Bernie Sanders says he wants to talk – at length – about guns.
Just not now.
Two days after a white man walked into a historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina, and killed nine people, the Vermont senator and presidential candidate took a cautious approach on gun control Friday when speaking with reporters after an event in Las Vegas.
“I think the people of Vermont understand that guns in Vermont are different than guns in Chicago or guns in Los Angeles,” Sanders said, telling the assembled journalists that he thinks “it is wrong” when people are “in some cases suicidal and in some cases homicidal” are “still being able to purchase guns.”
Sanders, saying his home state of Vermont has “zero gun control,” acknowledged that different parts of the country have different outlooks on guns.
“I think we need to have as serious conversation about that,” Sanders said. “I think rural America needs to understand what urban America feels. Urban America needs to understand the culture of rural America. But I think together we have got to go forward to make certain that people who should not be having these weapons do not have them.”
When CNN tried to follow up with Sanders about how he would handle guns differently than President Barack Obama, the independent senator rejected the question.
“I will talk about guns at some length,” he said, “but not right now.”
Sanders’ caution smacks in the face of his usual persona: Blunt, brash and proudly liberal. Before his chat with reporters, Sanders delivered his proudly liberal stump speech to an energized audience at The Treasure Island Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. He framed his campaign as one where the lower and middle class were fighting against the wealthy.
“Brothers and sisters, this is a tough fight,” he said, just before a woman shouted, “but we are going to win!”
“We are going to win,” Sanders responded with a slight smile.
The senator started his rally with a moment of silence for the people killed in Charleston, a tragedy he said was a remind that “racism, sadly, remains alive and well in this country and that we have much too much violence.”
As his campaign aides watched closely, Sanders also addressed guns during his remarks, again contrasting his background in Vermont with urban America.
“There are weapons out there that have nothing to do with hunting and are designed to kill people and kill them quickly,” Sanders said. “And this is an issue that must be dealt with.”
In the eyes of gun control activists, Sanders has a mixed and moderate background on the issue, something that contrasts with his more liberal persona.
Sanders voted against the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act in 1993, a law that imposed a five-day waiting period for gun purchases and mandated background checks, and voted for allowing guns on Amtrak. For much of his career, Sanders has followed the lead of his constituents – who mostly back gun rights for hunters – by keeping a generally states’ rights view of gun laws.
But Sanders has also backed stricter gun laws. He voted for the 1994 assault weapons ban, and after the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012, Sanders backed Obama’s failed push for more background checks and another assault weapons ban.
Even after the 2013 push, though, Sanders questioned whether the legislation he supported would even work.
“If you passed the strongest gun control legislation tomorrow, I don’t think it will have a profound effect on the tragedies we have seen,” he told Seven Days, an independent paper in Vermont.
Sanders’ reluctance to address specifics on gun control contrasts with his foremost progressive challenger, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who outlined specific policy proposals Friday in an email to supporters entitled, “I’m pissed.”
O’Malley backed a national assault weapons ban, stricter background checks and “efforts to reduce straw-buying, like fingerprint requirements.”
“How many senseless acts of violence in our streets or tragedies in our communities will it take to get our nation to stop caving to special interests like the NRA when people are dying?” he asked.