The Great Democratic Gun Debate

One of the deepest dives in last night's debate was on gun safety laws, and it came right at the beginning, before Bernie Sanders chewed on Anderson Cooper and the DC media for their email obsessions. The substance of this part of the debate was excellent, because it touches on so many different points -- gun safety laws, how to legislate and lead, how money plays into the political landscape, and more.

First, Cooper asked Sanders about his stance on guns. Here's the transcript of their exchange, via the Washington Post:

Senator Sanders, you voted against the Brady bill that mandated background checks and a waiting period. You also supported allowing riders to bring guns in checked bags on Amtrak trains. For a decade, you said that holding gun manufacturers legally responsible for mass shootings is a bad idea. Now, you say you're reconsidering that. Which is it: shield the gun companies from lawsuits or not?

Bernie Sanders responded by citing his record with the NRA, his support for an assault weapons ban, and

SANDERS: Let's begin, Anderson, by understanding that Bernie Sanders has a D-minus voting rating (ph) from the NRA. Let's also understand that back in 1988 when I first ran for the United States Congress, way back then, I told the gun owners of the state of Vermont and I told the people of the state of Vermont, a state which has virtually no gun control, that I supported a ban on assault weapons. And over the years, I have strongly supported instant background checks, doing away with this terrible gun show loophole. And I think we've got to move aggressively at the federal level in dealing with the straw man purchasers.

Also I believe, and I've fought for, to understand that there are thousands of people in this country today who are suicidal, who are homicidal, but can't get the healthcare that they need, the mental healthcare, because they don't have insurance or they're too poor. I believe that everybody in this country who has a mental crisis has got to get mental health counseling immediately.


↓ Story continues below ↓

While Sanders has a point about mental health, that doesn't really answer the question, and Cooper pressed him on it.

COOPER: Do you want to shield gun companies from lawsuits?

SANDERS: Of course not. This was a large and complicated bill. There were provisions in it that I think made sense. For example, do I think that a gun shop in the state of Vermont that sells legally a gun to somebody, and that somebody goes out and does something crazy, that that gun shop owner should be held responsible? I don't.

On the other hand, where you have manufacturers and where you have gun shops knowingly giving guns to criminals or aiding and abetting that, of course we should take action.

Next up: Hillary Clinton, whose published gun policies step to the left of Sanders.

COOPER: Secretary Clinton, is Bernie Sanders tough enough on guns?

CLINTON: No, not at all. I think that we have to look at the fact that we lose 90 people a day from gun violence. This has gone on too long and it's time the entire country stood up against the NRA. The majority of our country...

(APPLAUSE)

... supports background checks, and even the majority of gun owners do.

Senator Sanders did vote five times against the Brady bill. Since it was passed, more than 2 million prohibited purchases have been prevented. He also did vote, as he said, for this immunity provision. I voted against it. I was in the Senate at the same time. It wasn't that complicated to me. It was pretty straightforward to me that he was going to give immunity to the only industry in America. Everybody else has to be accountable, but not the gun manufacturers. And we need to stand up and say: Enough of that. We're not going to let it continue.

Sanders was then given an opportunity to respond.

SANDERS: As a senator from a rural state, what I can tell Secretary Clinton, that all the shouting in the world is not going to do what I would hope all of us want, and that is keep guns out of the hands of people who should not have those guns and end this horrible violence that we are seeing.

I believe that there is a consensus in this country. A consensus has said we need to strengthen and expand instant background checks, do away with this gun show loophole, that we have to address the issue of mental health, that we have to deal with the strawman purchasing issue, and that when we develop that consensus, we can finally, finally do something to address this issue.

Next up, Martin O'Malley. Also, big props (sarcasm) to Anderson Cooper for framing it in right wing terms.

COOPER: Governor O'Malley, you passed gun legislation as governor of Maryland, but you had a Democratic-controlled legislature. President Obama couldn't convince Congress to pass gun legislation after the massacres in Aurora, in Newtown, and Charleston. How can you?

O'MALLEY: And, Anderson, I also had to overcome a lot of opposition in the leadership of my own party to get this done. Look, it's fine to talk about all of these things -- and I'm glad we're talking about these things -- but I've actually done them.

We passed comprehensive gun safety legislation, not by looking at the pollings or looking at what the polls said. We actually did it. And, Anderson, here tonight in our audience are two people that make this issue very, very real. Sandy and Lonnie Phillips are here from Colorado. And their daughter, Jessie, was one of those who lost their lives in that awful mass shooting in Aurora.

Now, to try to transform their grief, they went to court, where sometimes progress does happen when you file in court, but in this case, you want to talk about a -- a rigged game, Senator? The game was rigged. A man had sold 4,000 rounds of military ammunition to this -- this person that killed their daughter, riddled her body with five bullets, and he didn't even ask where it was going.

