PORTSMOUTH, NEW HAMPSHIRE — When she was 13 years old, Clai Lasher-Sommers’ step-father shot her through the back with a “huge rifle.” That traumatic experience, which she barely survived in 1970, motivated her to become a lifelong advocate for gun control her in home state of New Hampshire, where she gives speeches and pressures elected officials to pass local and national measures to restrict easy access to firearms.
Now, as she looks at the candidates for president who have descended on her politically-important state, she is torn. She says Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) — who is currently ahead of all other Democrats in the polls in her state — has the best platform for “marginalized people,” but the worst record on gun control.
“I believe in everything he says and a lot of things he’s done in Washington, but I can’t vote for him,” she told ThinkProgress. “I will vote for whoever has enough clout to make the change, and I don’t believe [Sanders] will take this on. I can only look at a candidate who speaks loudly about it, because I can’t watch more people be shot.”
Other New Hampshire voters shared similar concerns, citing guns as the only red flag in Sanders’ otherwise progressive record.
At a campaign stop in Portsmouth over the weekend, Sanders pushed back against this sentiment, telling ThinkProgress: “You’re looking at a senator who voted to ban certain types of assault weapons. You’re looking at a senator who voted for instant background checks and wants to strengthen that, and who voted to do away with the so-called gun show loophole.”
Yet Sanders also cast a vote against the Brady Bill, legislation that instituted federal background checks and a five-day waiting period for gun purchases. He said at the time that states should be able to set their own waiting periods. Then, in 2007, he voted for a bill to prohibit foreign or United Nations aid to be used for gun control. In 2009, he voted to allow firearms in checked bags on Amtrak trains. His most controversial vote was cast in 2005, in favor of an NRA-backed bill to prevent victims of gun violence from being able to sue gun manufacturers for negligence.
Sanders told ThinkProgress that his background representing a gun-loving, rural state would help him reach across the political divide and break the current gridlock on the issue.
“I come from a state that has virtually no gun control. But we in Vermont know that guns mean something very different in cities and states all over this country than they mean in Vermont,” he said. “Coming from a state where guns are mostly used for hunting, I’m someone who can bring people together for commonsense gun control legislation. You know, there are some who want no gun control at all, and some who want to take away every gun in America. We can scream and yell at each other, but I don’t think that’s going to solve the problem.”
Sanders added that he’s “prepared to do everything” he can on the issue if elected president. But those attending his events remained skeptical, even as they cheered his stump speeches about taking on Wall Street and expanding access to health care and higher education.
At a Sanders town hall in Seaport, Ted Ruetenik told ThinkProgress: “He comes from a rural state where they have a history of lax gun control. It’s worked okay up there, I guess. But the president of the United States really needs to take a different approach. The proliferation of guns is so dangerous.” Gesturing around the middle school auditorium packed with people who came out to hear Sanders speak, he added, “Anybody could walk in here at any time. There are a lot of crazy people in this country and no controls over what they can do.”
Other attendees, including Judy Mouradian, who drove up from Newburyport, Massachusetts for the event, said her admiration for Sanders’ other proposals outweighed her criticism of his gun control record. “With everything else he stands for, I can’t let that one issue change my mind,” she said. “And if we get rid of Citizens United, like he wants to, things can happen in that regard. If we could get money out of politics, we could fix that problem. I think you can’t work on anything else until you get money out of politics. It’s the root of all evil.”
New Hampshire is a state that loves guns. It has the most machine guns per capita in the nation — 7.5 for every 1,000 residents, according to federal registration data — and one of the highest rates of firearm possession overall, yet it is a state with one of the the lowest levels of gun deaths. An analysis by the Violence Policy Center ranked it as one of the 10 safest states in the country. Even so, gun violence remains much higher than in other industrialized nations, where controls are stricter.
For Lasher-Sommers, though the rate of gun violence has fallen dramatically over the past few decades, it is still much too high.
“Since I was shot, I have watched all around me other shootings. There are so many survivors,” she said. “So the fact that we can’t get a federal bill for background checks passed is appalling to me. Obviously, one reason is the NRA rhetoric and fear-mongering about the Second Amendment. I don’t know how to make it stop. Does someone really important have to be shot before there’s some sort of change? I hope not.”
As she continues to advocate for universal background checks and measures to prevent those with a record of domestic violence, harassment, or stalking from buying a weapon, Lasher-Sommers plans to keep a close eye on the race for the Democratic nomination in her home state.
She predicted: “Bernie Sanders is not going to talk much about gun violence. He won’t touch this, even though people want him to, because in his state people want the right to hunt. But look, this is a public safety issue. We need these laws just like we need seat belts and rules on where you can smoke.”