MANHATTAN (CN) – On the steps of New York City Hall, families grieving the nation’s worst gun massacres demanded Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders apologize for a vote that tossed a hurdle in front of their lawsuits against manufacturers.
Hillary Clinton’s campaign surrogate, however, ducked a question about her candidate’s financial ties to the industry she condemned.
New York City’s Public Advocate Letitia James, a prominent Hillary Clinton supporter in New York, set a scathing tone for the afternoon conference.
“In New York, we often talk about ‘The Tale of Two Cities,’ and with guns, we have the tale of two candidates,” James said, borrowing a line from Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Dickensian slogan. “Bernie stands for the gun industry. Hillary stands for families and communities.”
That would be news to the National Rifle Association, which has flunked both Democratic candidates for years on its annual report card.
Sanders boasts that the group most recently gave him a D-minus, actually one of his higher grades after his decades-long advocacy for assault-weapons bans. Clinton is equally pleased with her failing grade, though not proud enough to turn down donations from NRA lobbyists.
Despite this record, Sanders has largely played defense on gun control this Democratic primary for backing a bill that made it harder for families of Sandy Hook and Aurora massacre victims to sue gun manufacturers for their loss.
Passed in 2005, the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act shields gun shops and manufacturers from lawsuits stemming from shooting deaths. Sanders repeatedly argued that he wanted to protect small businesses from being sued and bankrupted, if their negligence played no role in a crime.
Sanders dug into that position in an extensive interview he gave to the New York Daily News, before the tabloid blared what it called “Bernie’s Sandy Hook Shame” on its front page.
When asked if crime victims should be able to sue gun manufacturers, he replied: “No, I don’t.”
James denounced this vote – and his five “no” votes on the Brady bill – in a blistering speech.
“Is Bernie right for protecting gun dealers and sellers from lawsuits?” she asked. “I say, ‘Hell, no!'”
For James, the law gave gun manufacturers the “kind of immunity that nearly no other industry enjoys,” but Politifact notes that vaccine manufacturers and online services industries enjoy similar protections.
A Connecticut Superior judge has yet to rule on whether this law will prevent the Sandy Hook victims from suing the manufacturers for selling a military-style assault weapon: the Bushmaster AR-15.
Jillian Soto, one of the plaintiffs in that lawsuit awaiting a ruling, joined the other family members in demanding an apology on behalf of her late sister Victoria, a teacher killed in the shooting.
“We deserve an apology from Sen. Sanders because we want and deserve our day in court,” she said.
After Clinton called for a mea culpa, Sanders said that his opponent “might want to apologize to the families that lost their loved ones in Iraq,” including thousands of U.S. soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.
Erica Smegielski, the daughter of the late Sandy Hook principal Dawn Hochsprung, called it “shameful” that the senator attacked Clinton instead of saying sorry.
“I’ve said before that I’m a single-issue voter, and it’s a winning issue,” she said.
Sandy Phillips, who wore a button with a photograph of her late child Jessica Ghawi, spoke graphically of how an armor-piercing bullet pierced a “5-inch hole in my daughter’s face” during the midnight premiere of “The Dark Knight Rises,” in Aurora, Colorado.
“I tell you this not to offend you, but to let you know that this person was able to go online to order his ammo with a click of the mouse – with a simple click of a mouse – with no background check and no need to show a driver’s license,” she said.
Sanders in fact has repeatedly supported strengthening background checks during his decades-long political career. He also backed an amendment in January that would ban such armor-piercing ammunition and impose child-safety lock requirements on weapons, while also imposing liability for manufacturer negligence.
As with the Sandy Hook victims, Phillips blamed Sanders for the crumbling of the Aurora victims’ case in 2013.
“We sued in court, and were denied our day in court because of PCLAA,” she said.
Although the federal law partly contributed to the dismissal, the judge presiding over the case mainly based his finding on its state equivalent – the Colorado Premises Liability Act.
After the conference, Phillips said in an interview that she wants Sanders to “own” the damaging effects of his vote.
“Hillary’s vote on Iraq was bad, and she’s owned it,” she said. “She said it was wrong. She can now look back and say, ‘I wish I hadn’t done it.’ He has to come back and say the same thing, but you know what? He won’t.”
The Sanders campaign did not immediately return an email request for comment.
Clinton may be hitting Sanders hard over gun regulation this campaign cycle, but she charted a different course during her fight with Obama.
In 2008, the title of a New York Times article noted “Clinton Portrays Herself as a Pro-Gun Churchgoer,” and then-Sen. Barack Obama compared his future Secretary of State to musical sharpshooter Annie Oakley.
Reviving this history on the campaign trail, Sanders also pilloried Clinton for funding her campaign through wealthy donors and special interests, including the gun lobby.
Jeff Forbes, who lobbied for the group from 2009 until the end of 2015, donated the $2,700 legal maximum before hosting a Washington fundraiser for the campaign on March 21. His colleague Elizabeth Green maxed out as a donor too while still a registered NRA lobbyist, Huffington Post reported.
When Courthouse News asked whether Clinton should return these donations, supporter Letitia James ducked the question and her thundering rhetoric against the NRA sharply diminished.
“I don’t know the circumstances of that,” she hastily replied, and the question-and-answer session abruptly ended.
The campaign did not confirm whether it would return its gun-lobby donations by press time.
Clinton herself did not attend the conference because she had to prepare for a closed-door meeting with a teacher’s union on Friday in Rochester, New York.
Meanwhile, former President Bill Clinton is continuing the effort to pad his wife’s war chest in the state where he served as governor.
Attendees of the Arkansas fundraiser, hosted by actor Gary Grimes, can snap a picture with the former president for a “champion” donation of the legal maximum of $2,700 – a figure 100 times more than the donation the average Sanders supporter gives their candidate.
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