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Tim Walz’s record on guns was an asset in his run for governor — until it wasn’t

Rep. Tim Walz and running mate state Rep. Peggy Flanagan
MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach
Rep. Tim Walz and running mate state Rep. Peggy Flanagan shown during last Saturday's campaign kickoff at the American Indian Center in Minneapolis.

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.

NRA backing

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.

Evolving views?

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.”

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Comments (15)

SMH

The Democrats have been agonizing about how to win voters in districts won by Trump. Walz is a candidate who has demonstrated just how to do that, and the DFL is going to eat him alive for the things that made him successful in a Trump-supporting district.

How is he going to push the progressive agenda? By winning the election. Sorry, but Erin Murphy is going to get absolutely destroyed outstate and her progressive bonafides won't do anyone much good when the Republicans win the governor's race.

Thank you

I really don't understand this "lose on your principles" crap. I mean, what's the point of having those principles if you're never gonna have a shot at advancing some of them because you keep losing (even if it's only 50%)? Walz, for all this gun talk, still is with the DFL on most issues

Its the DFL way

The DFL spent 2 decades away from the governor's mansion, and only got it back in 2010 because Dayton challenged the endorsement of Anderson-Kelliher, who was an atrocious candidate. I think that people have figured out just how corrupt and undemocratic the caucus process is and will at least leave it to primary voters.

We'll still screw it up, though. Urban DFLers will reject Walz for his guns/other less than progressive issues. We'll put up an urban lefty candidate who will lose, and then Republicans will turn the state into Wisconsin.

You've made your bed Tim.

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.” All of which Tim supported prior to being called out by Chris Coleman for his "A" grade by the NRA.

“In an interview with MinnPost, Walz described his “evolution” on the gun issue.” An evolution that began last Tuesday with the Strib article.

“Walz…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.” The last thing veterans struggling with post-traumatic stress need is easy access to a gun. Tim didn’t do his fellow veterans any favor by voting in favor of this bill; in fact, he did the opposite.

“State Rep. Erin Murphy…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.” If he had evolved, why didn’t he return the NRA money before Erin called him to?

You’ve made your bed Tim, now lie in it.

PTSD/Incompetency

Excuse me what is the source you are using in defining a Veteran suffering from PTSD as being incompetent? I know a lot of Veterans who suffer from PTSD and none of them are incompetent.

I might suggest that you gain a better understanding of PTSD and the men and women who suffer from it.

PTSD

Unfortunately, mental health professionals have learned little so far about the mechanisms of PTSD. It used to be termed 'shellshock' giving it a more clinical sounding name does not explain anything,

Usually....

Usually - you ruin to the left in the primary and then run to the center in the general election.

In the DFL party of the today - the center is far left.

The Right has moved so far to the right

that the "far left" is what used to be considered right leaning moderate.

The Governor is a state election

And the DFL need to be competitive in Great Minnesota, where police coverage is light and hunting is a lifestyle. In small towns, those who are violent and gun crazy are well known and tend to be monitored. It is entirely different from the city, reflected in a very much lower murder rate. The DFL needs to push for local control, something Republicans won't do.

Rural people can live easily with universal background checks and things like that with real impact, because if someone in their town, everyone is affected, given the tight relationships. They are not going to tolerate city people pushing them, any more than city people do the same.

Cities need tighter regulation with more wealth, deeper poverty, more guns owned by non hunters (who know how to follow rules), gangs - things not as present oitstate.

The Second Amendment is not made to make it easier for a person with a gun to murder one or many defenseless people. Only a moderate like Walz can get people talk and end the trench warfare that is getting so many people killed.

I can say this as someone who grew up in rural Minnesota and have family there. We only solve our gun problem by taking and not letting extremists on either side whip up angry.

For the DFLs who want to create a purity test that makes it more like Republicans willl win and replicate Trump's awfulness in Minnesota, I say grow up and learn from the 2016 election. If Hillary had won, can you imagine how much better our country and world would be? Daudt would be another Scott Walker. Do you want that?

Romanicized version of rural Minnesota

Your version of the rural Minnesota doesn't jibe with mine. I grew up in a small town and now when I go back some of the people I knew to be violent and gun crazy, not to mention racist and sexist, are now leaders in the community. As a hunter I was in the minority and this was in the sixties and seventies, now there are fewer and fewer hunters, not more.
I've lived in Minneapolis for 25 years, still and gun owner and hunter, and what I've found is that rather than an anonymous mass of people, that your comment suggests, its more a collection of neighborhoods where people do know one another and police are well aware of those in the community who cause problems. I have far better sense of community in my Northeast Neighborhood than I ever did in my home town.
Lastly if Democrats want to win, the need to move away from any single issue, and this corrupt Republican meme that there is some massive city/rural divide and start offering real solutions to the problems that we all face, like healthcare, the insane cost of higher education, the growing income gap, there are things that matter to ALL of us, not just the vocal few. If you look at the things that Bernie Sanders spoke about during his run for President, those are the kinds of things that resonated across all parts of the State and country. That's what Democrats should focus on.

Urban/rural divide

The problem is that the urban/rural divide isn't a myth. Election results show its very real. Go look at a map of the Minnesota legislative districts. Or those of any state.

Walz is a Democrat who got elected from an outstate district. Whether you have a romanticized version of the people who live their or think they are crazy nuts, Walz got elected there and a Democrat will have to do the same to become governor.

Hillary Clinton was an awful candidate. And Bernie Sanders lost to her by millions of votes in the primaries, even with cross-over Trump voters and voter-supressing caucuses. To say that his vision resonated with voters is far more romanticized than anything said here about rural Minnesotans.

He took those positions/votes

Because he couldn't have been elected otherwise. Sorry, but winning in rural Minnesota requires running more moderate candidates.

Universal Conceal & Carry

I like Tim Walz and prefer him to the other male candidates in the race for Governor. However, what's as troubling about some of his votes on expanding gun owner rights is his past support for federal legislation that would have required all states to recognize conceal & carry permits issued by other states regardless of the process for awarding permits in those other states. So, if he's "evolving" in his views on gun issues, I hope he will quickly repudiate support for the current NRA agenda that wants to achieve universal conceal & carry.

That said, before other candidates attack Walz on guns, I will point out that Paul Thissen, as Speaker of the House, refused to bring universal background checks legislation to the House floor in 2013 (presumably to protect his rural DFL colleagues from having to take such a vote) despite other states toughening their gun laws in the wake of Sandy Hook. And Chris Coleman has been largely absent from the gun violence debate until very recently--when he saw it as something that might serve his gubernatorial ambitions.

Open Carry NOT Conceal and Carry

Minnesota is an open carry state not a conceal carry state. If, in Minnesota, people with permits to carry were required to openly carry we could have a rational discussion about the presence of firearms in society.

Boojums

I've been a supporter of Tim Walz since he first considered running for Congress, and have disagreed with him about firearm policy for about as long.
However, I am more concerned with his ties to agribusiness and his support of ethanol subsidies which are of benefit only to Minnesota corner growers, since we already have a fuel surplus, and ethanol production has its own environmental and economic problems.