Standing in front of a crowd of more than 100 Democrats gathered at the American Indian Center in Minneapolis on Saturday, Tim Walz wanted to tackle one controversial issue head on: Guns.
The topic was very much on people’s minds. Just days earlier, a man had opened fire on a crowd of concert-goers in Las Vegas, killing 58 and wounding hundreds of others.
“Let me speak directly on this,” Walz said. “There’s absolutely no reason to have a gun in a school; there’s absolutely no reason you would need a silencer for a weapon; there’s no reason there should not be universal background checks for anyone buying.”
Walz was officially kicking off his campaign for governor, and in front of a group of die-hard metro Democrats, his message on gun control wasn’t exactly surprising. But it’s a different tone on guns than he’s had for the last decade as a candidate and politician in the 1st Congressional District, a sprawling, rural and mostly conservative part of Minnesota.
Walz survived there, election after election, thanks to his brand of folksy, middle-of-the road politics, and a key element of that was his record on guns. During his 11 years in Congress, Walz took several votes to expand access to firearms, while the majority of his Democratic colleagues strongly dissented. For that, Walz was able to boast of an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association for each of his five successful re-election campaigns.
Now, as he pivots from a candidate for Congress to a statewide office, Walz is touting himself as someone who can bring rural voters back into the Democratic Party. But some of the very issues that underscored that rural appeal — guns not least among them — are in danger of becoming a sticking point for the liberal activists whose votes will be critical to Walz winning the DFL endorsement for governor.
Walz builds a gun-friendly record
Since arriving in Congress in 2007, Walz has sought to cultivate a reputation as a moderate Democrat with ties to the party’s progressive base. He is pro-choice, voted for the Affordable Care Act and the Iran nuclear deal and broadly supports his party’s increasingly progressive economic platform. At the same time, he broke with his party by supporting tougher vetting of refugees and has sided with his district’s agriculture interests in opposing some of the Barack Obama administration’s regulations on land and water.
But perhaps the most significant difference between Walz and most of his Democratic colleagues has been over guns. As a relatively consistent supporter of gun rights, he has taken several opportunities to vote in favor of expanding or maintaining access to firearms.
Owing to his position in the House of Representatives, Walz has been spared Congress’ most contentious and high-profile gun vote of the last decade — the 2013 amendment, drafted in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting, to expand background checks for firearm purchases. That legislation, introduced by Sens. Joe Manchin and Pat Toomey, failed in the Senate, and never received a vote in the House.
Also after Sandy Hook, the Senate voted on legislation to ban assault weapons, a bill that was defeated, and never came up for a vote in the House. Democratic leaders such as Nancy Pelosi have pushed for a vote on background checks and assault weapons in the lower chamber, but it has not occurred.
But that doesn’t mean Walz hasn’t taken meaningful votes on guns during his career. Earlier this year, Walz — who is the top Democrat on the House Veterans Affairs panel — voted in favor of the so-called Veterans Second Amendment Protection Act. The bill permits veterans who are deemed mentally incompetent to purchase firearms, unless a judge explicitly finds that person to be dangerous.
Supporters of the bill, such as the NRA, claimed that the government’s definition of “mentally incompetent” was too broad, and amounted to an infringement on veterans’ Second Amendment rights. Opponents countered that the bill would strike important protections designed to prevent veterans from using guns to harm themselves or others. (The bill passed 240 to 175 out of the House, earning the support of 12 Democrats, including Walz.)
Walz has also taken several votes to undermine gun control laws passed by the District of Columbia, a frequent proxy for national gun debates. In 2008, the Supreme Court ruled in the case of District of Columbia v. Heller that D.C.’s long-standing ban on handguns was unconstitutional. Later that year, Walz joined with 84 Democrats and 181 Republicans to pass a bill to force D.C. to comply with the Heller decision. The bill specified that D.C. “does not have the authority to enact laws or regulations that ‘discourage or eliminate’ private ownership or use of firearms.”
In 2014, after D.C. passed a ban on open and concealed-carry firearms permits, Walz voted in favor of an amendment that would prohibit the D.C. government from using any of its funds — which are appropriated by Congress each year —to enforce its gun laws. He found himself in lonelier company this time around, as most of the moderate Democrats who voted for the 2008 D.C. bill had retired or were swept out in the 2010 Tea Party wave. Walz was just one of 20 Democratic yes votes on the bill.
