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Unlike rivals, Bernie Sanders has lighter touch on gun control

Senator Bernie Sanders.
Senator Bernie Sanders. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Senator Bernie Sanders has built his insurgent presidential campaign by trying to outshine Hillary Rodham Clinton on populist economic issues. But political reaction to the racially motivated mass murder in a Charleston, S.C., church this week highlighted an area where he’s out of synch with most liberals: gun control.

Sanders, an independent from Vermont, a rural state where support of guns and hunting is part of the political culture, has amassed a mixed record on proposed gun restrictions in his years as a congressman and senator.

The self-avowed democratic socialist once earned a C- rating from the National Rifle Association — not a high mark for a Republican contender, but one that sets him apart as practically gun friendly among the Democrats vying for the party’s 2016 nomination.


The issue isn’t one that Sanders typically discusses on the stump. But after Wednesday’s church shooting, gun controlhas bounced back to the national agenda.

Clinton responded by saying the country must “face hard truths about race, violence, guns, and division.” Martin O’Malley, a former Maryland governor and another Democrat in the presidential race, said the slayings should “call all of us to action” on gun control.

Sanders made no mention at all of firearms or gun regulations in the immediate wake of the attack that killed nine people at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church . Instead, he focused on the alleged motive, calling it a “tragic reminder of the ugly stain of racism that still taints our nation.’’ Sanders also canceled a planned trip to South Carolina over the weekend.

On Friday afternoon, in response to questions from the news media and an audience member at a town hall meeting in Las Vegas, Sanders said additional gun control should be considered, but noted there are deep differences between rural and urban areas on the issue, according to Michael Briggs, a Sanders spokesman.


Sanders, 73, doesn’t own a gun, added Briggs, and he shot a one once — as a Boy Scout.

The senator’s views more closely reflect a general progun attitude in his home state, said Ed Cutler, president of the Gun Owners of Vermont.

“Even the liberals have guns up here,” Cutler said.

He added that he has met with Sanders several times, and the senator has shown little interest in gun-related legislation. In one instance, Sanders even refused to touch an empty magazine Cutler had handcrafted to demonstrate how easy they are to make, he recalled.

“Firearms is not his issue,” Cutler said. “He doesn’t know a whole lot about them.”

Sanders voted against the landmark Brady bill, which required background checks and a waiting period before purchasing a firearm. He supported legislation allowing guns to be transported on Amtrak trains. He voted for a measure to protect gun manufacturers from lawsuits in cases of shootings.

At other times, Sanders has supported gun control measures, including voting for a ban on assault weapons and supporting President Obama’s gun control package in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting that left 20 children and six adults dead in Connecticut.

The National Rifle Association awarded Sanders an F rating in 2002 when he ran for reelection in the House of Representatives. The grade changed to a D+ in 2004; a C- in 2006 when he ran for the Senate; and, most recently, a D- for his 2012 reelection as senator.


In contrast, Clinton and O’Malley have both consistently earned failing grades from the organization. The NRA has yet to issue ratings for the 2016 elections.

Previously, Clinton has supported banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, and expanding background checks. O’Malley oversaw sweeping new gun control legislation in Maryland after the Sandy Hook massacre in December 2012, a package that prompted one gun manufacturer to leave the state.

Members of the Republican presidential field generally oppose gun control measures.

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush has an A+ rating from the NRA, and backed the now-famous “stand your ground” law in 2005 that expanded the rights of people to use deadly force when feeling threatened in their homes or in a public place. While running for governor in 1998, however, he backed a Florida law mandating background checks for firearms purchased at gun shows.

The NRA lobbied against a bill to close a loophole that allows gun buyers to avoid background checks following the Sandy Hook shootings. GOP Senators Marco Rubio of Florida, Rand Paul of Kentucky, and Ted Cruz of Texas — who are all running for president — opposed the measure, which failed.

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, a rival for the party’s nomination, also has an A+ endorsement from the National Rifle Association. He signed a law, which he called the “castle doctrine,” that provides protections for gun owners who shoot home intruders. He’s also signed legislation allowing permit-holders to carry concealed firearms into public buildings, including the Wisconsin State Capitol.


Annie Linskey can be reached at annie.linskey@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @annielinskey.