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The Democratic presidential candidates at Thursday's debate in Brooklyn.

Election 2016

Bernie Sanders’s About-Face on the Right to Sue Gun Sellers

At the Democratic debate, the Vermont senator said he supports the right of Sandy Hook families to sue a gun manufacturer.

Thirteen days after Senator Bernie Sanders said the families of gun violence victims shouldn’t be able to sue gunmakers for crimes committed with their products, he reversed course.

In the midst of a heated exchange with his rival Hillary Clinton at the Democratic debate in Brooklyn, New York, on Thursday, Sanders said he supports the right of family members of Sandy Hook victims to bring a lawsuit against Bushmaster, which manufactured the semiautomatic rifle used in the massacre of schoolchildren and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012.

“They have the right to sue, and I support them and anyone else who wants the right to sue,” Sanders said.

On April 1, he flatly responded “no, I don’t” when asked by the editorial board of the New York Daily News if gun crime victims should be able to sue manufacturers.

For weeks, Clinton has blasted Sanders for voting in favor of the 2005 Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, or PLCAA. The bill protects gun businesses from most liability lawsuits stemming from the criminal misuse of their products. The law has served to derail, or prevent outright, most lawsuits by victims’ families against gun sellers and manufacturers. On the defensive, Sanders has struggled to explain his vote, a perceived weakness on an issue dear to many progressives upon which Clinton has seized.

“We hear a lot from Senator Sanders about the greed and recklessness of Wall Street,” Clinton said before going on to ask, “Well, what about the greed and recklessness of the gun manufacturers and dealers in America?”

Clinton described PLCAA as “a unique gift given to one industry.”

Erica Smegielski, whose mother was killed at Sandy Hook, had said Sanders owed an apology to the victims’ families. At the debate, moderator Wolf Blitzer put the question of an apology to Sanders directly, though his initial response ignored the request: “What we need to do is to do everything that we can to make certain that guns do not fall into the hands of people who do not have them.”

Throughout the election cycle, both Sanders and Clinton have voiced their unequivocal support for background checks on all gun sales, including those conducted online and at gun shows; banning assault weapons; and keeping guns from felons and the severely mentally ill.

On Thursday, Sanders boasted of his D- rating from the NRA. He also said that he supported an assault weapons ban, “decades ago, before it was popular.”

But he maintained that he doesn’t think gun shops should be held liable if a weapon sold legally is later used in a crime.

It wasn’t the first time Sanders changed his position on the law. In January, he agreed to sponsor a bill repealing of PLCAA. But that month, even as he signed on to undo the policy, at candidates’ forums he sung the praises of minor provisions it included like mandating locks accompany handgun purchases.

A few hours before the debate began, families of victims killed in the Sandy Hook shooting won a small victory in their suit against Bushmaster. The families have argued that the company’s marketing encouraged its use as a killing machine. Bushmaster sought to have the case dismissed, but a Connecticut judge ruled yesterday that the lawsuit could continue. That ruling, however, did not address the central question of whether the lawsuit could survive a PLCAA challenge.

Jennifer Mascia contributed to this report.

[Photo: AP Photo/Seth Wenig]