With the seventh Democratic presidential debate on Sunday in Flint, Michigan, down to two candidates, the subject of legal protections for the gun industry turned hot.
Squaring off were former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont independent U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, who went head to head over jobs, fracking, Flint’s water crisis and the economy before turning to guns about 50 minutes into the more than two-hour debate.
Gene Kopf, the father of 14-year-old Abigail, seriously wounded by an Uber-driving gunman in Kalamazoo last month, asked Clinton, “What do you plan to do to address this serious epidemic. I don’t want to hear anything about tougher laws for mental health or criminal backgrounds, because that doesn’t work.”
To this Clinton repeated statistics she has used repeatedly that “90 people a day are killed by gun violence in our country,” which PolitiFact has in the past held up as being “mostly true” although it leaves unsaid the bulk of those deaths are suicides and that the number is the lowest since 1999. Everytown often echoes the same figure.
Clinton then argued the existing background check system should be strengthened to include closing the so-called Charleston Loophole then went on the offensive over what many have seen to be Sanders’ Achilles heel on gun control.
“I also believe, so strongly Gene, that giving immunity to gun makers and sellers was a terrible mistake,” said Clinton, alluding to Sanders’ now-controversial 2005 vote in favor of passing the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which was designed to insulate the gun industry from frivolous lawsuits.
Saying PLCAA removed “any accountability” for firearms makers and sellers, Clinton argued, “I think we should very seriously move to repeal that and go back to making sure gun makers and sellers are like any other business. They can be held accountable.”
Clinton’s remarks drew fierce applause at times from the audience.
CNN’s Anderson Cooper then lobbed the question to Sanders, who came out swinging to defend his record as a gun control advocate, touting his NRA “D” rating, voicing support for an assault weapon ban by saying, “I don’t think it’s a great idea in this country to be selling military-style assault weapons which are designed to kill people,” and stumping to expand the three-day hold period at the heart of the “Charleston Loophole” issue.
When pressed on PLCAA by Cooper, who brought up the current lawsuit being defended by Remington subsidiary Bushmaster from victims’ families of the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, as an example, Sanders in the end stood by the protection.
“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?” Sanders asked. “If that is the point, I have to tell you I disagree. I disagree because you hold people – in terms of this liability thing, where you hold manufacturers’ liability is 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.”
“But if they are selling a product to a person who buys it legally, what you’re really talking about is ending gun manufacturing in America. I don’t agree with that,” Sanders said.
Clinton then rebutted that Sanders’ views were those of the NRA, again stating the gun lobby demanded and got “absolute immunity” in 2005 and “they sell products all the time that cause harm.”
The former First Lady played to the audience by framing the Newtown event as a lightning rod for changing industry protections, even as Cooper tried to steer the debate to the next question.
“I want people in this audience to think about what it must feel like to send off your first grader, little backpack, maybe, on his or her back, and then the next thing you hear is that somebody has come to that school using an automatic weapon, an AR-15, and murdered those children,” she said. “Now, they are trying to prevent that from happening to any other family.”
To this, Sanders repeated his argument that he could not support what in his mind would be the shuttering of the gun industry if PLCAA was repealed and Cooper moved past the subject following much cross talk.