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Clinton and Sanders Fight Over Gun Control Ahead of Connecticut's Primary

The Democratic candidates are wrestling over their records and a lawsuit in Sandy Hook ahead of Tuesday's primaries in five states with strict gun control laws.

by Liz Fields
Apr 25 2016, 3:50pm

Photo by Jessica Hill/AP

This election cycle, Bernie Sanders has often described the big banks as "greedy and reckless." As the primaries shift from New York to a slew of states this week that are tough on firearms, inevitably the conversation has also turned from Wall Street toward gun control — where Hillary Clinton has described gun manufacturers and dealers in exactly the same way.

The former secretary of state has already seized on the issue at several campaign stops in Connecticut, the state that just over three years later is still reeling from the shooting at an elementary school in Newtown.

The issue will take center stage this week as the presidential candidates go head to head in what is being dubbed the "Acela primaries" — contests in five northeast states that run on Amtrak train lines. Connecticut, Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island will all vote on Tuesday night. All are among the top 13 states with the strictest gun laws in the country, according to a scorecard compiled by the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

Sanders and Clinton are competing for a combined 384 pledged delegates across all five states on Tuesday, with Sanders hoping to shrink Clinton's 375-delegate lead following his 15-point loss to the former secretary of state in New York last Tuesday.

Last week, surrounded by family members of gun violence victims, Clinton promised to push for gun law reform, including comprehensive background checks and closing gun law loopholes. The panel was held in Hartford, less than an hour's drive from the sleepy and now infamous village of Newtown where a disturbed gunman shot up Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, killing 26 children and staff.

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At the Hartford event, Clinton praised efforts by local lawmakers, including Democratic Governor Dannel Malloy to pass new gun control measures in the state following the massacre, including new restrictions on semi-automatic assault weapons like the one used by the Sandy Hook gunman. Malloy, who was at the event last week, has endorsed Clinton's campaign.

"I know how hard it was to do what Connecticut's governor and legislature did after Sandy Hook, so I am not here to make promises I can't keep," Clinton said. "I am here to tell you I will use every single minute of every day ... looking for ways we can save lives, that we can change the gun culture. It is just too easy for people to reach for a gun to settle their problems."

"We have to turn this into a voting issue," she said.

Malloy said in an interview that the issue of gun control will undoubtably shape the way some Connecticut residents vote in the state primary on Tuesday.

"[Sandy Hook] has been seared into the memory of our citizenry and the fabric of our state," Malloy said. "It's a bigger issue here than most other states, and there is a stark difference between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders on gun control."

Erica Smegielski, whose mother was killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School, reacts as Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton mentions her mother in reference to controlling gun violence after Clinton defeated Bernie Sanders in the New York state primary election, Tuesday, April 19, 2016, in New York. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

One law in particular has taken center stage in recent months as Clinton and Sanders continue to tussle over gun control: the 2005 Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA) — also known as the gun liability bill — which protects weapons manufacturers and distributors from lawsuits. Sanders, who represents rural pro-gun communities in Vermont, supported the law. And Clinton, who opposed the legislation, has had no hesitations reminding people about that support, along with the senator's numerous votes against the so-called Brady Bill of 1993, which mandated a five-day waiting period and background checks for all handgun purchases.

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Sanders has pushed back on Clinton's claims that he was a "reliable vote for the gun lobby" noting in a debate in South Carolina that he has a "D-minus" voting record on gun laws from the National Rifle Association, based on his support for bills that would ban military-style assault weapons and require criminal background checks for buyers, among others.

For many liberal voters, Sanders's shaky stance on guns seems oddly out of sync with his progressive views in almost all other policy areas. Superdelegates — members of the party establishment who have been given an automatic vote to cast at the Democratic National Convention in July — are also baffled by the senator's bearing on the issue.

"I've watched every debate and I don't understand what [Sanders's] position is," said Malloy, who is one of 16 Connecticut superdelegates, all but one of whom have pledged support for Clinton, according to an AP analysis. The remaining superdelegate has not yet staked support for either candidate.

"I understand that it's an evolving one, but honestly, he voted to give [gun manufacturers] blanket coverage — which no other industry has," Malloy added.

Sen. Chris Murphy, another superdelegate who represents Connecticut, has echoed Malloy's comments in his work to elect Clinton. In a press conference call organized by the Clinton campaign earlier this month, Murphy said that it was "uncomfortable" for him to criticize a colleague he respects, like Sanders, but that the senator's views on the Sandy Hook lawsuit made him unelectable.

"From our position in Connecticut, we cannot support a candidate for president who's willing to waver on the fight against the gun lobby. ... I am less sure today that ever before whether Sen. Sanders is for us or against us in our fight against the gun lobby," Murphy said.

The Sanders campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

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The gun liability bill has taken particular prominence in the Connecticut primary debate in light of a lawsuit that the families of nine of 26 Sandy Hook victims filed in 2014 against the maker of the AR-15 semi-automatic rifle used in the massacre. The gun itself was lawfully obtained by the gunman's mother, but the plaintiffs in the case argue that the manufacturer, Bushmaster Firearms International, negligently promoted the military-grade firearm for public consumption to make a profit, despite knowing "that civilians are unfit to operate AR-15s."

