Sanders was more defensive of his record in 2016, frequently retorting that he was representing the views of a state that had no history of gun restrictions; he also argued that owners of small gun shops should not have their livelihood destroyed if a weapon they sell ends up being used in a crime. Sanders isn’t quick to back off controversial stances, as his recent praise of certain aspects of Fidel Castro’s regime in Cuba demonstrates. But it’s telling that on gun control, he has gone further this time around to repudiate his past positions and align himself with the Democratic Party’s mainstream opinion. “The world has changed, and my views have changed,” he said at the February debate in New Hampshire.
Gun-control advocates have taken notice. “I am happy to see that Bernie Sanders, by his own admission, has evolved on this issue and is in line with where I think the conversation around guns is in this country,” Igor Volsky, the executive director of the progressive Guns Down America, told me.
Peter Ambler, the executive director of Giffords (the gun-control group started by former Representative Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona), says that the effectiveness of Clinton’s attacks on Sanders’s record was demonstrated by his decision to integrate gun-control proposals more centrally into his 2020 campaign. “One’s judgment from past votes is certainly fair game, and [immunity for gun manufacturers] has been a pretty damaging law in this country,” Ambler says. “I don’t think his guns record is really an area of strength for Bernie.”
Biden, who is fighting for his political life in South Carolina, has been the most aggressive in going after Sanders for his gun-rights votes. Twice Tuesday night, he came close to saying that the senator had blood on his hands. “I’m not saying he’s responsible for the nine deaths ...” Biden began at one point, referring to the 2015 massacre at Charleston’s Mother Emanuel church, across the street from where the candidates were debating.
Yet the Democrat best positioned to take advantage of Sanders’s vulnerability on guns is Bloomberg, who made the issue his top national priority during his second and third terms as mayor of New York, and as one of the country’s biggest-spending political donors in the years since. Bloomberg has both the money and the imperative to blanket the airwaves with negative ads about Sanders, but so far he has chosen to spend more than half a billion dollars solely on touting his own record and bashing Donald Trump.
Like Clinton’s four years ago, Bloomberg’s critique of Sanders has been limited to digital ads and interviews, and with Super Tuesday less than a week away, that won’t nearly be enough, strategists said.
“We’re past the time where you can count on a tweet and a meme about Sanders’s record on guns as doing enough to slow down his march to the nomination,” the former Clinton official told me. “If you want to stop Bernie Sanders from being the nominee, you need to run a significant advertising campaign, and one of Sanders’s biggest vulnerabilities is his longtime record on the wrong side of gun violence.”