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Politics & Government

Mass Shooting Spotlights Bernie Sanders' Stance On Gun Control

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Where do you stand on gun control? That's the question many voters are asking their candidates following last week's mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Ore. President Obama says he's going to keep talking about it, calling for change. And on Friday, he said those who want greater controls on guns need to become single-issue voters.

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BARACK OBAMA: You have to make sure that anybody who you are voting for is on the right side of this issue. And if they're not - even if they're great on other stuff, for a couple of election cycles, you got to vote against them. And let them know precisely why you're voting against them.

MARTIN: But for one presidential candidate seeking the Democratic nomination, this focus on guns could present a challenge. NPR's Tamara Keith reports.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders is to the left of the Democratic field on just about everything - everything, that is, except guns. There, his rhetoric is decidedly more moderate. Take these comments on MSNBC the night of the shooting.

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BERNIE SANDERS: You know, you can sit there and think, well, I think we should do this and do that, but you got a whole lot of states in this country where people want, virtually, no gun control at all. And if we are going to have some success, we are going to have to start talking to each other. And here's...

KEITH: Sanders says he wants sensible gun control, instant background checks, a ban on assault weapons and improved mental health services. In 2013, after the Sandy Hook shooting, he supported all the gun control bills put on the floor by Democrats. But in the 1990s, he voted against the Brady bill because he opposed waiting periods for gun purchases. And generally, he has a mixed voting record on gun legislation. At a campaign event in Iowa, shortly before the Charleston shooting, someone in the audience pointed out that Sanders hadn't mentioned gun control in his stump speech. The audience member asked what Sanders would do to fight the NRA.

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SANDERS: Well, you're looking at somebody who has, I think, a D-minus record from the NRA.

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SANDERS: But you're also looking at somebody who comes from a city where guns are looked at very differently than they are, say, in New York City or Detroit or Los Angeles.

KEITH: Vermont's gun culture is something the state's successful politicians either embrace or carefully navigate. But running statewide in Vermont is very different from running in a national Democratic primary. Already, the superPAC backing former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley has come after Sanders on guns.

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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Bernie Sanders voted against the Brady bill?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And Bernie Sanders voted to give gun manufacturers protection from victim lawsuits?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: The NRA even paid for ads attacking a Sanders opponent.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Bernie Sanders is no progressive when it comes to guns.

KEITH: And some of Hillary Clinton's biggest applause lines at her events come when she goes after the NRA and calls for stricter gun control.

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HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON: What is wrong with us that we can't stand up to the NRA and the gun lobby and the gun manufacturers they represent?

KEITH: Gun control will inevitably be a topic at the first Democratic debate on October 14. And depending on how his opponents handle it, Sanders could find himself in an uncomfortable position, explaining votes he took more than a decade ago. Yesterday, at a huge rally in Massachusetts, Sanders talked about guns briefly.

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SANDERS: What we need to do is bring our people together to stop the shouting, to pass sensible gun control legislation.

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KEITH: President Obama has pledged to keep talking about it. But whether gun control is a major campaign issue when people start voting in primaries four months from now, may just depend on whether mass shootings are still in the headlines. Tamara Keith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.