In 2008, during her first term as Minnesota’s attorney general, Lori Swanson signed on to a brief in a U.S. Supreme Court case involving the Second Amendment right to “keep and bear arms.”
The brief to which Swanson lent her support was written by Ted Cruz, the future U.S. senator from Texas, who was then that state’s solicitor general and is now a leading hobgoblin in the eyes of liberals. It also put Swanson on the same side of the case as the National Rifle Association.
I’ve written a lot about the Second Amendment and the Supreme Court, so perhaps this is a big deal only to me, but I don’t think so. People — at least the people I talk to — don’t know about it. I think they should.
The case, District of Columbia v. Heller, was a huge turning point in the history of the Second Amendment. It was the biggest legal breakthrough in constitutional history for turning the Second Amendment from something that applied to members of state militias to something that protected an individual’s right to own guns — and not just hunting rifles but handguns.
A lot of state attorneys general — 31 total — signed Cruz’s brief, most of them Republicans. Of the Democratic AGs who signed on, most were southerners. Swanson was one of just two Democratic attorneys general from the north to lend her name to the brief. Another amicus brief, arguing against the NRA position, was filed in the Heller case by New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo and signed only by several other Democratic attorneys general.
In the Heller ruling, the Supreme Court — by a 5-4 majority — declared that when the Bill of Rights framers wrote, “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed…,” it didn’t mean that you had to be in a militia nor that you had to use your gun to keep your state secure.
The court’s majority opinion was written by the furthest right justice, Antonin Scalia, and all five justices who joined him in the majority were Republican appointees.
The McDonald case
That wasn’t the end of the issue, though. Because the District of Columbia, where plaintiff Dick Anthony Heller lived, was not a “state,” the matter required a second case, 2010’s McDonald v. City of Chicago, to apply the effect of the Heller decision to the states. Swanson signed on to the pro-gun amicus brief on the McDonald case too.
As I said above, I think Minnesotans should know more about the episode — about why Swanson decided to join a pro-gun Republican-dominated amicus brief on behalf of her state — which is why I left word with her office that I wanted to ask her about it; I said I would wait two days to hear back. It’s been more than two days, but if Swanson decides to call, I will gladly hear her out and pass along what she has to say.
When she came up for re-election in 2010, Swanson received the endorsement of the gun lobby, led by the National Rifle Association/Political Victory Fund, which explicitly thanked her for her support on those landmark Supreme Court cases and gave her an “A+” rating. In 2014, when she came up for a third term as AG, the Minnesota Gun Owners PAC endorsed her, saying she had been “a steadfast supporter of the constitutional rights of Minnesota’s gun owners as attorney general.”
In her current situation, running for the DFL nomination for governor, the approval of gun rights groups could be seen as a political liability, and in an email to the group Protect Minnesota — which supports stricter gun laws — Swanson pointed out she has “never taken a penny from the NRA.”
Maybe so. But the NRA liked her work enough to give it an “A+” grade and its endorsement. She never rejected that endorsement, and she has not, to my knowledge, ever publicly discussed what led her to throw her weight behind the pro-gun position in the Heller and McDonald cases at the U.S. Supreme Court.
Walz’s NRA financial support
Since I can’t ask her, I will assume that the “never taken a penny” line is supposed to differentiate her from U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, one of Swanson’s chief competitors for the DFL gubernatorial nomination. Walz never endorsed the NRA’s position in a Supreme Court brief, but he did accept financial support from the NRA and benefited from the NRA endorsement while running for the U.S. House in the relatively rural — and pro-Second Amendment — First Congressional District, facts that are inconvenient now that he is running statewide in what appears to be a highly competitive three-way DFL primary for governor.
Walz has addressed the issue by suggesting that some of his views on gun issues have changed, and that the NRA may not be as happy with some of the changes — an evolution that Sam Brodey and Brianna Bierschbach explained in detail in a MinnPost piece from late 2017.
Murphy has a simpler story
The third DFL candidate for governor, the DFL-endorsed Rep. Erin Murphy, has a simpler story to tell about guns. She has never supported the NRA, and the NRA has never given her a penny nor an endorsement. In an interview with WCCO’s Esme Murphy in March, Murphy said “I’m happy to say that they [the NRA] have given me an ‘F’ and I’ve never taken their money.”
Some DFL strategists, who worry about electability in November in a general election (a contest in which rural voters and swing voters and moderate pro-gun voters may be in play), might be nervous about facing the broader electorate with a candidate who has never even flirted with gun rights. But in explaining her position, Murphy certainly had a easier task than her primary opponents.
“Folks have always known where I stand on gun violence, and as governor, I will keep fighting to keep our communities and kids safe,” she told MPR. “It means background checks on all guns – no exceptions, prohibiting the sale of military-style assault weapons, restrictions on high-capacity magazines, and lifting the ban on research of gun violence as a public health issue.”