Bernie Sanders and Gun Rights: More Than Just Electoral Expediency

What Sanders' third-party home had to say about guns in 1972


One of the signs says "Lower Taxes." Hmm.
Liberty Union Party

Bernie Sanders' uneven but real support for gun rights has puzzled a lot of pundits, who tend to describe the socialist senator's position on the issue as "to Clinton's right" and who tend to figure it's just a byproduct of getting elected in a rural state where guns are everywhere. Both of these theses are undermined by this passage in Michael Tracey's new story for The New Republic:

The [Liberty Union] party, while Sanders served on its executive committee, adopted a platform in 1972 that called for the "abolition of all laws which interfere with the Constitutional right of citizens to bear arms." This may suggest that Sanders's relatively permissive views on gun ownership, already the subject of much consternation among liberals, could be rooted in sincere principle—not simply in the practical realities of winning election in rural Vermont.

Given the Liberty Union Party's penchant for taking self-marginalizing radical stances, I think it's safe to suppose this plank was not mere electoral expediency. But it fit snugly with the New Left's general tendency to be far friendlier to gun rights than center-left liberals were. That was true not just among the violent sorts who liked guns because they wanted to use them to overthrow the government, but among those radicals who thought "armed struggle" was a dead end but saw gun laws as yet another tool for the state to crack down on militant blacks.

I have to confess a certain fondness for the '70s incarnation of Bernie Sanders. That's partly because I can't help smiling at the thought of a scruffy guy tootling along the back roads of Vermont peddling radical film strips. (I wouldn't be surprised if there are some Reason readers out there who fit the same general description, though they'd probably be chugging through New Hampshire instead.) But it's also because the Old, Weird Bernie Sanders was much more libertarian on social issues than he is now, calling for the abolition of compulsory schooling, the legalization of hard drugs, and an end to "all laws which attempt to impose a particular brand of morality or 'right' on people." He even opposed mandatory fluoridation and helmet laws. Of course he was also more prone than the current Sanders to call for enormous expansions of the government's economic power. But in those days at least there was more good to take with the bad.

At any rate, the 1972 Sanders gives us another way to look at the 2015 Sanders' stance on the Second Amendment. When the candidate fails to join the liberal chorus calling for new gun controls, don't think of it as a strange deviation from his leftist ways. Think of it as one of the few places outside economics where you can still catch a glimpse of the senator's radical roots.