington — challenged Vermont Republican Rep. Peter Smith. It was a rematch of the 1988 congressional race, which Smith won. Despite previously promising to oppose gun control, Smith came out for a so-called assault weapons ban.
The NRA spent $18,000 to unseat Smith that year, including printing bumper stickers that said “Dump Peter Smith.” The money wasn’t spent on Sanders’ behalf, but he ended up being the main beneficiary.
Sanders, running as an independent socialist — or social democrat, if you prefer — won by nearly 17 points. The official Democratic nominee came in a distant third, receiving just 3 percent of the vote.
The Sun-Sentinel later described the match-up as “the one 1990 congressional race in which gun control appeared to be a decisive issue.”
“What the NRA was buying with their support for Bernie Sanders was a closed mind,” the defeated Republican Smith later told the Vermont Times. “What they want is people who won’t think carefully about a problem.”
“Bernie’s response,” a Sanders spokesman said in response to critics of his boss’ reluctance to support gun control, “is that he doesn’t just represent liberals and progressives. He was sent to Washington to represent all Vermonters.”
The title of the Vermont Times article was “Who’s Afraid of the NRA? Vermont’s Congressmen, That’s Who.”
Sanders went on to vote against the Brady bill, which required federal background checks for most firearms purchases. He has also voted to block lawsuits against gun manufacturers, to allow guns to be transported in checked baggage on Amtrak trains and to prohibit foreign aid from going to any international efforts to restrict gun ownership.
But Sanders has supported some gun control while in Congress. He voted for a federal assault weapons ban himself in 1994, coming within 3.3 points of losing his House seat that November. He voted for the high-capacity magazine ban. Sanders currently has an F rating from the NRA.
Even when Sanders has voted for gun control legislation, however, he has been much more hesitant than when championing economic liberalism. Sanders has argued the issue should mostly be left up to the states.
“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,” Sanders told a liberal Vermont outlet after the Sandy Hook shootings.
Asked if he would back another assault weapons ban, he said only, “We’ll see. We’ll see what other things it is part of.”
When Sanders finally did vote for some of these gun control initiatives, he said in a statement, “Nobody believes that gun control by itself is going to end the horrors we have seen in Newtown, Conn., Aurora, Colo., Blacksburg, Va., Tucson, Ariz. and other American communities.”
Vermont has long been an outlier on guns. Although the formerly Republican-dominated state has become increasingly liberal in the last 40 years, it still has few restrictions on firearms. The state has many hunters and gun owners, but few homicides.
When Sanders voted against the Brady bill, so did Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy and liberal Republican Sen. Jim Jeffords. A decade later, Jeffords left the GOP to bring the Senate under Democratic control.
Howard Dean, who eventually chaired the Democratic National Committee, was also endorsed by the NRA several times during his campaigns for governor of Vermont. He has more recently described the gun group’s national headquarters as being “populated by crazy people.”
But Dean has also said, “I come from a rural state with a very low homicide rate. We had five homicides one year. It’s a state where hunting is a part of our life. I understand that’s not the traditional Democratic position.” As late as 2013, he told an interviewer, “[W]e don’t have any gun control in Vermont because we don’t really need much.”
Dean’s Vermont record on gun control was used against him when he campaigned for his party’s presidential nomination as a progressive candidate in 2004. “Howard Dean’s opposition to sensible gun safety measures is indefensible,” John Kerry said. “It explains why he has been endorsed by the NRA eight times. I believe we must put the safety of our children and families ahead of special interests like the NRA.”
Maybe Hillary Clinton will use similar rhetoric to campaign against Bernie Sanders.
W. James Antle III is managing editor of The Daily Caller and author of the book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped? Follow him on Twitter.