WASHINGTON – Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson thinks of himself as a law-and-order guy. But the Democrat joined most of his Republican colleagues earlier this week in voting to keep the House of Representatives from debating a bill to ban firearms sales to people on terrorist watch lists.
“Obviously, I don’t want terrorists to have guns,” Peterson, who serves a largely rural district in northwestern Minnesota, said in an interview. “But I don’t trust [government agencies] to set this up.” Instead, he wants a judicial review process to ensure that people banned from weapons purchases have some legal recourse.
“In my district, people own 20 to 30 guns, and they aren’t a problem.” Peterson said.
In many ways, Peterson and his Seventh District constituents represent what the congressman calls “a cultural divide.”
Nearly a week after a mass shooting in an Orlando nightclub left 49 people dead, talk has again returned to whether expanding background checks and banning firearms sales to suspected terrorists may or may not help.
A nearly 15-hour Democratic filibuster led to a gun-control debate on Thursday in the Republican-run Senate, while presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump promised to speak to the National Rifle Association (NRA) about ways to keep weapons out of the hands of terrorists.
But not everyone is talking.
Like Peterson, Minnesota’s Republican House members — Erik Paulsen, Tom Emmer and John Kline — voted to prevent debate on a bill to ban firearms sales to suspected terrorists. None responded to requests to state his position on gun control legislation.
Their reluctance is not just predictable, it is probably pragmatic politics, experts said.
Republicans risk losing the party’s pro-gun base by backing any kind of gun control with no certainty that they will attract new support elsewhere, Hamline University political scientist Joseph Peschek explained.
“People may think, ‘Let’s just ride this out,’ ” Peschek said. “It’s a time issue. This gets attention now, then it fades.”
Citing his vote against debating gun control, Paulsen’s Democratic challenger, state Sen. Terri Bonoff, accused him of putting party politics above public safety.
Whether that attack will hurt Paulsen in what could be Minnesota’s most competitive congressional race depends on what voters are talking about on Election Day.
Historically, that has not been gun control.
Although access to firearms is a highly emotional topic forced to the forefront of the national consciousness with each mass shooting, it’s not typically been a top-ranked issue on Election Day, Peschek and University of Minnesota political analyst Larry Jacobs agreed.
Whether that will change in this election cycle remains to be seen. Four months from now, Jacobs and Peschek said, gun control may not be the talk of the town.
If it is, “Paulsen could face some real blowback,” Jacobs said.
In Minnesota’s Second District, where Kline will not seek re-election, Democrats could use opposition to gun control to paint Republicans as extreme. But the district’s rural voters have traditionally cared about gun rights, Peschek said.
Like Peschek and Jacobs, Peterson also questions whether gun control will be a priority in October. Democratic polls in contested districts such as Paulsen’s and Kline’s show suburban Republican women saying they are in favor of gun control, Peterson said. But by Election Day, he added, “I think a lot of things go above that.”
Even now, with the nation paying attention, supporters of proposed federal gun bills admit that they lack the votes to approve them.
“I strongly support a ban on weapons purchases by people on terrorist watch lists and expanded background checks on weapons purchases made at gun shows, online or in other commercial transactions,” Fourth District Rep. Betty McCollum, a Democrat, said. “Both of these proposals will help keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people. Tragically, even these narrow measures will not pass this Congress. The National Rifle Association opposes every piece of legislation that protects our families and communities from gun violence. And the NRA controls this Congress and will obstruct and defeat any effort to fight gun violence.”
Still, the Orlando shooter brings to the debate a national security element that could change the dynamic, Peschek said, because national security is a topic that rates high on Election Day.
Omar Mateen was on an FBI watch list and he pledged allegiance to the terrorist group ISIL shortly before he committed the shooting.
In the rural NRA-friendly Eighth District, Democratic Rep. Rick Nolan has voted several times to bring H.R. 1076 (Denying Firearms and Explosives to Dangerous Terrorists Act of 2015) to the floor. Nolan has signed a petition that with 218 signatures could force a vote on the bill if Republican leaders refuse to bring it up.
“The Second Amendment gives law-abiding citizens the right to keep and bear arms, and we must never infringe on it,” Nolan said. “That being said, reasonable people and responsible gun owners support background checks, particularly for people who are on the terror watch list, because they know that we can and must do more to keep illegal guns out of the hands of criminals, terrorists and those with violent mental disorders.”