While PLCAA law was designed to shield gun manufacturers and distributors from lawsuits, there is an exception for "negligent entrustment," which allows a defendant to be sued under tort law if plaintiffs can prove that the company or individual negligently provided another party with a dangerous weapon that was used in a harmful way.

The Sandy Hook lawsuit claims that Bushmaster was negligent because the company knew or should have known the weapon could be shared with "unscreened" individuals and posed an "unreasonable risk" of inflicting multiple casualties or serious injury to others.

In the past, most of the previous cases brought under the exception have been against gun dealers that negligently entrusted the gun to someone they should have known was either dangerous or a gun trafficker. The Sandy Hook case would set precedent, opening up the PLCAA exception to manufacturers, if it succeeds.

Last Thursday, the families were granted an incremental victory when a Connecticut judge ruled against a motion to automatically dismiss the case based on the gun liability law, and set a trial date for April 2018.

Firearms training unit Detective Barbara J. Mattson, of the Connecticut State Police, holds up a Bushmaster AR-15 rifle, the same make and model of gun used by Adam Lanza in the Sandy Hook School shooting, during a hearing of a legislative subcommittee, at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford, Conn. (Photo by Jessica Hill/AP)

Jonathan Lowy, director of the Legal Action Project at the Brady Campaign to End Gun Violence, which has endorsed Clinton in 2016, said that the PLCAA "may well be the most outrageous piece of special interest legislation that Congress has ever enacted," adding that members of Congress " who voted for it knew better."

"Anyone who chose to support the special interest corporate gun lobby over the rights and safety of victims of gun violence, will find it very hard to defend themselves for the American people," Lowy said.

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Sanders has defended his vote for the PLCAA as a way to safeguard the "small mom-and-pop gun shop" against frivolous lawsuits in Vermont. The issue has been a frequent topic of discussion at Democratic debates. Sanders responded directly to the Newtown families' lawsuit, saying that what they were asking for would amount to "ending gun manufacturing in America."

"If you go to a gun store and you legally purchase a gun, and then, three days later, if you go out and start killing people, is the point of this lawsuit to hold the gun shop owner or the manufacturer of that gun liable? ... If they understand that they're selling guns into an area that — it's getting into the hands of criminals, of course they should be held liable," he said.

After being hit repeatedly by gun control advocates on his previous support for the PLCAA, Sanders announced his support in January for a bill to repeal key provisions of the law, although he continued to seek an amendment to shield "non-negligent mom and pop hunting stores."

At a Democratic debate in South Carolina, Clinton accused her rival of doing a U-turn on the issue, saying she was "pleased to hear that Sen. Sanders has reversed his position on immunity" — a charge she has often repeated on the campaign trail.

But on Thursday, Sanders's wife, Jane Sanders, turned those criticisms of flip-flopping around, saying that when Clinton ran for the White House against Barack Obama in 2008, "she was very anti-gun control," but "now that she's running against Bernie, she's back to for gun control."

"I just don't like to see it be politicized," Jane Sanders said in the interview with CNN. "I think that Secretary Clinton's gun record is a lot more spotty than Bernie's."

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Malloy dismissed that argument Friday, saying that "guns have been politicized in our country for years" and pointed to Sanders' own brushes with gun lobbyists while campaigning for elected office.

"[Sanders] lost an election over guns," Malloy said. "He then changed his position and he won an election, and has ever since been an apologist for the NRA."

The governor was referring to Sanders's 1988 run for the US House, in which the NRA publicly opposed the then-Burlington mayor's candidacy after he declared his opposition to semi-automatic weapons. Ultimately, Sanders's rival, Republican incumbent Peter Smith retained his seat that year. But in an abrupt reversal after retaking office, Smith changed his position on assault weapons and the NRA ran a negative campaign against him in the next election, leading in part to Sanders' election to the House.

In 1990, Sanders vowed to oppose congressional legislation creating a mandatory waiting period for handgun purchases. The NRA called on Vermont voters to back him over Smith and Sanders won the House seat.

Sanders and Clinton have both campaigned heavily in Connecticut ahead of the state's primary on Tuesday. The Vermont senator spoke to a rally of more than 10,000 people in New Haven on Sunday and will speak in Hartford on Monday. Clinton campaigned in the state all weekend and her husband is holding two rallies in Connecticut on Monday afternoon. Bill Clinton will be joined by former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, who was shot in a mass shooting in Arizona in 2011, and her husband, Mark Kelly.

A new Public Policy Polling survey out Monday morning showed a tight race between the two candidates in Connecticut, with Clinton holding a 48-46 percent edge over the senator, which is within the margin of error. The race in Rhode Island also appears to be close. But in the biggest states up for grabs on Tuesday night, Clinton holds large leads. The former secretary of state is outpacing Sanders in polling in both Maryland and Pennsylvania, which carry 118 and 210 delegates, respectively.

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After a difficult loss in New York last week, Sanders' senior strategist Tad Devine pointed to this Tuesday's primaries and said the campaign would see how they do in those five states and then "assess where we are".

Follow Liz Fields on Twitter: @lianzifields