TOLEDO, Iowa — Sen. Bernie Sanders is under fire from Democratic rival Hilary Clinton amid a new campaign by the White House to pressure Democrats into backing his gun control proposals.
On Thursday night, President Obama published an op-ed in The New York Times in which he warned he would “not campaign for, vote for or support any candidate, even in my own party, who does not support common-sense gun reform.” Among other measures, the president called on Democrats to support ending a law that grants gun manufacturers immunity from certain lawsuits. Sanders voted for legislation that included the immunity provision in 2005 and indicated earlier this year that he still supports shielding gun companies and dealers from legal action.
Clinton called in to MSNBC's "Hardball" on Friday to highlight the issue and criticized Sanders for voting multiple times against the Brady Bill, which mandated background checks on firearm purchases, as a congressman in the 1990s.
“When it really mattered, Sen. Sanders voted with the gun lobby, and I voted against the gun lobby,” she said.
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Regarding the immunity issue raised in the president's op-ed, Sanders spokesman Michael Briggs told Politico that Sanders was “willing to take another look at that legislation." In an October debate, the candidate said he did not agree with the entire 2005 bill and was mostly concerned with protecting small gun shop owners rather than large companies.
Sanders told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell on Friday that he did not believe Obama’s Times piece was aimed at pushing him to the left on gun control and emphasized their agreement.
“You know, there are a lot of candidates and money in the House and the Senate who may be opposed to sensible gun control legislation,” Sanders said. “ I happen not to be one of them. I strongly support the executive order that the president is working on right now. “
White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters on Friday that breaking down opposition to gun immunity among Democrats like Sanders was exactly Obama’s intention.
“I certainly noticed that Senator Sanders told one of your [colleagues] here when asked this very question, he was eager to point out that Senator Sanders had made clear that he was willing to revisit that position,” Earnest said. “That's exactly the goal here, right? We want people to change their minds.”
Earnest added that he was not familiar with Sanders’ record and that the op-ed was “not any sort of secret or subtle signal to demonstrate a preference in the presidential primary” when it came to candidates. Nonetheless, he said that any Democratic nominee would need to prove their commitment to “common-sense measures” on guns in order to earn Obama’s support.
After lying dormant for years, gun control has increasingly become a core issue for the Democratic Party over the last four years after a wave of high-profile mass shootings. Even among Sanders fans on Friday, there was some unease over the current debate.
Waiting for Sanders to speak at a rally in Cedar Rapids, Tracy Carstensen, 33, said he was "95%" of the way to supporting the senator, but was concerned about the gun issue.
"He's been very political about it," Carstensen told MSNBC. "It's the only issue where he seems somewhat insincere."
Jeff Weaver, campaign manager for Sanders, issued a statement Friday afternoon reiterating that the candidate believed "Congress should re-examine a law on manufacturers’ liability" and raising doubts about Clinton's commitment to the issue. As Weaver pointed out, Obama and Clinton clashed over guns in their 2008 primary, with Obama mocking Clinton as "Annie Oakley" after she accused him of alienating gun owners with his rhetoric.