DES MOINES — Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders said Saturday that he would support changing the law to allow gun manufacturers who “act irresponsibly” to be held liable when crimes are committed with their products, ending a legal protection they were granted in legislation he supported a decade ago.
The Vermont senator’s comments followed fresh criticism this week from Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton about Sanders’s 2005 vote to shield firearms manufacturers and dealers from lawsuits under such circumstances — a vote Clinton says is an important difference between the two candidates.
“I think we should take another look at that legislation and get rid of those provisions which allow gun manufacturers to act irresponsibly,” Sanders told a crowd of nearly 1,600 gathered on the Iowa State Fairgrounds for an evening rally in the nation’s first caucus state.
On Friday, Clinton took the unusual step of calling into MSNBC’s “Hardball” program to highlight Sanders’s vote. Clinton, who voted against the 2005 legislation while a senator from New York, told host Chris Matthews that Sanders should “stand up and say I got this one wrong.”
Clinton’s campaign has taken several other steps in recent days to call attention to Sanders’s vote in the wake of an op-ed in The New York Times in which President Obama was critical of the manufacturers liability law. Obama said he would be unwilling to support a Democratic nominee who was on the wrong side of such issues.
Aides to Sanders said Saturday night that the senator’s comments at the rally were consistent with his stance on the liability law for the past several months. During an October appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Sanders said he would be willing to take another look at the law.
On the program, Sanders, who was a member of the House of Representatives in 2005, called it “a complicated vote.”
“If you are a gun shop owner in Vermont and you sell somebody a gun and that person flips out and then kills somebody, I don’t think it’s really fair to hold that person responsible, the gun shop owner,” Sanders said.
He said he considered it a different situation when “gun manufacturers do know that they’re selling a whole lot of guns in an area that really should not be buying that many guns, that many of those guns are going to other areas, probably for criminal purposes.”
In an interview Saturday night, Sanders’s campaign manager Jeff Weaver said that Sanders had voted for the 2005 bill “in an attempt to protect mom-and-pop hunting stores, particularly in Vermont.”
Weaver said that Sanders would support changes to the law that if protections are still provided to “actors who are following the law and doing what they’re supposed to do. We don’t want to subject them to liability.”
Weaver said that Clinton’s focus on the issue comes in response to concerns about her standing in the first nominating states, where voters will weigh in next month.
“They are trying to distract attention from the fact that people are moving in large numbers to Bernie Sanders in Iowa and New Hampshire and other states,” Weaver said.
In an email to supporters Saturday, the Clinton campaign argued that “Hillary is the candidate with the best policy on gun violence prevention and the strongest record of being a progressive who gets things done.”
The e-mail pointed out Sanders’s 2005 vote “to shield gun manufacturers from lawsuits.”
“Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama both voted against it,” the email said, referring to a period where Obama was a senator from Illinois. “The bill passed with Sanders’ support — and Wayne LaPierre of the NRA called it ‘the most significant piece of pro-gun legislation in 20 years.’ And just a few months ago, Sanders said he doesn’t apologize for that vote.”