#VettingBernie: How Wayne Lapierre and the NRA Helped Launch Bernie Sanders' Political Career

[In light of Bernie Sanders' recent comments in the wake of the Dayton and El Paso mass shootings, we have republished our February 2016 article from The People's View analyzing Bernie Sanders' record on guns. That original post is republished below:]

Publicity is a funny thing in the political world.  

It can simultaneously be both a great help as well as a great hindrance to a particular individual when he or she runs for an office for the first time.  At the onset of one's campaign, the struggle is always a lack of publicity.  How do you make headway and get your name out there and do it in a positive way?  How do yo convince local media that you're a legitimate contender and actually have a chance to at least be competitive?  How do you establish yourself in a world where positive name recognition is the most powerful thing a person can have going for them?  How do you answer all those questions and do it in a way that never compromises who you are and what you stand for?  

For Bernie Sanders, the answer to this question was to drum up support so significant that the media couldn't help but pay him attention.  Throughout the summer, Sanders supporters would constantly bemoan what they saw as a blatant attempt by the mainstream media to avoid legitimizing the candidacy of their chosen candidate.  Even as Sanders got more and more coverage for his rallies, his supporters still believed there was a media conspiracy against him.  It was not until the Iowa caucus and subsequent New Hampshire primary that Sanders supporters finally felt that their candidate was receiving proper media attention.  Now, their newest critique of the media is not that they're not covering Sanders, but that they're being unfair to him by questioning some of his policies.  Supporters of Bernie Sanders are seemingly unaware that is how the political process works.  

Here's some even more disheartening news:  It's only to get worse for your chosen candidate.  

Because as Bernie remarked three days ago, his opponents are now going to start throwing the kitchen sink at him.  But the truth is that now that Sanders and his campaign have won their first primary, they've become insufferable.  They've adopted a win-at-all-costs mentality that is a far-flung approach from their vow in September to run a clean campaign.  Sanders campaign workers have stolen campaign data, have infiltrated a Nevada culinary union trying to swindle votes, and have lied about endorsements from two separate New Hampshire newspapers and a Nevada DREAMer.  In addition, Sanders himself has been a model for poor behavior and has decried endorsements against him as acts of "establishment politics."  Because of this kind of inflammatory rhetoric, Sanders' army of online supporters, known as the #BernieBros, have gone to great lengths to harass those who have made these endorsements such as progressive heroes Planned Parenthood, The Human Rights Campaign, and Congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis.  By doing all this and by constantly criticizing President Obama, the Sanders campaign deserves what is coming their way.  
And it's not going to be pretty.  

It's not going to be pretty because the country now knows who Bernie Sanders is and what he stands for.  He's in the process of doing his cross-country speaking tour, he's a constant on the Sunday talk shows, and he's now taken part in seven Democratic debates.  He's no longer a fringe candidate.  His views, his talking points, his history, and his political philosophy are all fair game.  And with this comes the chance to revisit earlier articles that were published when Sanders was not yet a viable candidate for president.  Because those articles provide us with information about Sanders that didn't seem particularly relevant at the time but now have come to define his candidacy.  And if Bernie Sanders really wants everything associated with media access to a presidential contender then he's going to have a lot to answer for.  He has a checkered past that has left many more questions than answers.  Sanders has done his best to cherry-pick certain events, but there reaches a time when the truth comes out and that truth may not be all that glamorous.  

One such instance of this inconvenient truth is how Bernie Sanders became a congressman.  

We've all heard the story from previous debates:  In 1988, Bernie Sanders ran for Vermont's sole congressional seat against a Republican and Democrat.  He defeated the Democrat but lost a close election to a Republican because Sanders had the gumption to challenge the NRA and support an assault rifle ban.  The story plays well for Sanders, whose perceived weakness in the early debates was his stance on gun control:  how he voted against the Brady Bill five times, how he reserved his position on immunity for gun manufacturers, how he voted for the 'Charleston loophole.'  All of these positions, combined with Sanders' D-minus rating from the NRA, gave voters the perception that Sanders wasn't as progressive as he could have been when it came to guns.  Sanders believed that by telling the story of his failed 1988 congressional run then it would solidify his progressive stance on guns.  

The problem?  Nobody asked Sanders why we lost in 1988 and won in 1990.  

Except the Washington Post who published an article in July chronicling exactly what happened in that 1990 race.  Since the article was published at a time when Bernie Sanders' candidacy was not given much thought, the piece was largely ignored by the mainstream media.  However, since Sanders has staked a large part of his reputation on the claim that he stood up to the NRA and it cost him an election, the article now becomes extremely relevant.  Unfortunately for Sanders, it not only underscores his credibility but it raises larger questions as to how and why he has voted the way he has on certain issues.  In short, the article cuts to the very core of the Sanders campaign and directly challenges the assertion that he is an opponent of the NRA.  

