Don’t poke the badger.
That advice is courtesy of Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, and it’s directed toward anyone inclined to take him on verbally over gun laws, or pretty much any other issue.
Cornish, a former rural law enforcement officer who sometimes dresses like a character out of “Tombstone,” and whose rural log home and legislative office are decorated with his stuffed hunting trophies, is one of the state’s leading gun proponents.
He was out front last week when opposing sides debated limits on gun-carrying inside the State Capitol. At times, the debate got ugly.
In an earlier interview, Cornish had offered that some of his political opponents “wet their pants” every time they saw or mentioned guns. That led to a citizen calling Cornish a “bully.”
In an interview, Cornish said he is not a bully, but rather a blunt-talking politician who isn’t afraid of stepping on people’s sensibilities, especially if they initiate the debate.
Sami Rahamim, who became active on gun control issues after his father, Reuven, was killed in the Accent Signage shootings, called Cornish’s phrase “totally insensitive and inappropriate to anybody who has been harmed by gun violence.”
But Cornish said that his remarks were not directed to victims, but rather to legislative opponents. By the time he was called a bully during hearings, he had already apologized to Rep. Michael Paymar and others, he said.
“The statement I made was a little over the top,” Cornish said Monday.
But Cornish also said his stand on gun rights is uncompromising, and when people get emotional with him, he’ll respond in kind.
“I’m tired of pols who dance around with answers,” he said. “They poke the badger and then get upset when he comes out of the den.”
Cornish said he is simply as passionate about the Second Amendment as journalists are about the First.
The newspaper wouldn’t consider turning over to the government confidential notes from sources to be a good compromise, he said.
Cornish has been known to respond to those who question him brusquely.
Orchestrated e-mail campaigns can be met with “get an idea of your own.”
Or, like this exchange with Dan Wilm, who wrote to Cornish after last week’s hearing: Wilm was bothered by Cornish’s lack of understanding of people who are uncomfortable around guns in public. Cornish shot back that Wilm’s fear was the problem, and he needed to “get to a firearms class.” The terse exchange ended with Cornish saying to the 61-year-old Wilm, “grow up, son.”
He also tells writers: “Don’t ever say anything to a man on e-mail that you wouldn’t say if you were alone with him in a parking lot!”
“Someone can ask me a question, and they can be blunt, that doesn’t bother me,” said Cornish. But if it turns uncivil, Cornish is ready for the fight. He once called former Minneapolis Police Chief Tim Dolan “a gun grabber.”
Wilm, who like Cornish worked for the Department of Natural Resources, sees Cornish as “one of those guys who can dish it out, but he can’t take it.”
Rahamim said he’s experienced intimidation from gun advocates at the Capitol, and Cornish’s heated rhetoric plays well with supporters, but does not help the solve the issues.
A gun “is a killing machine, and to make jokes to encourage that kind of attitude is incredibly irresponsible,” said Rahamim, who is 17.
Cornish said he’s asked Capitol security if they’ve ever witnessed intimidation, and they haven’t. Meanwhile, he said one anti-gun activist told the daughter of a pro-gun member, “You’ll grow up to be a better person than your dad.”
As a law officer, Cornish has had to drawn his weapon many times, he said, but has never shot anyone. He says his patrol car was shot at twice. This does not make him think guns in the People’s House is a bad idea, however.
Personally, I think heated political debate and firearms are a terrible mix, but maybe that’s because I would never carry. I’m afraid too many people would start looking like targets. I asked Cornish if carrying a gun made people more aggressive.
“I think it’s just the opposite because they realize the huge responsibility,” he said.
After our chat, Cornish sent me photos of him with a bloody bear and deer.
“Charming,” I said.
Cornish points out that despite, or because of, his tough talk, he ran unopposed last election. That’s because he believes in a kind of “rural” credo.
“We want to protect women from harm. We want to protect babies from abortion, and we want to protect our gun rights,” he said.
“It’s not like I’m this guy out here yelling into the wind.”