Bernie Sanders Takes Aim at Guns as He Brings His Revolution to Phoenix

Bernie Sanders addressed throngs of supporters at the Orpheum Theatre on Sunday.
Bernie Sanders addressed throngs of supporters at the Orpheum Theatre on Sunday. Joseph Flaherty
On the ornate stage of the Orpheum Theatre, Senator Bernie Sanders first tore apart the Republican tax law (“The agenda of Trump is the agenda of the billionaire class”) and the greed of the health care industry (“We are the only major country on earth not to guarantee health care to all people as a right”).

Then Sanders brought up the mass shootings in Las Vegas and Parkland, Florida.

And the raucous room grew quiet.

Sanders lowered his voice: “We have a moral responsibility to do everything we possibly can to end this epidemic of gun violence,” he said.

Sanders explained that he knows the affinity for firearms; many people across his state, Vermont, own guns and shoot targets, he said during his March 11 appearance in downtown Phoenix.

“But I can tell you that in Vermont and all across the country, more and more people understand that we need common-sense gun-safety legislation,” Sanders said. “And we need that legislation whether the NRA wants it or not."

The crowd rose to their feet and applauded loudly.

Supporters turned out in droves to hear Bernie Sanders. Hundreds of people were still waiting in a line that stretched through downtown to get inside the theater as the event was about to start.

The senator laid out an unabashedly left-of-center agenda, which he has talked about for over a decade, but which more and people have embraced, he said, as the reactionary politics of the Trump administration unfold.

Sanders was joined on stage by Arizona Democratic congressmen Ruben Gallego and Raul Grijalva, who gave speeches to warm up the crowd. Nina Turner, a former state senator from Ohio, also addressed the room as the president of Our Revolution, a Sanders-aligned political action group.

He hasn't always supported tightening gun laws during his time in Congress, but on Sunday, Sanders said that we need stricter background checks and an end to assault weapons.

"We saw what those type of weapons could do in Las Vegas a few months ago, when 58 people were killed and 500 wounded in a very short period of time by one person," Sanders said. "I happen to believe that now is the time to end the sale and distribution of assault weapons in the United States."

Although Sanders lost in the 2016 presidential primary, millions of left-leaning voters supported him and his message of combating runaway inequality. Meanwhile, Sanders’ proposals such as a single-payer health care system and increased taxes on the wealthiest have picked up support among other Democrats; just a few years ago, Democrats and political analysts dismissed his plans as naive and political poison.

“Many people out there say, 'Oh, Bernie, you're too radical, you're too extreme. You can't raise the minimum wage to 15 bucks an hour, you can't make public colleges and universities tuition-free: too radical,’” Sanders said. “Well, take a look at what's happening all over this country. State after state, community after community are moving in our direction.”

The Republican agenda, Sanders said, is totally contrary to the goal of supporting working families. He saved some of his harshest words for the recent Republican tax law, amounting to "huge tax breaks to millionaires and billionaires, over a trillion dollars in tax breaks to the rich," Sanders said.

"Then they will come forward and say, 'Oh my goodness, the deficit is going up, we're going to cut Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. We will not allow them to get away with it," he said.

Sanders also spoke of the plight of undocumented people in the U.S. as a “profound moral issue.” He vowed not to abandon the Dreamers,  young Hispanics who were brought here illegally as children and qualify for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals status. He promised to push for a path toward citizenship and comprehensive immigration reform.

“This is their nation, and we will not turn our backs on these young people,” Sanders said.

Reportedly, the 76-year-old is considering another run for president again in 2020, although he’ll probably face a much more crowded field than he did in 2016, when Sanders challenged Hillary Clinton for the nomination.

Political experts have said that Sanders couldn't dream of winning a national race as a self-identified democratic socialist. But during the last presidential election, pollsters underestimated his prospects in the Democratic primary against Clinton. And Sanders said that he doesn’t believe for a moment in the idea of blue states, where progressives can win, and red states, where it’s impossible.

"I believe that every state in this country where working people are struggling must and will be a progressive state,” Sanders said.

Sanders also condemned President Trump’s denial of climate change, which the president has called a hoax, and said that Arizona should be a leader to move our energy system away from fossil fuels.

“Here in Arizona, you have an extraordinary natural resource: It's called the sun,” Sanders said. He called climate change “a devastating crisis impacting the United States and countries all over the world.”

Clearly, there are Phoenix residents who aren’t giving up on Sanders’ political revolution. Roger and Lisa Baker supported him in the 2016 primary, but Sunday was the first time they had attended one of Bernie’s rallies. Roger Baker, 66, was wearing a shirt that showed Sanders’ glasses and the caption “Hindsight is 2020” underneath.

“People are getting tired of not having health care and not being able to have childcare for their kids, and they can’t afford it working two jobs,” Baker said.

Lisa Baker, 51, said that she believes Sanders when he says that proposals on single-payer health care and free college tuition transcend party affiliation, even in Arizona. “We all deserve health care and access to college, and over 80 percent of us agree that Dreamers should have a path to citizenship,” she said.

click to enlarge Arizona Congressmen Raul Grijalva, pictured, and Ruben Gallego gave speeches before Sanders took the stage. - JOSEPH FLAHERTY
Arizona Congressmen Raul Grijalva, pictured, and Ruben Gallego gave speeches before Sanders took the stage.
Joseph Flaherty
Before Sanders took to the stage, a group of jeering Trump supporters affiliated with Patriot Movement Arizona were ejected from the theater by police after being warned not to interrupt again.

A racist band in MAGA hats, the group has taken to harassing people via bullhorn at public events, including at the State Capitol and at a rally for Dreamers at Jeff Flake’s office. At the Orpheum, Patriot Movement members repeatedly interrupted Gallego's and Grijalva’s speeches, screaming about “illegals,” “build the wall,” and “cartel money,” before Phoenix police officers escorted them outside.

At the start of his speech, Sanders praised Arizona Republican Senator John McCain, wishing him luck in his battle with brain cancer. "John is a man of dignity, of courage, and of decency, and I know I speak for all of you in wishing him the best of luck in his struggle against this illness,” Sanders said.

Twenty-one-year-old Anthony Walker, a student at ASU, found Sanders' message to be inspiring. It seemed like the Vermont senator’s call to not turn our backs on Dreamers found an audience, he said. “That really resonates here, in Arizona especially,” Walker said.

One of the other huge crowd-pleasers came as Sanders decried the war on drugs, arguing that we need to decriminalize marijuana.

“In the campaign, we pointed out how many lives were destroyed because young people, people of color, people all across the country, they were being picked up and arrested for having possession of marijuana,” Sanders said.

Arizona voters voted down a ballot measure to legalize recreational marijuana in 2016. But Sanders described the gradual shift toward decriminalization across the states as an example of a political fight that has gradually succeeded.

This refrain — fighting for a new political landscape, moving the needle year after year — also pretty accurately describes Sanders' role in national politics during the last few years.

“Even when it is unpopular at the moment, more and more people start thinking about it, it starts to make sense and we start to bring about change,” Sanders said.

After a few more words — "Let us come together and demand a government that represents all of us, not just the billionaire class" — Sanders stepped back from the podium and gave a wave to the upper level.

He descended a few stairs to the front row of the audience, shaking hands and taking photos with excited fans, before exiting stage left.

The revolution would continue from backstage.
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Joseph Flaherty is a staff writer at New Times. Originally from Wisconsin, he is a graduate of Middlebury College and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.
Contact: Joseph Flaherty