Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) will meet with the parents of a woman who was killed in a mass shooting in 2012 to discuss the Democratic presidential candidate's vote in favor of a controversial gun law.
The Sanders campaign told The Huffington Post Tuesday that it had arranged for the senator to meet with Lonnie and Sandy Phillips, whose daughter, Jessica Ghawi, died at age 24 in the shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado.
The couple wants to speak with Sanders about his support for the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, a 2005 law that shields gun manufacturers and dealers from legal liability. The legislation prohibits civil liability lawsuits against the manufacturers, distributors and dealers of guns and ammunition for "damages, injunctive or other relief resulting from the misuse of their products by others."
The PLCAA is personal for the Phillipses. Last year, they sued the company that sold the bullets to the gunman who killed their daughter, and the legislation played a role in getting that lawsuit dismissed.
“We are aware of your vote on the Protection of Legal Commerce in Arms Act and that you still stand beside that decision,” Lonnie and Sandy Phillips wrote in an email they say they sent to Sanders’ staff on Oct. 8. “We would like an opportunity to meet with you and have a dialog on this issue so we can better understand why you made the decision to vote for this egregious law.”
The couple sued Lucky Gunner, which owns bulkammo.com, in September 2014 for selling 4,000 rounds of ammunition to James Holmes, the Aurora shooter, without vetting him. The suit also named three other online retailers that sold Holmes ammunition and other paraphernelia.
A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit in June, and ordered the parents to pay over $200,000 to Lucky Gunner to cover the company's legal fees. According to Jonathan Lowy, director of the legal action project for the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, the 2005 law was part of the reason for dismissal. (The Brady Center represented the Phillipses pro bono in the lawsuit.)
The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, which has been working with the Phillipses, confirmed on Tuesday that the meeting with Sanders has been scheduled.
“The gesture is appreciated,” Ladd Everitt, the coalition's communications director, told HuffPost. “Some great dialogue on gun issues is happening right now in Democratic politics and we want Senator Sanders to be part of that. We want him to lead on this.”
Everitt declined to comment on the timing or the location of the meeting, deferring to the Phillipses. Neither the Phillipses nor Sanders' staff responded to questions about when and where the conversation will occur.
Sanders voted for the 2005 law as a member of the House of Representatives and, until recently, defended the vote without reservation. Earlier this month, however, Sanders said he would be open to amending the legislation, claiming he had backed it out of concern for small-time gun sellers, not for gun manufacturers.
Sanders’ rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination have identified his record on gun policy as one of the few areas where they can portray themselves as more progressive than the fiery independent senator.
Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley invited the Phillipses to the first Democratic debate last Tuesday, and used their story as a way to attack Sanders for supporting the PLCAA.
“You want to talk about a -- a rigged game, Senator? The game was rigged,” O’Malley said of the Phillipses' lawsuit.
“I think the governor gave a very good example about the weaknesses in that law and I think we have to take another look at it,” Sanders responded.
Front-runner Hillary Clinton also attacked Sanders for his vote.
“I voted against it. I was in the Senate at the same time. It wasn't that complicated to me,” Clinton said. “It was pretty straightforward to me that he was going to give immunity to the only industry in America.”
Sanders vehemently defends his support for gun control. In addition to expressing an openness to changing the liability law, the senator notes that he supports expanding background checks by closing the so-called gun show loophole among other measures, as well as banning assault weapons.
He argues that as a progressive with a D-minus rating from the National Rifle Association who is also from a largely rural state with relatively lax gun laws, he is uniquely positioned to bridge the political divide on gun control.
Sanders’ meeting with the Phillipses could give him a chance to improve his standing with gun control proponents. Yet the campaign is already on the defensive regarding its discussions with the Phillipses about the planned meeting.
The Phillipses say they first requested a meeting via email on Oct. 8, but did not receive a response until Monday, after the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence issued a press release slamming Sanders for failing to respond. The release included the text of the Phillipses' email to Sanders’ staff.
The campaign confirmed that it reached out to the Phillipses on Monday, but would not say why it did not initially respond to the request.
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