Guns a thorny issue for Johnson, Feingold in U.S. Senate race
The ever-explosive gun issue creates potential pitfalls for both major-party candidates in Wisconsin's U.S. Senate race. For Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, the problem is public opinion, which runs counter to his opposition to gun-control measures ...
The ever-explosive gun issue creates potential pitfalls for both major-party candidates in Wisconsin’s U.S. Senate race.
For Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, the problem is public opinion, which runs counter to his opposition to gun-control measures being debated in Congress.
For Democrat Russ Feingold, it’s his mottled record on guns, which appears out of step with a Democratic Party that’s increasingly unified in favor of new gun restrictions.
Recent mass shootings in Orlando and San Bernardino have pushed the issue back to the national forefront, said UW-Madison political scientist David Canon. He commented last week before a gunman shot and killed five police officers in Dallas and wounded several others - another event that could accelerate the debate over guns.
Johnson, R-Oshkosh, played a key role in a recent Senate debate on whether to bar gun sales to people on federal terror watch lists, including the no-fly list. That, like other gun measures that recently have come before Congress, appears unlikely to become law.
Gun-control groups are targeting Johnson for opposing that and another measure to expand background checks to all gun sales. Polls show both measures are broadly popular.
In an interview with the Wisconsin State Journal, Johnson blamed Democrats, the minority party in both houses of Congress, for inaction on guns.
Republicans “are the ones trying to get a result,” Johnson added. “The party that is politicizing the issue is the Democrats.”
Feingold, meanwhile, faces a political challenge. He has tried to straddle the line on guns throughout his career, making pro-gun-rights statements while casting votes on both sides of the issue.
Such a nuanced position may be more difficult to maintain in light of a growing sentiment among Democrats, including presumptive presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, to mount a full-throated push for gun control.
Feingold, D-Middleton, speaking to the State Journal, said his record shows his independence on guns. Feingold said Johnson, in contrast, simply does the bidding of the National Rifle Association, the nation’s leading gun-rights group.
Johnson “is an extremist on this issue,” Feingold said. “People deserve an independent voice on this issue, and that’s what I provide.”
Johnson worried about ‘slippery slope’
The unique challenges faced by both candidates may be tempering their tones in publicly discussing guns, Canon said. Meanwhile, he said Congress is likely to remain at an impasse on guns.
“I think it will continue to be deadlocked,” Canon said.
The gun issue recently caused friction between U.S. Senate Republicans, with Johnson at the center of the scrum.
Last month, GOP Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, who authored a measure to bar gun sales to people on either of two federal terror watch lists, blamed Johnson personally for blocking its passage.
Collins’ plan called for allowing the U.S. Justice Department to block sales to people on the federal no-fly and “selectee” lists, according to a Politico report.
Support for the measure is due in part to the fact that Omar Mateen was on a federal watch list for a period of time before he shot and killed 49 people in an Orlando nightclub last month.
Johnson sponsored an alternative to Collins’ proposal that she said likely lured some Republican senators away from backing her plan.
Johnson’s amendment called for delaying, rather than directly halting, gun sales to people on the federal watch lists, during which time law enforcement could investigate if the buyer is involved in terrorism.
Some other Republicans facing tough re-election fights, including Sens. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Mark Kirk of Illinois and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, supported Collins’ proposal.
Johnson, in an interview with Wisconsin Eye last week, said he thought his amendment could have passed if a vote hadn’t been taken so quickly, before he could sell his colleagues on it.
“Nobody wants to see a gun or any weapon get in the hands of a terrorist or a would-be terrorist, but we need to be extremely cautious,” Johnson said. “Don’t you think you need some due process to be able to get off that (watch) list if you’re going to be denied any kind of constitutional right?”
Johnson told the State Journal that his proposal was not part of an attempt to block Collins’ proposal. Instead, Johnson said he was trying to reach accord on a measure that could pass both the Senate and the House.
Johnson also dismissed expanding background checks as going down a “slippery slope,” saying there’s no need for such checks on gun transactions between family members or friends.
Feingold bills himself as independent on guns
Feingold slammed Johnson for his role in halting Collins’ no-fly proposal, calling it “shameful.”
It was one of the few public statements Feingold has made about guns since he launched his campaign more than a year ago - even as other Wisconsin Democrats, such as Sen. Tammy Baldwin and U.S. Reps. Mark Pocan and Gwen Moore, publicly clamored for new gun restrictions through a sit-in on the U.S. House floor last month.
But Feingold won’t say if he would have voted for the Collins measure that he criticized Johnson for thwarting. Unlike most Democrats, Feingold has voiced reservations on civil-liberties grounds, questioning if people are allowed due process when they’re added to or removed from the list.
Feingold said in the interview he “would’ve worked with Sen. Collins rather than destroy her effort” had he been in the Senate last month.
“My goal would’ve been to find a way to vote with her,” Feingold said. “The actual decision to vote or not, that’s for somebody who’s in office.”
Feingold supports other gun measures such as expanding background checks and restricting purchases of high-capacity gun magazines that hold large amounts of ammunition.
Feingold’s voting record on guns was mixed during his three terms in the U.S. Senate. He was one of just a few Democrats to vote against extending the federal assault-weapons ban in 2004, calling it “a largely arbitrary and symbolic measure.” A decade earlier, he voted to put the ban in place.
Rhetorically, Feingold has been more pro-gun than most Democrats, saying in 2010 that he had been “one of the true leaders in fighting for a greater right to bear arms.”
He has said the Second Amendment provides an individual right to gun ownership, a point that some liberals contest.
But the political tide on guns is turning for Democrats. Once mindful of appeasing centrists from conservative states where gun control is unpopular, Democrats now are increasingly united and more vocal in pushing for gun control measures.
Meanwhile, outside campaign groups have started to wade into the race with ads about guns.
Everytown for Gun Safety, the gun-control group launched by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, is hammering Johnson for opposing the background-checks measure.
The National Rifle Association’s political committee has spent only a small amount in this campaign on Johnson’s behalf. But it spent heavily in his favor during the campaign leading up to Johnson’s first election to the Senate in 2010, and its involvement in other competitive Senate races in this cycle suggests it will rally to his aid again this year.