Minnesota voters looking for a clear choice on the gun issue from the leading candidates for governor won’t get it until the November election.
Ahead of next week’s primary election, the five contenders in the governor’s race are pitching their appeals to their respective party bases, which tend to drastically differ on whether there should be tighter limits on access to guns. Republicans Jeff Johnson and Tim Pawlenty are promising to protect gun rights, while DFL candidates Erin Murphy, Lori Swanson and Tim Walz have pledged to sign into law new regulations to prevent gun violence.
But there are differences, even among candidates in the same party. Johnson says he would veto any gun restrictions that wind up on his desk as governor, but Pawlenty is open to a few new limits.
Murphy, a St. Paul state legislator, has long been a gun control advocate. But when she served as state House majority leader, in 2013-14, the DFL-controlled Legislature’s record on guns was modest — amounting to a bill taking guns from stalkers and domestic abusers. Both Swanson and Walz, meanwhile, have been working to shore up support among DFL voters after both previously earned backing from the National Rifle Association.
Both gun rights and gun control supporters say the political ground has shifted since the mass shooting at a Parkland, Fla., high school earlier this year.
“It’s the first election season where the other side is organized and appealing to DFLers,” said Bryan Strawser, chairman of the Minnesota Gun Owners Caucus. “At the same time, I don’t think it’s having any influence with Republicans.”
Erin Zamoff, Minnesota state chapter leader of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense, said a key difference this year is the new phenomenon of single issue voters — but on the gun control side. For a generation or more, it was the gun rights movement that benefited from single issue voting, but Zamoff said an increasing number of gun control advocates — in both parties — are focused on gun violence as their main issue.
“For more people, it’s a top issue and a voting issue,” Zamoff said. “To the extent [candidates] are out of touch on the gun issue, they’re going to be out of touch with the electorate.”
Moms Demand Action sent out a questionnaire to candidates. Swanson, the third-term attorney general, is the lone DFL candidate not to reply.
In a July news release, Swanson, who is a recreational trap shooter, proposed a gun control agenda that is similar to that of Moms Demand Action, even though she was endorsed by the NRA as recently as 2010.
Swanson would support legislation banning so-called bump stocks, which is a device that can give a conventional gun the rapid fire capability of a machine gun, and was used to devastating effect in the 2017 Las Vegas massacre. (Minnesota law already bans so called “trigger activators”; an effort in Congress to ban them stalled after pressure from the National Rifle Association.)
Swanson said she would also support expanding background checks to private sales, with exceptions for hunting shotguns and bolt-action rifles. Swanson also favors a law that would allow temporary seizure of a person’s guns if a judge determined he or she is a danger, known as a “red flag” law.
Red flag laws and universal background checks would prevent the wrong people from getting guns, said Zamoff, who noted that the vast majority of gun deaths are suicides — more than three out of four.
Johnson, a Hennepin County Commissioner and former Republican lawmaker from Plymouth, said he does not support any legislation that would restrict gun rights.
“I don’t believe new gun restrictions would have any impact,” he said.
Johnson said he would stand by that position even in the case of a Minnesota school shooting: “But I would also force the discussion as to why it happened and broaden that discussion to more than an argument about gun control” to include issues like family breakdown, mental health system failures and violence-saturated media.
Pawlenty’s campaign cited his A rating from the NRA as evidence of his commitment to the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms. The campaign also noted that, when he previously served as governor, Pawlenty signed the state’s permit-to-carry law.
Still, Pawlenty has said that he too wants to ban bump stocks. He’d also give people the option of applying a state background check to private gun sales, in exchange for legal safe harbor in case the weapon is ever used in a crime.
Pawlenty’s spokesman, Sam Winter, said he would also favor creating a means to take firearms from someone who is a threat.
Doing so, Winter said, would require that a “threat is specifically identified, a person is adjudicated as mentally ill or dangerous, harm is imminent, and full due process takes place prior to a firearm being removed.”
On the DFL side, Murphy has offered the most robust gun control agenda. In addition to background checks on private sales and a red flag law, Murphy would ban weapons like the AR-15; increase waiting times on certain guns; ban high-capacity magazines; and require built-in safety measures like fingerprints or trigger locks to limit accidents.
Murphy recently mocked Swanson and Walz for their previous A ratings from the NRA: “They’ve always done their homework. They’ve always done the extra credit. After Sandy Hook. After Virginia Tech. After Pulse,” she said, referring to the litany of mass shootings in recent years.
An expert marksman, Walz once touted his support for the gun rights movement. But since the Las Vegas shooting, he has given away his NRA donations and proposed an assault weapons ban in Minnesota.
A congressman from a relatively rural, conservative district in southern Minnesota, Walz was already in favor of background checks on private sales.
Walz is now touting a recent F rating from the NRA, in a news release.
“The NRA has given me an F because they know I am uniquely positioned to build the coalition necessary to finally pass common sense gun legislation and keep our communities safe,” he said.
Strawser, of the Gun Owners Caucus, said gun rights advocates harbor a special resentment for politicians like Swanson and Walz who have had major reversals on gun issues.
“There’s nothing that gets under the skin of a law-abiding gun owner more than someone who says one thing and does another,” he said.