Clinton and Sanders on Guns and Healthcare

The long-simmering race for the Democratic Presidential nomination is starting to boil over as recent polls show Bernie Sanders solidifying his lead in New Hampshire, even with Hillary Clinton in Iowa, and closing fast what had been a 20+ point national gap. The putative frontrunner and Bernie have been battling most notably over guns and healthcare. Following is a brief look at the charges and countercharges, who’s right, and what I think it should all mean to Democratic voters.

Gun Control

Claim and Counterclaim: Clinton claims that she is demonstrably better when it comes to gun control and that Sanders has raised feeble excuses for voting the way gun makers and lobby want. Sanders counterclaims that Clinton is flailing at him because she’s tumbling in the polls.

Analysis: The Brady Bill, which Sanders voted against repeatedly, has saved many thousands of lives. Enacted in early-1994, it mandated a background check and waiting period for most gun purchases. Since the end of 1993, the homicide rate in America has dropped by well over 50%.

Demographic shifts and better policing probably have helped make America safer but the simple fact is that the two years when America suffered the most homicides were 1991 and 1993. Since then the murder rate has declined steadily. The Brady Bill has prevented an estimated 2.1 million gun sales. The correlation between background checks and a dropping homicide rate is very strong. The two are almost certainly linked causally.

Clinton is also criticizing Sanders for voting in 2005 to shield gun makers and dealers from liability in nearly every instance. The law was passed over Senator Clinton’s opposition. It’s clearly bad legislation. A small number of “bad apple” gun dealers are responsible for nearly all of the guns used in crimes.

The shield law makes it nearly impossible to hold these bad apples liable. Moreover, the legislation stymied a promising trend among some gun makers to produce “smarter” weapons – e.g., ones equipped with (a) fingerprint readers that could not be discharged by an individual whose prints hadn’t been inputted into the gun or (b) built-in locks. When gun manufacturers no longer feared product liability suits, their interest in building safer firearms evaporated.

Sanders recently rebutted Clinton’s charges that he is wrong on guns by claiming, in reference to recent voter surveys showing him surging, “Secretary Clinton, obviously now, sees herself in trouble”. In the past he has excused his votes against sensible gun control laws by noting the rural nature of his home state. A pro-Sanders columnist H.A. Goodman calls Clinton a hypocrite for attacking Bernie as soft on gun control. Goodman points out that in her 2008 campaign, Hillary called herself a “pro-gun churchgoer“.

Sanders may be right that Clinton’s is lashing out in part due to desperation and it is true that the percentage of gun owners in Vermont is high. On the other hand, Clinton’s reason for talking about guns now is irrelevant to the question of who is better on this issue and surveys show the majority of NRA members, including presumably those who live in Vermont, support background checks. Goodman’s reference to Clinton’s campaign history ignores the fact that she voted for and has consistently supported more stringent controls on gun sales while Sanders has not.

Winner: Clinton wins this by unanimous decision. On two very important pieces of gun control legislation – one of which has likely saved tens of thousands of American lives – Sanders has voted against the best interests of the American people. Clinton on the other hand has been a reliable foe of gun manufacturers and their lobby. It is no surprise the Brady Center has endorsed Clinton. Gun control is the one area where, to this progressive, she is clearly superior to Sanders. She didn’t earn a knockout only because Sanders responses to her attacks, while disingenuous, are not fundamentally dishonest.


Claim and Counterclaim: Hillary and Chelsea Clinton have taken to the campaign trail over the past few days to allege that Bernie Sanders wants to “dismantle Obamacare”. Their implication is that his “Medicare-for-all” proposal would strip healthcare from millions of Americans. Part of the claim seems to rest on the allegation that Sanders would delegate responsibility for implementing his plan to the states. Since many are controlled by hostile Republicans, red state residents may be left with nothing the thinking goes.

Sanders counterclaims that the charge is absurd. He says he would only replace the Affordable Care Act in the event he could shepherd through Congress a federal law mandating universal single-payer coverage that Republican governors and legislators could not skirt.  Sanders also contends his plan would lead to better healthcare results and save the American people money.

Analysis: This is an easy one. The Clintons are lying. As Mother Jones pointed out Tuesday:

Sanders’ health care plan, which he outlined in legislation in 2013, would replace the current piecemeal approach to coverage through many different programs—private insurance, Medicare, Medicaid, CHIP—with government-provided coverage for everyone. As with the Affordable Care Act’s health care exchanges, Sanders’ 2013 bill relies on states to develop single-payer plans. But as the Sanders campaign stresses, any state that refused to set up a singe-payer system would have the federal government step in and do it. So unlike with the current Medicaid expansion, states could not opt out of “Berniecare.”

Interestingly, the feminist online magazine Jezebel has also weighed in on this controversy. Citing Chelsea’s claim on the Iowa campaign trail that Bernie Sanders would “strip millions and millions and millions of people of their health insurance,” Anna Merlan writes:

Th[is] is misleading at best and a grossly inflammatory lie at worst, because Sanders supports single-payer healthcare, and always has, and talks about it more or less constantly. The most recent bill he introduced was in 2013, and [this] video . . . is of him in 2014, advocating for it again.

Winner: Sanders by a knockout. Clinton is lying about his healthcare proposal and cynically sending her daughter out to do the same. They are trying to frighten people who finally have healthcare insurance into believing Sanders might take it away.  Instead Sanders is fighting for a better more comprehensive alternative than the one in place today.


Clinton and Sanders each win one important issue. In another year, say 1976, Clinton’s superiority on guns would go a long way with me. 40 years ago, top marginal income tax rates were at 70%. We were at peace and we there was a bipartisan consensus on the importance of addressing environmental problems.  On the other hand, on the eve of the Ford-Carter Presidential race, violent crime rates were higher than now and rising. In large part due to the Brady Bill, which Sanders paradoxically opposed, more gun control laws are not as crucial to the nation’s present and future well-being as taking on economic injustice and global warming – two areas where Sanders is particularly strong. Bernie Sanders is easily the best candidate running for President in 2016.

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