And not only did their case get thrown out of court, they were slapped with $200,000 in court fees because of the way that the NRA gets its way in our Congress and we take a backseat. It's time to stand up and pass comprehensive gun safety legislation as a nation.

Bernie Sanders reminded O'Malley he's never had the honor of making sausage in Washington, DC.

SANDERS: I think the governor gave a very good example about the weaknesses in that law and I think we have to take another look at it. But here is the point, Governor. We can raise our voices, but I come from a rural state, and the views on gun control in rural states are different than in urban states, whether we like it or not.

Our job is to bring people together around strong, commonsense gun legislation. I think there is a vast majority in this country who want to do the right thing, and I intend to lead the country in bringing our people together.

O'MALLEY: Senator -- Senator, excuse me.

(CROSSTALK)

O'MALLEY: Senator, it is not about rural -- Senator, it was not about rural and urban.

SANDERS: It's exactly about rural.

O'MALLEY: Have you ever been to the Eastern Shore? Have you ever been to Western Maryland? We were able to pass this and still respect the hunting traditions of people who live in our rural areas.

SANDERS: Governor...

O'MALLEY: And we did it by leading with principle, not by pandering to the NRA and backing down to the NRA.

SANDERS: Well, as somebody who has a D-minus voting record...

(CROSSTALK)

O'MALLEY: And I have an F from the NRA, Senator.

SANDERS: I don't think I am pandering. But you have not been in the United States Congress.

O'MALLEY: Well, maybe that's a healthy thing.

(LAUGHTER)

SANDERS: And when you want to, check it out. And if you think -- if you think that we can simply go forward and pass something tomorrow without bringing people together, you are sorely mistaken.

Senator Sanders has a point there. It's not as easy in DC to get even tiny things done, much less some big things.

We move on, now to Senator Webb and Governor Chafee. Webb, in particular, was simply on the wrong stage.

COOPER: Let me bring in somebody who has a different viewpoint. Senator Webb, your rating from the NRA, you once had an A rating from the NRA. You've said gun violence goes down when more people are allowed to carry guns. Would encouraging more people to be armed be part of your response to a mass shooting?

WEBB: Look, there are two fundamental issues that are involved in this discussion. We need to pay respect to both of them. The first is the issue of who should be kept from having guns and using firearms. And we have done not a good job on that.

A lot of them are criminals. And a lot of the people are getting killed are members of gangs inside our urban areas. And a lot of them are mentally incapacitated. And the shooting in Virginia Tech in '07, this individual had received medical care for mental illness from three different professionals who were not allowed to share the information.

WEBB: So we do need background checks. We need to keep the people who should not have guns away from them. But we have to respect the tradition in this country of people who want to defend themselves and their family from violence.

COOPER: Senator...

WEBB: May I? People are going back and forth here for 10 minutes here. There are people at high levels in this government who have bodyguards 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The average American does not have that, and deserves the right to be able to protect their family.

Thank you, Senator Webb, for that talking point right out of the right wing and Fox News. That's more or less the end of you, I think.

Moving on to Chafee:

COOPER: Senator -- Governor Chafee, you have an F rating from the NRA, what do you think about what Senator Webb just said?

CHAFEE: Yes, I have a good record of voting for gun commonsense safety legislation, but the reality is, despite these tragedies that happen time and time again, when legislators step up to pass commonsense gun safety legislation, the gun lobby moves in and tells the people they're coming to take away your guns.

And, they're successful at it, in Colorado and others states, the legislators that vote for commonsense gun safety measures then get defeated. I even saw in Rhode Island. So, I would bring the gun lobby in and say we've got to change this. Where can we find common ground? Wayne Lapierre from the NRA, whoever it is, the leaders. Come one, we've go to change this. We're not coming to take away your guns, we believe in the Second Amendment, but let's find common ground here.

COOPER: I want to...

O'MALLEY: ...Anderson, when the NRA wrote to everyone in our state -- when the NRA wrote to members in our state and told people with hunting traditions lies about what our comprehensive gun safety legislation is, I wrote right back to them and laid out what it actually did. And that's why, not only did we pass it, but the NRA didn't...

SANDERS: ...Excuse me...

O'MALLEY: ...dare to petition a referendum...

SANDERS: ...I want to make...

O'MALLEY: ...Because we built a public consensus...

NoLabels would be so proud of these two.

Here's what captivated me about this debate, though. Five candidates stood on that stage and with one notable exception, managed to make intelligent arguments for the flavor of gun safety laws they'd support. Viewers had options. They had choices, and there was consensus on background checks, at least.

Anyone who watches this understands the entire range of opinion within the Democratic field, none of it loony, though Webb's answer would be more fitting for a Republican candidate.

This is what a debate should look like. Respectful, honest disagreement, with agreement on major points.

Comments

We welcome relevant, respectful comments. Any comments that are sexist or in any other way deemed hateful by our staff will be deleted and constitute grounds for a ban from posting on the site. Please refer to our Terms of Service (revised 3/17/2016) for information on our posting policy.