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Backstory: Happiest Hoarder


Published December 25, 2019 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated December 30, 2019 at 11:52 a.m.

  • Laura Patterson/cq Roll Call Via Ap Images | Rev. Diane Sullivan

This "backstory" is a part of a collection of articles that describes some of the obstacles that Seven Days reporters faced while pursuing Vermont news, events and people in 2019.

After a mass shooting in New Zealand in March, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) remarked on Twitter that it had taken the Kiwis "less than a week to ban military-style weapons." He noted that it had been 405 days since the mass shooting in Parkland, Fla., and 2,294 days since the one in Newtown, Conn.

I couldn't help myself and responded on Twitter that it had taken 85 days after the Newtown shooting for Sanders to answer my questions about whether he would support the assault weapons ban proposed at the time by president Barack Obama. I quoted from an interview he gave me then. "If you passed the strongest gun control legislation tomorrow, I don't think it will have a profound effect on the tragedies we have seen," he'd told me in March 2013.

The Sanders campaign pounced. "This is a completely disingenuous read of what he said," spokesperson Arianna Jones wrote me in an email. "You're editorializing. He has, in fact, never faltered in his support for the assault weapons ban."

When I noted that he had, in fact, "faltered" — and that he had done so in his interview with me — Sanders senior adviser Jeff Weaver jumped into the email fray.

"Pardon me if I object to your attempt to wipe away 30 years of history because you've concocted a revisionist view and decided to push it out on twitter," Weaver wrote me. "There's a difference between making news and making up news. You are a 'gotcha' columnist. Why not just own that?"

Instead of owning it, I decided to dig up tape of the interview, which I'd miraculously kept. Lo and behold, it was actually worse for Sanders than I'd remembered. Not only had he expressed doubt about the efficacy of Obama's gun-control proposals, he'd reaffirmed his long-held states' rights argument about gun laws.

"My own view on guns is: Everything being equal, states should make those decisions," Sanders had said — 85 days after Newtown.

I hadn't used that quote when I'd written about the interview in 2013 because, at the time, it wasn't terribly newsworthy. He'd been making the same argument for years. But now, as his campaign was rewriting his record on gun control, it seemed newly relevant. So I set about writing a cover story chronicling just how much Sanders' position had shifted — and why he was unwilling to admit it.

To prove to readers — and to Weaver — that we weren't "making up news," we decided to post the entire interview in the online version of the story.

The day after it was published, Sanders participated in his first debate of the Democratic presidential primary. As I watched from the comfort of my couch, moderator Rachel Maddow brought up my story. I nearly spat out my Sip of Sunshine.

"Sen. Sanders, a Vermont newspaper recently released portions of an interview you gave in 2013 in which you said, 'My own view on guns is: Everything being equal, states should make those decisions,'" Maddow said.

Instead of explaining how his position had evolved, Sanders interrupted her and said, "No."

Maddow pressed on. "How has your thinking changed since then?" she asked. "Do you now think there's a federal role to play?"

"No, that's a mischaracterization of my thinking," the senator responded.

"It's a quote of you," Maddow noted, drawing laughter from the audience.

I'll never know exactly why Maddow asked the question, but I suspect that she was willing to trust our reporting because we brought receipts. Sanders and his staff could characterize it as a "mischaracterization" of his thinking, but anyone with ears could hear that it wasn't.

Moral of the story? Never delete a recorded interview.