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Missouri Politics, Campaigns Are Flooded With Firearms

The state has loose gun laws with no permit required to carry concealed weapons and relatively modest calls for change are met with harsh pushback. But it’s nothing new; Missouri politics have been replete with firearms for years.

(TNS) — As mass shootings grip the country with lethal regularity, Missouri politics is swimming in firearms.

Guns have become such a prominent part of campaigns that they often almost fade into the background. It now takes something like former Gov. Eric Greitens’ recent ad, which shows him holding a shotgun and hunting people, to shock people into taking notice.

Greitens drew widespread condemnation last month over the ad, which invited supporters as part of a fundraising play to receive a permit to hunt RINOs — Republicans in name only. It showed the gun-wielding GOP candidate accompanied by an armed crew in tactical gear storming a house. He then doubled down, releasing a new ad that shows him shooting a military-style long gun and a large explosion in a field.

A number of Republican and Democratic politicians say Greitens went too far. The first ad came after the massacre of students and teachers at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, and a shooting at a Buffalo supermarket that killed 10 Black people. The mass shootings have only continued since then, with seven killed during a shooting at a July 4 parade in Highland Park, Illinois.

In an already combustible atmosphere, the former governor acted irresponsibly, they say, crossing a line with a message that taken at face value calls for violence against political opponents.

But the videos didn’t come out of nowhere.

More than a year earlier, Mark McCloskey entered the race after a photo of him clutching an assault-style rifle outside his St. Louis home as Black Lives Matter demonstrators walked by propelled him to right-wing celebrity.

Less than a month later, Rep. Vicky Hartzler announced her Senate candidacy at Lee’s Summit gun store Frontier Justice. Within days, Gov. Mike Parson visited the same store to sign into law the Second Amendment Preservation Act, which prohibits Missouri police from enforcing certain federal gun laws

Missouri politics is replete with firearms imagery and rhetoric, and has been for years, as Republicans continuously promote their pro-gun bona fides.

“I think all Missourians love their guns. Missourians definitely want to protect the Second Amendment,” said state Sen. Denny Hoskins, a Warrensburg Republican and a member of the Missouri Senate’s Conservative Caucus.

“And so I think it’s imperative of all the U.S. Senate candidates that, ‘Hey, we want to protect the Second Amendment, and those rights will not be infringed.’”

Missouri has loose state gun laws, with no permit required to carry concealed weapons. In the past year, the Second Amendment Preservation Act has also had a chilling effect on law enforcement’s willingness to aid federal authorities.

Relatively modest calls for change are met with anger. Retiring Republican Sen. Roy Blunt’s support for a bipartisan gun law that would increase funding for mental health services and incentivize states to pass red flag laws that allow courts to temporarily take away guns from individuals in crisis led dozens of Missouri state legislators to urge Blunt to renounce the legislation because of the red flag provisions.

He didn’t, but the pushback underscored how pro-gun Missouri Republicans have become. Even the state’s senior elected Republican official isn’t immune from criticism if he strays slightly from the party line.

Guns Prominent in Campaign Material

Guns and opposition to gun control have featured prominently in some Republican campaign material, including the race for U.S. Senate.

A gun is at the core of McCloskey’s public image. The viral image of him and his wife, Patricia, both holding guns during protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in 2020 is central to his campaign.

McCloskey has gone as far as making the image his profile picture on social media, resulting in a statement by McCloskey condemning Greitens’ ad appearing next to an image of McCloskey holding an assault-style rifle.

“It is sad and tragic that Eric Greitens created a campaign ad suggesting we hunt down Republicans with a different viewpoint,” McCloskey said in the statement. “I was totally dismayed and disgusted by what I saw in his shocking campaign ad.”

McCloskey himself pleaded guilty to fourth-degree assault, a misdemeanor, stemming from the gun waving incident outside his home. Parson later pardoned him.

Hartzler’s office sent out a mailer in May that showed her holding an assault rifle and touted her opposition to efforts to reduce gun violence through legislation like red flag laws, which allow law enforcement to temporarily take the weapons of people who a court has decided are at risk of harming themselves or others.

The postcard arrived in her constituents’ mailboxes just days after the Uvalde mass shooting.

Even when gun policy isn’t mentioned explicitly, the presence of firearms in political messaging has come to act as a kind of visual shorthand that can quickly signal pro-gun attitudes without a word.

In April, Greitens released a video of him and Donald Trump Jr. firing guns at a shooting range. The video, titled “Striking fear into the hearts of liberals, RINOs, and the fake media,” features no speeches or voice-overs.

