Even before the shootings this week in Orlando, Fla., guns had become a major issue in Missouri’s contest to choose the next governor.
The state’s four Republican candidates have made clear for months that they support gun rights, and several — notably former Missouri House Speaker Catherine Hanaway — have pressed for expansion.
The likely Democratic nominee, Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster, delivered strong words last week condemning gun violence. But he also has not backed away from his pro-gun stance that earlier has won him endorsements from the National Rifle Association.
Sunday’s massacre in Orlando, in which the assailant used an assault weapon to kill at least 49 people, doesn't appear to have changed anything in the Missouri contest.
GOP contender Eric Greitens, a former Navy SEAL, continues airing his TV ad that features him firing with an M4 rifle, the type the candidate used in Iraq.
Before shooting, Greitens tells the viewer, “I’ll take dead aim at politics as usual.” One of his bullets then sets off an explosion in the distance.
A spokesman for Greitens' campaign emphasized that the post-Orlando discussion shouldn’t be about guns, but should focus instead on “what kind of country we're going to live in, and if it will be safe from radical Islamic terrorists.”
“This was a horrifying and tragic attack on Americans, with the terrorist clearly targeting members of the gay and lesbian community,” Greitens said in a statement.
“The Islamic State (ISIS) has claimed responsibility for this attack, and we can’t stand by and allow this act to go unanswered,” Greitens continued. “This is a sickening and very real reminder of the new daily threat we face in the war against terror.”
Authorities have identified the shooter as U.S.-born Omar Mateen, 29, who had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. He was killed after a standoff with police.
Dual focus on prayers and gun rights
Greitens’ post-Orlando comments were the most detailed by Missouri’s major candidates for governor, in both parties.
Candidate John Brunner, a St. Louis businessman, observed on Twitter that “just one #CCW (concealed-carry) citizen could have stopped the terrorist attack in #Orlando #2A #mogov.”
(Florida does allow concealed/carry, and the targeted nightclub did have an armed off-duty police officer providing security.)
Meanwhile, Hanaway said in a statement that she was “shocked and horrified” by the shootings. “My heart and prayers go out to the victims and their families.”
Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, also a GOP candidate for governor, offered his “prayers and deep sadness,’’ and praised the bravery of the law-enforcement officers involved.
None of the four Republicans indicated any change in their pro-gun views.
Hanaway’s campaign theme is “safe and strong.” And at last month’s state Republican Party convention, held in Branson, she offered the strongest words of any of the candidates in favor of gun rights.
Hanaway emphasized to the crowd of roughly 1,300 GOP faithful that she’d been in charge of the House when it had passed a concealed-carry law in 2003 over the veto of then-Gov. Bob Holden. That move came four years after Missouri voters had narrowly defeated a concealed-carry proposal at the polls.
Hanaway then took note of the General Assembly’s passage of a bill this session that would allow people to carry firearms without a permit, known as “constitutional carry.”
She won cheers when she added, “If Gov. Nixon vetoes this constitutional carry, this law the legislature has passed that says you can stand your ground, believe me, when I’m governor, I’ll sign that bill.”
Hanaway’s first TV ad also shows her loading a firearm.
Koster laments gun violence, but backs gun rights
As for Koster, his address at last Thursday’s Truman Dinner — the state Democratic Party’s biggest annual fundraiser — highlighted his concerns about “the scourge of this gun violence.”
Koster said in an interview before the speech that gun violence “is touching more and more people. And it’s sickening.”
He added that he thought the state’s policy toward gun violence “does have to be balanced.”
He called for more protections for witnesses to crimes, and special gun courts with higher bails for assailants who use guns to commit crimes.
Koster also cited “more stringent prison sentences for felons who choose to carry,’’ and stressed the need for more minorities to get into law-enforcement careers.
Gun violence, he added, “is spinning out of control in the city.”
But Koster did not call for any restrictions on gun rights.
Dave Robertson, head of the political science department at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said he doesn’t expect to see much change in how most state politicians address the gun issue.
He noted that gun rights have been a major issue in Missouri politics for years. The last decade has seen an even stronger focus, with the rise of the conservative tea party movement, which embraces the expansion of gun rights.
The heightened rhetoric over guns, even before the Orlando shooting, underscores “the sense that this is just a totally polarizing issue,’’ Robertson said.
Ironically, high-profile gun crimes, like those in Orlando, add to the public’s anxiety about safety, the professor added. “There’s a sense that things are out of control.”
And for some, that means a quest for more guns.
Follow Jo Mannies on Twitter: @jmannies