Walz has been so visible on gun issues partly due to his involvement with the Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus, a bipartisan group of lawmakers that broadly favor what they call a conservationist agenda that protects hunting and fishing.
Walz’s support for gun rights has earned him the backing of the NRA and other gun-friendly groups. In every election he has run, Walz has received an “A” rating from the NRA, which means Walz has “supported NRA positions on key votes in elective office” and has “a demonstrated record of support on Second Amendment issues,” according to the organization.
In each of his re-election campaigns, Walz has also received the the group’s official endorsement. Like other interest groups, the NRA usually endorses an incumbent even if his or her challenger nets an equal rating, so Walz was not endorsed when he challenged then-Rep. Gil Gutknecht in 2006 (Gutknecht also had an “A”), while Walz retained the endorsement over GOP challengers after he was first elected.
In 2010, in Walz’s race against Republican Randy Demmer, the NRA’s Political Victory Fund issued a statement backing the Democrat, saying “he has defended the Second Amendment freedoms of law-abiding gun owners, hunters and sportsmen in Minnesota and across America.”
Other pro-gun entities have praised Walz, too, taking special note of his Democratic affiliation. In 2016, Guns and Ammo Magazine placed Walz on a list of the top 20 politicians for gun owners. “While most congressional Democrats have jumped on the gun control train with both feet,” the site’s Keith Wood wrote, “Tim Walz and a few others have stuck to their guns.”
Walz is one of a small handful of remaining congressional Democrats who receive high marks from the NRA. Seventh District Rep. Collin Peterson, perhaps the House’s most conservative Democrat, also earns an “A” from the NRA. Walz and Peterson’s Minnesota DFL colleagues — Sens. Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar and Reps. Keith Ellison, Betty McCollum, and Rick Nolan — all have been slapped with “F” ratings.
In 2010 and 2012, according to pro-gun safety website The Trace, the NRA ran political ads to support Walz. He is the last Democrat remaining in Congress who can say that. Walz and Peterson are two of 30 Democrats currently in office who received campaign contributions from the NRA in 2012.
In an interview with MinnPost, Walz described his “evolution” on the gun issue. He stresses that he is still a strong supporter of Second Amendment rights, but is quick to explain that the intensity and frequency of mass shootings — along with an increasingly extreme gun lobby — has made him reconsider some things.
“We can’t turn on the TV and have these things happen,” he said. “The NRA you see now is not the NRA when they were teaching us gun safety classes when we were growing up.”
Walz said that he has felt a growing, “deep unease” with the NRA since the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting, which left 20 elementary school students and six others dead. “It’s been a clear change from their position for advocating for responsible gun ownership to a position that is extreme and unhelpful to the conversation,” he said.
He also said that, while he has not taken “an awful lot of votes” on guns, he looks back on some of them as “challenging,” particularly those dealing with D.C.’s laws. “Looking back, I’d take a hard look as we did the first time on the Heller decision,” he said. “But that individual personal right to own firearms is there.”
Walz did not say explicitly that he regretted any gun votes, but did say that “If you’re a legislator and you’re not looking back and questioning, I don’t think you’re being honest about it. With new information comes new perspective.”
If the House were to have a vote now on certain gun topics, Walz would likely cast votes that go against the NRA’s wishes and endanger his “A” rating. The Democrat says he is in favor of universal background checks, as well as the so-called “no fly, no buy” proposal, which bars those on the federal no-fly list from purchasing firearms. The NRA is opposed to both.
Walz is also in favor of banning “bump stocks,” the device used by the Las Vegas shooter that makes a semi-automatic weapon fire as fast as a banned automatic weapon. The NRA opposes an outright ban on bump stocks from Congress, and has said the Trump administration should regulate the devices.
Endorsement a test from progressives
A gun-friendly record was critical to Walz’s appeal as a Democrat in the 1st District, which swung for President Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton by 15 percentage points last fall. Clinton managed to win Minnesota statewide, but just barely, and mostly with turnout from Democrats in the metro area. She won 19 fewer Minnesota counties than Barack Obama did in 2012.