In summation, the article describes the 1990 Vermont congressional election where Sanders ran as an independent against incumbent Republican congressman Peter Smith.  Smith had previously run on a platform of opposing all new gun control but had the audacity to change his mind and openly support an assault weapons ban.  Because of this, his congressional seat was the only one targeted by the NRA during the 1990 election cycle, and the organization actually admitted it would rather elect a socialist than someone who would turn his back on their support.  A gentleman by the name of Wayne LaPierre sent out a letter to the 12,000 NRA members in Vermont letting them know that, "Bernie Sanders is a more honorable choice for Vermont sportsmen than Peter Smith."  Sanders at the time agreed with Smith's stance on assault weapons but he opposed a mandatory waiting period on handguns, which he said were best left to the states.  For the NRA, Sanders became the lesser of two evils and so they threw their support behind him, helping to elect the first open socialist to congress since the 1950s.  Sanders won 56% of the vote but in a sparsely populated area like Vermont, that extra support from the NRA might have very well made the difference in the election.  

It was the break Sanders needed as he had previously run for statewide office six times and had lost all six times.  It was his foot in the door to the United States Congress, where he would serve a total of seven terms in the House before moving on to serve two terms in the Senate.  All it took was one organization throwing its support behind him that helped Sanders breakthrough onto the national political scene.  Without the NRA's support, Bernie Sanders might still be running for office today.  Congress has a 96% incumbent rate and candidates are rarely, if ever, voted out of office unless something extreme happens.  Previous to Peter Smith, Vermont's congressman was Jim Jeffords, who served 14 years in that role until becoming Vermont's senator and serving 18 years in that role.  Had Smith not defied the NRA, there's a very good chance he'd still be Vermont's congressman today.

So there is no denying the NRA played a significant part in the rise of Bernie Sanders.  So, how beholden is Sanders to the organization?  His D-minus rating isn't great but there are 38 senators who have a worse rating.  Upon his election to Congress, he voted against a 1991 measure that would have required a seven-day waiting period to purchase a gun.  In 1993 he cast his first of five votes against the Brady Bill because he believed that states, and not the federal government, could handle waiting periods for handguns.  And, as recently as last month, he opposed the Charleston loophole but when pressed refused to specify the reasoning.  

Yet through all these votes, Sanders has insisted he owes no allegiance to the gun industry.  In a 2015 interview with George Stephanopoulos, Sanders insisted he is his own man when it comes to his stance on guns.  He said, "In every single race that I have run, with the exception of one, the NRA and the gun lobbies and the people who are most interested in guns supported my opponent."  However, as was mentioned, it's easy to retain a seat once elected to office, especially in a small state such as Vermont.  Sanders may have very well have earned the ire of the NRA after initially receiving their support, but by that point, he had not gone back on his word like Peter Smith and thus the NRA never truly mounted a vigorous campaign against him.  To them, Sanders was at least tolerable where Smith had violated their trust and had to be eliminated.  

So the question for Bernie Sanders is this:  Is he beholden to the NRA?  His response to George Stephanopoulos seems to indicate he is his own man when it comes to gun issues and despite their initial support he does not feel compelled to further their agenda.  Yet it would be this very stance that would simply reek of hypocrisy.  With each passing debate, Bernie Sanders seems perfectly happy to criticize Hillary Clinton for receiving the financial support of Goldman Sachs and he has continued to insist that she would be beholden to them if elected president.  Clinton has shot back that she is not bought and paid for by the company and that Barack Obama also took donations from Wall Street but was perfectly able to then turn around and administer justice to the institutions that broke the law.  If Bernie can successfully deal with the NRA despite once having their support why can't Hillary deal with Goldman Sachs despite once having their support?  

It is this type of hypocrisy that Bernie Sanders will now have to deal with.  Because playtime is over.  The time where he could simply smear Hillary Clinton and not get push back is long gone.  In the coming weeks, more and more media outlets will start to vet Sanders.  His allegiance to the NRA is small potatoes:  People know he is weak on guns.  But not everyone knew they helped make his political career.  The Washington Post did but it was at a time where there was no national interest in who Bernie Sanders was or what he believed in.  Now that Bernie, his staff, and his supporters have chosen to take the low road by attacking not only Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama but now have chosen to attack civil rights heroes like John Lewis, there will be no mercy from the progressive left.  What many folks saw as a needed competitive primary has gotten personal.  The opposition research on Sanders that had been neatly tucked away in a "just in case" file folder will now be out in full force.  It's a far cry from early on when the Sanders team complained that they weren't getting enough attention. 

They're now about to get more than enough attention, and it most certainly won't be the good kind that the campaign so desperately wanted.

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