How the National Rifle Association helped get Bernie Sanders elected

The Vermont Historical Society, in Barre, Vt., has posters and pamphlets from Bernie Sanders's first congressional campaign. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

The Vermont Historical Society, in Barre, Vt., has posters and pamphlets from Bernie Sanders’s first congressional campaign. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

BURLINGTON, Vt. — A few days before Election Day in 1990, the National Rifle Association sent a letter to its 12,000 members in Vermont, with an urgent message about the race for the state’s single House seat.

Vote for the socialist, the gun rights group said. It’s important.

“Bernie Sanders is a more honorable choice for Vermont sportsmen than ­Peter Smith,” wrote Wayne LaPierre, who was — and still is — a top official at the national NRA, backing Sanders over the Republican incumbent.

That was odd. Sanders was the ex-hippie ex-mayor of Burlington, running as an independent because the Democrats weren’t far enough left. He had never even owned a gun.

But that year, he was the enemy of the NRA’s enemy.

Smith had changed his mind about a ban on ­assault weapons. The NRA and its allies wanted him beaten. They didn’t much care who beat him.

“It is not about Peter Smith vs. Bernie Sanders,” LaPierre wrote, according to news coverage from the time. “It is about integrity in politics.”

Today, Sanders is a senator and a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, drawing huge crowds with his calls to break up big banks, increase taxes on the rich and make college free. The election of 1990 launched him. When Sanders won, he became the first socialist in Congress since the 1950s.

That campaign also marked the beginning of Sanders’s complicated relationship with the ­issue of gun rights — the one area where Sanders’s Democratic presidential rivals have been able to attack him from the left.

As a candidate in 1990, Sanders won over gun rights groups by promising to oppose one bill they hated — a measure that would establish a waiting period for handgun sales. In Congress, he kept that promise. The dynamic served as an early demonstration that, despite his pure-leftist persona, Sanders was at his core a pragmatic politician, calculating that he couldn’t win in rural Vermont without doing something for gun owners.

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