Among DFLers, gun issue exposes rift in gov race

Democrats vying for Minnesota governor are approaching the issue of gun laws in different ways, a split important to both their endorsement contest and the general election campaign that comes later.

The mass shooting at a Florida high school Wednesday laid bare what has been a simmering divide as candidates combined their condolences with calls to action.

State Rep. Erin Murphy, a former House majority leader from St. Paul, went the furthest. She outlined a six-point plan that includes limits on sales of certain ammunition, expanded background checks and a ban on sales of AR-15 rifles in Minnesota.

"The AR-15 was used in the Sandy Hook shooting, in the Pulse night club in Orlando, in the church in Texas, in Las Vegas and now in a classroom in Florida," Murphy said. "It seems to me this is becoming a weapon of choice for mass shootings like this and they are creating mass casualties."

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She spoke proudly of the failing grade she received from the National Rifle Association for her past votes and positions on gun legislation, a not-so-subtle criticism of the race frontrunner, Tim Walz. The Democratic congressman has touted his support from the NRA in prior campaigns, donning a camouflaged NRA hat while running in a southern Minnesota district filled with rural towns.

"I do have an 'F' rating. He has an 'A+' rating," Murphy said of Walz during a telephone interview Thursday. "That means he's done their work plus the extra credit to get the plus. Minnesotans will have to judge for themselves what that means for Minnesota and their future. I think it's important to draw the contrast."

Walz, an avid hunter, defended his record and said he hasn't been shy about breaking with the lobby for gun manufacturers and owners.

"I have voted for universal background checks more than anybody in this race," Walz said. He said he has never personally been an NRA member and voted more than 30 times to bring up a background check measure "and not just since I've been running for governor but for the past several years."

Walz said he has donated the equivalent of past contributions from the NRA to charity. Records show he and a political fund he controls received $18,000 over the years; recent campaign reports show him directing the money to the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund.

But, he added, "I'm also not going to shy away that I have been a staunch supporter of the constitutional right of law abiding and lawful gun owners to own firearms."

Walz said the conversation about gun laws needs to change or there won't be progress in the effort to reduce gun violence. He said Thursday that the sides in the gun debate have been too suspicious of the other's motive to come to any agreement on possible solutions. He wants the debate to include a discussion of mental health treatment.

State Auditor Rebecca Otto, who finished second to Walz in a recent precinct caucus preference poll, wasn't available for an interview Thursday. Otto's website includes a paragraph about her stance toward guns that reads, in part, "cities should be able to set their own common sense gun laws, that we should research gun violence as a public health issue so that we can develop strategies to solve the problem based on hard evidence, and that reasonable safety standards are not too much to expect."

State Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester, said she supports changes to background checks and would be open to restrictions of assault-style rifles. In addition, Liebling said Minnesota should revisit laws that have reduced the ability of law enforcement to deny or revoke gun permits for people in crisis.

"What we've done in Minnesota is take a lot of discretion away from our local law enforcement officers. They often know who is having a crisis and should not be able to have a gun," Liebling said. "We need to use their expertise and give them more discretion."

In discussing the gun issue during an interview Thursday, Liebling leveled indirect criticism at Murphy, who was in legislative leadership when Democrats controlled the House, Senate and governor's office.

"When Democrats were in charge in the House of Representatives we had a bill move through committee and even our own leadership would not bring it to the floor of the House of Representatives," she said. "We need to have some courage of our convictions and move forward on this. I think the public is demanding it."

Of Walz's stance on guns , Liebling said, voters are "going to have to make their own decision about whether that's a sincere conversion. We know the gun lobby is really good at putting pressure on politicians. Whether he would stand up to that pressure, I don't know."

The eventual DFL nominee is sure to encounter a Republican nominee resistant to new restrictions in gun laws. Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, the leader in the chase for the GOP endorsement, calls the Second Amendment "unequivocal" on the issue section of his website.

"Self-defense is a fundamental individual right and creating new `gun control' restrictions on law-abiding citizens will only leave guns in the hands of criminals," Johnson's campaign page says.

Both Johnson and his chief rival for the party backing, former GOP chairman Keith Downey, have a 93 percent lifetime rating from the NRA, which translates into an A-minus. Possible candidate Tim Pawlenty, the former two-term governor, has a straight A.

MPR News reporter Tim Nelson contributed to this report