Steve Bullock tells two stories when he talks about guns in America.
One of them is about opening day of hunting season with his son, two years back in Montana. They wore hunter orange garb, reviewed a hunter safety course ahead of time and practiced the hunter ethics of fair chase in the field. His boy, Bullock beams, bagged his first buck.
The other story is about the day his nephew was shot dead with a handgun at a Montana elementary school. The now-governor was finishing his last class at Columbia Law School when he was pulled out of the classroom and told that the boy had been murdered by a classmate on a playground. His nephew, Bullock says with lingering sadness 25 years later, was the victim of the youngest school shooter in U.S. history.
The boy in each story was just 11 and both tales, the happy one and the tragic one, inform how the Democratic candidate for president thinks about guns and gun control. Bullock hopes that his perspective will help get him elected and then help actually get something done to solve the problem of gun violence, particularly mass shootings.
“As a hunter and a gun owner,” he tells RealClearPolitics, “I know that no real hunter needs a 30-round clip, no real hunter needs a weapon of war, they don’t need a bump stock, they don’t want a terrorist or a domestic abuser or a violent felon to have a gun. Period.”
All the candidates competing for the nomination want some sort of new gun control. Many are from the coasts. Few own firearms. This makes Bullock somewhat different.
He governs a deep-red state where the Republican presidential nominee – Donald Trump – won by more than 20 percentage points in 2016 and where more than half of adults keep guns at home. After last weekend’s shootings in Texas and Ohio that left 31 dead and dozens more wounded, Bullock is trying to expand the conversation. He wants to talk to more than just progressives. He wants to talk to voters across the country, just like the ones in his state, who see firearms as part of their way of life.
Some might not be inclined to listen. For Bullock, the first order of business is getting the National Rifle Association out of the way, something its millions of politically active members won’t take to kindly.
“Let’s be clear, the NRA divides us,” Bullock says over the phone Tuesday, the night before he is scheduled to speak in Washington at the National Press Club. “It is a dark-money-filled group that uses guns and the threat of everyone’s guns being taken away to polarize the issue and get to the point where we can never have a reasonable discussion about it.”
“If we ever looked at this as a public health issue and not a political issue,” he insists, “we could make public gains.”
But judging from recent statements and television appearances, this is very much a political issue for Bullock, who narrowly missed the first Democratic debate and who only recently made it on stage for the second one. He is absolutely running on gun control, albeit with a different perspective and voice.
The day after the shootings, the two-term governor quickly pinned a tweet of himself at the White House urging President Trump to do something to protect schools after the Parkland attack. More than a year after that exchange, he condemns the president for failing to heed his call and instead going on to give the keynote address at the last NRA convention. And while Trump called for new regulations to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill and condemned racist violence, Bullock remains unimpressed.
“He says it on a Monday but does the exact opposite for the last 2 ½ years,” he argues. “It would be great if this was the moment that the president recognizes that the vast majority of his constituents, gun owners and non-gun owners alike, think that there are reasonable steps that we could take toward safety.”
What would such steps look like in a Bullock presidency? Universal background checks, for starters, combined with an effort to make sure that federal and national databases have all the relevant information needed to run a thorough search. He also would support so-called red flag laws currently being discussed to keep guns away from the mentally ill or those convicted of domestic abuse.
High-capacity magazines would be outlawed. So would assault weapons, which he does not define but says they “are not used for self-defense,” arguing that the AR-15, the most popular rifle in America, “is not used for hunting.”
Bullock won’t go as far as some of his competitors, such as former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who recently toyed with gun confiscation similar to that mandated in Australia in the 1990s. “I think that there should be voluntary buy-back,” Bullock says when asked, “but not a mandatory one.”
All of this stems from the former state attorney general’s view of the Constitution: “Sure, the Second Amendment confers rights, but it also confers responsibilities, and, as someone who owns firearms, it is time to get this discussion away from the NRA and call on fellow gun owners to take leadership in that fight against gun violence.”
And some of this is new for that same attorney general who opposed efforts by then-President Obama to reinstate the federal assault weapons ban in 2009 and later ran for reelection as governor in 2016 on a promise, according to a spokesman at the time, of “opposing universal background checks” and “standing up for the Second Amendment.”
Bullock the presidential candidate is much more aggressive on the issue than Bullock the governor ever was. He has signed laws giving tax breaks to firearms manufacturers and lawsmaking concealed weapons applications confidential and laws eliminating fingerprint requirements. He knows all of this.
“Let’s not kid ourselves,” Bullock says when asked about an evolution that some, including even former Obama adviser David Axelrod, have wondered was politically motivated. “I’ve also vetoed a whole handful of bills that aren’t good for law enforcement or aren’t good for our communities.”
Things are different now, according to Bullock.
“Even most gun owners are tired of having concerns about whether their kids will be safe if they go to a movie or a festival.” Explaining his change of heart further, he adds that most “are becoming concerned that guns could get in the wrong hands, and that was part of it for me, for sure.”
Should Bullock win the nomination, Republicans will zero in on his record. They will also argue that the Assault Weapons Ban of the Clinton era did little to curb gun violence. Before that can happen, he must convince primary voters that he is tough on guns without being tough on the people or the culture that loves them and uses them properly.
His thinking is different now, and he is betting theirs is too. His change came gradually each time he ordered the flags in the state lowered to half-staff after a mass shooting, and after his son, whom he took hunting, “had to learn in his first week of school where to go in case of an active shooter.”