Bernie Sanders, the socialist Vermont Senator seeking the Democratic nomination for president, has lately been taking flack for his position on gun policy. In late June, a super PAC tied to Martin O’Malley, one of his opponents in the Democratic field, suggested in a campaign ad that he leaned to the right on the issue. In 1993, Sanders voted against the Brady Act, which mandated federal background checks and a five-day waiting period for gun purchasers. And in 2005, he voted in favor of an NRA-backed bill that shields gun manufacturers and sellers from negligence suits. But the ad reserves its most dripping scorn for a chapter in Sanders’s early career, when he was running for a House seat in 1990. The NRA funded a campaign against his incumbent opponent, who favored an assault-weapon ban. Sanders won the election by almost 20 points.

All of which makes the poor grades Sanders has received from the NRA somewhat perplexing. In 2002, he received an F from the gun lobby group, then climbed to a D+ in 2004, and peaked with a C- in 2006. During his last election, in 2012, Sanders had dropped to a D-.

The NRA’s grading system is what might be considered a trade secret. The organization hands out letter grades for candidates prior to each election, based on their voting records, public statements, responses to an NRA questionnaire, and, according to the group’s executive editor, Chris Cox, “involvement in Second Amendment issues.” Sometimes, as with 2014 Republican congressional candidate Mark Greenberg, a single remark can destroy your good standing. A month before election day, Greenberg, a Connecticut real estate developer who was running against a Democratic incumbent, came out in favor of FBI background checks, and the NRA downgraded him from an A to an F. He did not win in November.

It seems Sanders, for his part, ran afoul of the organization in 1994, when he voted for a bill that would have banned 19 varieties of semiautomatic assault weapons. According to Richard Feldman, a former NRA lobbyist, voting in favor of banning any kind of firearm is, in the eyes of the NRA, unredeemable. “Unless you vote the other way later on,” he adds. Case in point: John Kasich, the Republican governor of Ohio who is seeking the presidential nomination for his party. While serving in Congress during the 1990s, he voted for an assault-weapon ban, which earned him an F for the decade. Later, though, Kasich reversed course and said the ban was a mistake. He now rates an A-.

Sanders, meanwhile, has taken stands that can only further hurt his score. In 2013, he voted for an expansive ban on assault weapons and came out in favor of universal background checks.

On Sunday, Sanders sought the middle ground in an interview on CNN. “We need a sensible debate about gun control,” he said. “Folks who do not like guns are fine, but we have millions of gun owners in this country who are law-abiding citizens.”

His statement would seem to echo the culture of Vermont, a state with a high rate of gun ownership and minimal gun laws. But gun owners in his home state, much like the NRA, don’t believe he speaks for them. Ed Cutler, president of the Gun Owners of Vermont, the state’s largest gun lobbying group, says, “We have 4,000 members, and I can only think of one person who is for Sanders.”

“The truth is, Bernie hasn’t enunciated a coherent position on gun rights,” says the former NRA lobbyist Feldman. “With him, it’s reading tea leaves.”

[Photo: Flickr user John Pemble]