Looking ahead to the 2018 governor’s race, Democrats are torn about how to proceed. Walz is considered by many as an early frontrunner, in part because of his potential to appeal to rural voters, which the Democrats have lost in droves. But in the race for the DFL endorsement, Walz’s opponents point to his record on guns, among other issues, and suggest it will depress turnout from the Democratic base.
After the Las Vegas shooting on October 1, State Rep. Erin Murphy, a fellow DFL candidate for governor, called on Walz to return the $18,000 in campaign contributions he has received from the NRA over the course of his political career. Walz agreed, and plans to donate the funds to a veterans’ organization.
Another DFL candidate for governor, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, criticized Walz in a Facebook post, arguing the NRA and “its allies in Congress have passed laws making it easier to get guns, and making us all less safe,” he wrote. “When Members of Congress put the size of their campaign coffers ahead of the safety of their constituents, we are all less safe.” There are six Democrats running for governor, including State Auditor Rebecca Otto and DFL Reps. Paul Thissen and Tina Liebling.
Gun policy is also on the mind of progressive activists in the DFL Party, including emerging groups like Indivisible, which sprung up in cities across the nation after Trump’s inauguration, and Our Revolution, a political offshoot of Bernie Sanders’ campaign for president. Those groups are organizing to be a force in the 2018 governor’s race, particularly in the endorsing process, but they haven’t backed a candidate yet.
“We don’t have a specific stated position about gun control, but my suspicion is most of our members want our country to move forward on that issue and want our state to be at the forefront of that as well,” said Kevin Shannon, chair of the fledgling Minnesota chapter of Our Revolution. “Tim has led in Congress on an number of issues we feel are important and for that reason we will certainly be giving him all due considerations. The field is strong and we have a lot of possibilities in front of us as we begin our endorsement process.”
“I’m not sure how progressive he is, and I’m a very progressive person,” said Pat Lockyear, a member of the St. Croix Valley Women’s Alliance who has been working with Indivisible groups. “Tim is a fine man and he has good values, I’m just not sure how he would move forward with a more progressive agenda.”
But those activists were impressed with Walz’s early pick of a progressive running mate: Peggy Flanagan, a DFL representative from St. Louis Park who has spent years as an activist and candidate trainer (she even trained Walz). They hope when it comes to guns and other issues, Flanagan could have an influence on policy positions in the governor’s office. While Walz has left the door open to a run in the DFL primary, his early pick of a running mate with progressive credentials suggests he is aggressively seeking the endorsement, or at least hopes to block another candidate from heading to a primary with the party’s backing.
After bruising defeats in 2016, Democrats are more pragmatic looking at the next election, said Darin Broton, a DFL consultant and longtime activist who hasn’t decided which candidate he supports yet. Activists want to back the candidate that can win.
“I think it’s not enough to run around the state and tell activists and delegates that Tim Walz is not a true progressive. All the other candidates need to figure out what they are for as well, and can they truly energize the base,” he said. “I think at the end of the day activists are going to be looking for who is going to win, because without Governor Dayton the landscape will look substantially different. I don’t think anyone is holding out and measuring new curtains for the Speaker’s office.”
Walz sees some irony in how Democrats are attacking him for his gun record now, as he launches a statewide run. Not long ago, Walz’s gun bona fides were eagerly touted by some Democrats: the fact that he kept winning in the 1st District provided at least one point of counter-evidence to the notion that Democrats had totally lost their ability to communicate with — and win in — rural America.
“It’s coming from folks in majorities that did nothing to change it when they were in the majority,” Walz said. “I think they’re probably more desperate than anything… I think they want to put emphasis on, it’s an ‘A’ rating from the NRA or whatever, rather than really looking at, how does he get these people who normally disagree with us to agree with him?”
Ultimately, that’s the point Walz wants to make — that his record on guns is an asset, not a liability, as Democrats seek to retain the governor’s mansion. He argues that if Democrats hope to win in greater Minnesota, and in rural America more broadly, they need to change the way they talk about guns.
“I will not allow us as a party to be styled as a group against your lawful, 2nd Amendment rights,” he said. “That is where our party really misses. There’s no real capacity to bridge gaps to the people we need to get. This will be fixed when responsible gun owners feel like their rights are being respected.”