Politics & Government

For gun rights or for gun restrictions? Democrats running for governor tread thin line

Democrats running for Kansas governor are taking a middle-of-the road approach to guns — attempting to appeal to voters who demand action while remaining attractive to others who embrace gun rights.

They say allowing anyone to have a concealed weapon goes too far but they are also assuring voters they don't oppose gun ownership.

Leading Republican candidates aren't doing the same thing. Republican candidate Kris Kobach rode through a parade with a replica machine gun early in June, a decision that drew national attention to his pro-gun stance. And he did it again this weekend.

Democrats are trying to win the votes of people like Maurice and Regina McDaniel, Democrats who live in Pleasanton but hold different views on guns. Maurice said he worries a little his party will nominate someone who favors too many gun restrictions, making it more difficult for that person to get elected.

“I believe in self-protection. But like I say, my wife and I don’t agree on that because she’s against all guns,” Maurice McDaniel said at a Democratic picnic near the eastern Kansas town of La Cygne on Saturday.

No candidate is performing a more visible balancing act on guns — trying to reach both gun rights supporters and those in favor of additional restrictions — than Sen. Laura Kelly. She's faces pressure from opponent Josh Svaty, a former state representative, over past votes to loosen restrictions.

“I have been a routine supporter of our Second Amendment rights in the state of Kansas. I do believe that law-abiding folks should have the right to carry and also the right to hunt,” Kelly said Friday during a debate in Wichita.

She acknowledged that she voted in favor of allowing people to carry concealed weapons without a permit in 2015. But she added that she soon realized the bill “had gone way too far.”

“So since 2016, I have been voting to pull back on some of the loose ends on that particular bill,” Kelly said.

Svaty said “most Democrats did not need to be surprised” after the passage of permitless conceal carry that it went too far.

“We should have stopped this when we had the chance in 2015, and we need Democrats who knew that then and knew enough to stand up and say ‘No, this goes too far,’” Svaty said.

Kelly has responded by noting Svaty's own gun rights votes when he was in the Legislature. Svaty voted in favor of establishing permitted conceal-carry in 2006.

Joan Wagnon, a former chair of the Kansas Democratic Party, said her pro-gun stance served her well. But in a Democratic primary with a lot of people believing the state’s current gun policy “is just insane,” Kelly is trying to find a more moderate position, she said.

In recent years, Kansas lawmakers have passed bills allowing people to carry concealed weapons without a permit and have taken away the ability of public colleges and universities to issue blanket bans on weapons.

Wagnon said Kelly’s pro-gun record bothers her, but she is supporting her candidacy. She said the gun issue is probably what most distinguishes Kelly from the other major Democrats in the race, including Svaty and former Wichita mayor Carl Brewer.

Brewer has called for a so-called red flag law that would allow law enforcement to take guns from someone "who is not mentally capable." But reflecting the middle ground the candidates are seeking, he also backs concealed carry with training.

Democrats as well as some Republicans have been pushing to again allow colleges and universities to ban weapons, and the Democratic candidates for governor have all said allowing concealed weapons without a permit goes too far. The leading Republican candidates for governor, by contrast, want to preserve the current laws.

The Kansas Democratic Party platform opposes allowing guns in public schools, colleges and other public buildings. The party also says that firearms should be carried only by trained individuals who have undergone background checks and are licensed by the state.

The Kansas Republican Party, by contrast, says that gun control "in all its forms" only penalizes law-abiding citizens. The party opposes the licensing of gun owners.

The Democratic dispute over voting records on gun policy may not ultimately move many voters. Patrick Miller, a political scientist at the University of Kansas, said guns are an issue that comes and goes based on the headlines. Interest intensifies after school shootings but then fades away, he said.

“Guns are typically not one of those issues you’re going to win an election on. For a Democrat it can actually be a dangerous issue. The energy we do see on guns, all things being equal, is actually tilted to the right,” Miller said.

That may help explain why Kobach is again riding in a Jeep with a mounted replica machine gun. The Kansas secretary of state rode through a parade in Shawnee a week ago, spurring outrage. The city of Shawnee quickly apologized for the incident.

But Kobach didn’t back down. In an interview after the incident, he said he “didn't expect the city to immediately react the way these few people on the fringe left wanted them to.”

He rode with the Jeep to two parades this past weekend, he said in a tweet.

Gov. Jeff Colyer has also staked out firmly pro-gun positions. He said in February that people old enough to put their lives on the line in the military should be able to own a firearm, in response to a question about whether the age to buy a semi-automatic weapon should be raised to 21.

Republicans — especially primary voters — typically agree more on the issue of guns than Democrats, according to Miller. It could be politically dangerous for a Republican candidate for governor to use language that appears conciliatory on guns, he said, because of the large role the National Rifle Association plays in primaries.

And although some Republicans do support gun restrictions, such as a ban on assault weapons, they’re aren’t typical Republican primary voters, who tend to be more conservative than the party as a whole, Miller said.

For Democrats, the guns issue is more of a mixed bag.

At the Democratic picnic outside La Cygne, Debra Wood, who lives in Fort Scott, called for increased background checks and said “automatic weapons shouldn’t be sold to private individuals.” But she also made clear she supports gun rights.

“We’re from a rural background. I believe in hunting…everyone should have a gun in their house if they want,” Wood said. “But really, do you need an automatic weapon? I don’t know if you would need that to kill a raccoon or a rabbit.”

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach rides in a Jeep mounted with a replica gun in the Old Shawnee Days Parade on Saturday, June 2, 2018.

Jonathan Shorman: 785-296-3006, @jonshorman

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