Washington – U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson does not trust his fellow Democrats to get it right on guns.
“If I hear the words ‘common-sense gun legislation’ one more time, I’ll throw up,” said western Minnesota’s long-serving congressman. “This is poll-tested nonsense.”
Peterson is a serious outlier among national Democratic politicians, as most of the party’s presidential candidates, governors and members of Congress increasingly clamor for tougher gun laws. Congress returned to Washington on Monday after a six-week recess that saw two mass shootings in Texas and one in Ohio. With 39 people dead and more injured, the gun debate on Capitol Hill looks poised to flare once again.
Coming in rapid succession, the killing sprees in Texas and Ohio intensified the political debate over how to reduce or prevent mass shootings, with both sides looking ahead at the 2020 elections. “We’re going to be doing background checks,” President Donald Trump told reporters on Aug. 21. There have been mixed signals since then as to whether Trump and congressional Republicans would actually get on board with extending background checks to all gun sales, including private sales online and at gun shows.
“I’m not optimistic,” said Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., when asked if she thinks Congress would pass universal background checks this year or next. “We’ve seen this cycle over and over again: concerns, promises to take action and then backtracking.”
Trump has said he will introduce a “package” of gun violence prevention measures soon. But Democrats are likely to see Trump’s measures as too weak, and Republicans doubt the White House will push that hard.
“Support for guns is really an important part of the identity of the Republican Party now,” said Matt Glassman, a congressional fellow at Georgetown’s Government Affairs Institute. “If Trump were to come out for a compromise on a background check bill, that would probably be enough to drag the needed number of Republicans along. But that would seem to upset a lot of his core voters and we’ve seen this president is not interested in upsetting his base.”
Minnesota’s 10-member congressional delegation splits predictably along party lines over guns, with Peterson the notable exception. He is opposed to Democratic proposals to expand background checks or ban certain types of assault-style weapons or ammunition. Peterson said in an interview that he’s “appalled” by the mass shootings, but sees Democrats’ ideas about gun control as remedies “to feel better.” He said most “don’t know the difference between a BB gun, a shotgun and a rifle.”
Representing a rural, Republican-leaning district in western Minnesota, Peterson is one of three Democrats in Congress to still hold an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association. “I don’t even worry about that,” Peterson said of his perfect score from the politically influential gun lobby.
Peterson, along with Minnesota’s three Republican congressmen, voted against a universal background check law that the House passed back in February. That has put him in line with the Republican members of the state’s congressional delegation.
“That bill the Democrats brought up was very onerous in terms of even transferring weapons between family members and friends. Even to share guns on a hunting trip,” said Rep. Jim Hagedorn, the Republican who represents southern Minnesota. “I don’t think that one’s going to become law.”
In recent weeks, a growing number of Republicans have come out in favor of “red flag” laws meant to make it easier for law enforcement to remove guns from individuals deemed dangerous by a judge. Several bipartisan measures are reportedly in the works in Congress, but those too could have trouble finding support given concerns from some Republicans and Democrats alike about due process rights for individuals deemed mentally ill.
“Beware of red flag laws. They’ll haul people into court and take their guns away,” said Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Minn. “Respect the Second Amendment and honor due process. Beyond that, I’m happy to look at anything that will help.”
There was a time, not that long ago, when Democratic candidates in Minnesota and other states with large rural and exurban populations had to walk a fine line on gun control. But Democrats increasingly see a political advantage on guns in the age of mass shootings, with numerous national polls showing broad support for universal background checks and other measures meant to reduce gun violence, especially among electorally pivotal suburban women.
“The fact is most Americans support common-sense gun legislation. The only thing stopping it is the special interests that seem to have control over some politicians in Congress. I’m sick and tired of the NRA,” said Rep. Angie Craig, the southeastern Minnesota Democrat running next year in a district that Trump won narrowly two years earlier. Craig supports universal background checks and banning what she called “military-style assault weapons.”
In an interview, Craig choked up, then apologized as she talked about the adjustments that mass shootings have forced on schools.
“The idea that we’re sending our kids back to school … to enact active shooter drills,” Craig said. “That shouldn’t be, in America.”
Many Democrats have been working to connect with gun owners. Craig, a mother of four, talks about how two of her sons trapshoot and two of them hunt. On the presidential campaign trail, Sen. Amy Klobuchar has frequently described her own barometer for whether a specific gun control measure would impinge on the rights of hunters and other responsible gun owners: “Will it hurt my Uncle Dick in his deer stand?” as Klobuchar said recently in Iowa.
“I’m very intentional in speaking to and meeting with and hearing from gun owners,” said Rep. Dean Phillips, a freshman Democrat who represents suburban Hennepin County. “I own a firearm. I’m reasonable. I don’t want this conversation to be driven by one community. I want participation from everybody.”
For Peterson, it’s a different calculation. For three decades, he’s represented a conservative district — one that Trump carried by more than 30 points in 2016. Peterson said he would consider supporting legislation that would allow law enforcement groups and the military to more easily share information about individuals perceived as possible mass shooters.
A hunter himself, Peterson said his shotgun of choice would qualify as semiautomatic. “Anyone who’s older that hunts is going to use that because it’s a lot less recoil,” he said. On the day he was interviewed for this story, in late August, Peterson was preparing for a weekend hunting trip in Kittson County with Rep. Bennie Thompson, the Mississippi Democrat who chairs the House Committee on Homeland Security.
“We’re going to let Bennie go up and see if he can shoot a bear,” Peterson said.