The only voices in the entire video are Trump Jr. saying, “Striking fear into the hearts of liberals everywhere, folks,” and Greitens saying, “Liberals beware.” Like the RINO hunting ad, guns are never explicitly mentioned but are nevertheless the dominant visual element.

Over time, gun imagery has shifted from hunting toward a great focus on high-capacity weapons, said Robynn Kuhlmann, a political science professor at the University of Central Missouri.

“We’ve kind of moved from, ‘we’re going to go duck hunting or deer hunting with my family,’” Kuhlmann said, adding that “softer” images of guns have been replaced with a “hardcore, militant image.”

The number of gun-related political ads overall is also growing. A study published in the journal Health Affairs found that between 2012 and 2018, the share of political ads nationally that referenced guns rose from 1 percent to more than 8 percent.

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, a Democrat and former Kansas City mayor, said he feels Republican ads have become increasingly militarized in the way they present their support for guns, something he said has changed over the course of his 17 years in the U.S. Capitol.

“At this moment, the insensitivity of it is just unbelievably awful,” Cleaver said. “They’re just finishing burying their babies down in Texas. It’s not a good look right now.”

To be sure, Democrats at times include weapons in their messaging, though usually without the specter of political violence. In June of 2021, Democratic Missouri Senate candidate Lucas Kunce put out a video on Twitter where he held an assault rifle and pretended to take aim at a tree before criticizing McCloskey for pointing a gun at protesters.

“You know what, forget it,” Kunce says in the video. “I don’t have to do this type of thing. I kind of got my fill of carrying one of these around in Iraq and Afghanistan. Stunts like that, those are for those clowns on the other side.”

Democrat Jason Kander, a former Army intelligence officer, assembled a gun blindfolded in an ad during his 2016 race against Blunt. The ad was intended to rebut Blunt’s attacks on Kander’s record on gun rights and is widely considered the most memorable of the campaign, receiving national attention at the time.

In a recent interview, Kander said Greitens “is glorifying violence, political violence, and frankly, threatening political violence.”

Changing Political Atmosphere

Hoskins, the state senator, said guns in ads don’t contribute to violence because “guns are everywhere,” in everything from video games to popular movies.

Greitens’ RINO hunting ad was very aggressive, he acknowledged, but not much different from an ad the Senate candidate used in his 2016 run for governor. In that election, Greitens promoted “ISIS hunting permits,” referring to the terrorist group.

But the political atmosphere in the United States has become much more charged since even 2016. The Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the Capitol demonstrated the willingness of some supporters of former President Donald Trump to use violence in an attempt to keep him in power.

Fear of violence lurks in the mind of some public officials. In the past two years, fights over mask mandates and other pandemic policy, as well as cultural battles over things like critical race theory, have raised the temperature at meetings and led to threats against elected officials.

The National School Boards Association this fall asked President Joe Biden for help last fall addressing a rising tide of threats directed at board members and educators in a letter that likened the vitriol to domestic terrorism. Conservatives, including in Missouri, pounced on the letter.

Springfield Mayor Ken McClure, in an interview in early June, recounted one city council meeting where an extremist vaccination opponent was sitting in the front row. Extra security had been brought in. Council members were texting McClure, asking if they were safe, he said.

Then they heard what sounded like gunshots outside city hall. It turned out to be fireworks from a nearby university. Still, the episode was an example of how the current political environment has put people on edge.

“It’s toxic,” McClure said.

Asked about whether he felt the culture of guns had changed, Blunt referenced a picture he keeps in his U.S. Senate office. It depicts former Vice President John Nance Garner showing then-Sen. Harry Truman the guns used by Jesse James, the famous bank and train robber who was both born and killed in Missouri.

But he acknowledged there has been a shift in gun culture to focus on self-defense.

“I think there’s legitimate security concerns that we didn’t used to have,” Blunt said.

Sitting next to Blunt during a joint interview, U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a Michigan Democrat who partnered with Blunt to get mental health provisions added to the new federal gun violence law, said she supports legal gun ownership but is worried about the direction gun culture is heading.

“I personally feel that there is a dramatic change in terms of the idea of promoting gun ownership now,” Stabenow said.

“For identity, for strength, for myself. It’s like it’s a whole 'nother thing that is gloriously tied to the unleashing of really dangerous forces that I see, white supremacy, of the things that worry me a lot.”

©2022 McClatchy Washington Bureau. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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