When Bernie Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, threw his hat into the presidential race, he was widely expected to be to the left of Hillary Clinton on every issue. But Sanders, like many other populist, rural, progressives, holds one position that poses an existential threat to his liberal credentials. It is a conviction that might be expected of a senator from the agrarian, white state of Vermont, but not from a national Democratic presidential candidate from the most liberal wing of the party. Sanders, according to some, is a “gun nut.” To put it more realistically, the senator is perhaps a gun moderate. And while this may be shocking to some of his liberal supporters, it should come as no surprise when contextualized within the broader history of gun politics in the Democratic Party: Progressives aren’t always progressive on guns, and moderates are actually often the most in favor of stringent gun control and the least in the pocket of the NRA.
The modern history of gun control can be traced back to the 1960s, when numerous assassinations of public officials, including JFK, RFK, and MLK, prompted Congress to intervene and pass the Gun Control Act of 1968. The legislation restricted the sale of guns and who could buy them. It stands as one of the last major bipartisan efforts toward gun control, and it provided a glimpse of an uneasy détente between those who wished to keep their guns and those who wished to keep them out of the hands of criminals. It did not last.
By the late 1970s and the Carter administration, gun control had all but disappeared from the Democratic Party’s platform. Carter was certainly no liberal. But the fact that gun control wasn’t even nominally a part of his agenda was a sign of things to come. After the Democrats’ devastating loss in 1980, the common political narrative is that Democrats were lost in the wilderness as they nominated liberal after liberal, until they finally wised up and nominated moderate Bill Clinton in 1992.
But while the Democratic nominees in 1984 and 1988, Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis respectively, could perhaps be considered farther left-of-center than Clinton, their views on guns were not so. Or at the very least, were not vocally so. The Democratic Party platform (essentially the campaign platforms for Mondale and Dukakis) in both elections contained no reference to guns, instead focusing on the economic and social components of a progressive agenda.
This remained true until the election of Clinton in 1992 and the subsequent passage of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban. For many Democrats, the restrictions did not go over well. Southern and border state Democrats were hit hard in the 1994 elections, as were rural state representatives, in part due to the gun policies of this era and the legislation that followed. A federal assault weapons ban that might have played well in Chicago did not do the same in Cheyenne.
But centrist, Third Way Democrats under Clinton were not about to view this as a defeat in an effort to appease gun enthusiasts turning against the party. Instead, in 1996, the Party’s platform celebrated Clinton’s passing of gun control and his ability to “defy the gun lobby . . . to make Americans safer.” Clinton, the moderate, was happy to show off his record as gun controller-in-chief, in contrast to the more conventionally liberal members of his party who had not seemed to care one way or the other about passing this kind of legislation. It was a moderate who made gun control a priority, while the liberals were more than happy to mollify their stances towards guns in the interest of larger left-of-center goals.
The pattern continued with Kerry in 2004 and Obama in 2008 devising similarly moderate platforms on gun control in their respective elections, even as neither was particularly to the right of Clinton on any other issue that they proposed. Gun control remained the strange liberal outlier that set moderates farther to the left than their progressive counterparts.
Contemporary politics have proved no exception. While Sanders is now well known as being a moderate on guns, he is one in a long line of recent populists embraced by progressives who lean a bit to the right on this particular issue. Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer was at one point a progressive favorite despite a relatively conservative stance on gun control and perennial liberal champion Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin also brandished a mixed record on the issue of guns during his time in office. Even Democratic leader in the Senate, Harry Reid, boasts a mostly liberal record with the notable exception of gun control; a stance which shifted leftward once he became Majority Leader.
But none of this is to say that these Democrats aren’t true progressives or sellouts to the gun lobby. Indeed, the case usually becomes one of practicality: as a result of standing to the right of the national party on gun rights, these Democrats are able to get elected running on relatively liberal platforms in red or at least purple states. While Schweitzer showed off his rifles, he touts the benefits of single payer healthcare. And a nationally known Democrat like Reid was able to win in part by sticking to his guns on heartland social issues even as he became a target of right-wing electoral efforts.
These politicians chose to prioritize issues that matter more to them, like healthcare, taxes, or immigration, over issues like gun control, an issue that maintains a sizable intensity gap between supporters and opponents. They’ve made the calculation, however accurate, that in the give and take of politics, it is smarter to essentially abandon what they consider at the very least a distraction or at most, a lost battle, in order to get other work done.
And now, back in the full swing of a presidential election, the story is repeating itself. A populist progressive is advertising his solidly liberal record in comparison to his centrist opponent’s on every major issue except one. And while some liberals may be surprised at Sander’s viewpoint on gun control and his relatively high rating from the NRA, they shouldn’t.
A progressive on economics doesn’t make a progressive on guns, and the party and its activist base doesn’t seem to care too much. Few think that this might actually derail Sanders’s chances of winning more than an odd gaffe or an unrealistic policy objective would. But some progressive politicians, like Sanders, do seem to be out of step with the liberal voters they must attract. Unless these voters change their priorities at some point in the near future, Sanders may remain a “gun nut,” and serious gun control may only be possible if championed by a moderate president.