Guns become central issue in Ohio Senate race

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As part of our election coverage for the Nov. 8 general election, we look at the candidates’ positions on gun rights and gun control.

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Not long ago, the National Rifle Association ranked the two men now running for Ohio’s U.S. Senate seat an A and A plus, respectively.

Sen. Rob Portman got the A. Former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland got the A plus.

But much has changed since then. While Portman remains consistently opposed to measures limiting access to guns. Strickland now says that the spate of mass shootings in recent years proves that change is needed.

The gun rights community – which once considered Strickland one of their own – now considers him a traitor to their cause.

“He’s not the man he used to be on our issue,” said Jim Irvine, president of the Buckeye Firearms Association. “And he seems proud of that.”

As a U.S. congressman, Strickland voted against the 1994 assault weapons ban. In 1993, he voted against the Brady Bill, which created a waiting period before anyone could buy a handgun as well as a criminal background check system before people could buy a gun. He campaigned heavily on the issue in his 2010 re-election for governor, toting a gun in one campaign ad, but was defeated by current Ohio Gov. John Kasich.

But a spate of mass shootings caused soul searching. After 26 – including 20 children – were killed in an elementary school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, Strickland called for a commission to consider the nation’s gun laws, telling the Wooster Daily Record, “there needs to be a recognition that we cannot continue to lose thousands and thousands of innocent people to gun violence.”

Strickland now supports expanding background checks to people buying guns at gun shows or on the Internet; a Democrat-sponsored amendment banning suspected terrorists from buying guns and even concedes that he now would support an assault weapons ban if it were enforceable.

“I think it’s possible to honor the Second Amendment and at the same time have commonsense efforts to curb gun violence,” Strickland said in an interview. “I don’t think those two things are contradictory.”

He said he believes that background checks should be comprehensive in nature, and that people deemed too dangerous to fly in an airplane “ought not be able to buy guns.”

He dismisses the idea that he has betrayed his values.

“I have never forgotten where I came from,” he said. “I came from Appalachia. I came from a family where hunting was a way of life. But I also have a heart and a brain. I have eyes and ears. And I have the capacity to look around and see what’s happening. And it’s clear to me that this gun violence epidemic has escalated to the point where we need to find some common sense solutions to save lives.”

His shift became an issue during the Democratic primary, when challenger P.G. Sittenfeld criticized him for changing on the position. A super PAC supporting Sittenfeld ran an ad bashing Strickland’s change of heart.

Gun rights groups have leaped on Strickland’s shift as well. “He’s got the knowledge to know this stuff,” said Irvine. “Instead, he willingly goes along with failed ideas….what Strickland is doing is changing his mind because he thinks that’s where the votes are.”

On the other end of the spectrum, Toby Hoover of the Ohio Coalition Against Gun Violence, is hopeful that Strickland has seen the light.

Her group does not endorse candidates – it’s a nonprofit. But “we’re just going to take him for his word at what he’s saying – that he has had a change of heart.”

“We need them to stand up and say who they are and what going to do,” she said.

While Strickland faces criticism that he’s switched his position, Democrats and gun control groups have criticized Portman for being too consistent: They say he won’t support any bill that the NRA opposes.

On Thursday, Portman sided with a majority of Republicans in a test vote opposing a bill to ban those on the no-fly list from buying guns. After the vote, he expressed disappointment that the vote was held before a true bipartisan compromise could be reached. He said he’s concerned that such bills don’t have enough due process to protect the rights of those mistakenly put on such lists.

That vote occurred just an hour after House Democrats concluded a 26 hour sit-in to protest Republican refusal to hold similar votes in the House. It occurred days after Portman voted solidly with Republican proposals that would delay, but not ban, suspected terrorists from buying guns.

Gun control groups lambasted him for the vote, splashing his face and the face of other Senate Republicans on social media. Democrats called the Republican alternative “weak on terrorism.”

But Portman defended the votes, saying many people don’t even know they’re on the list of suspected terrorists. They should be able to clear their name, he said, before being outright banned.

“If you’re a known or suspected terrorist, you shouldn’t be able to get a gun, period,” Portman said. “But you should be able to know whether you’re on that list or not.”

The Senate votes nearly identically echoed votes the Senate took in December, after a shooter in San Bernardino, Calif., killed 14.

To Hoover, even the Senate’s reaction to mass shootings has become predictable: outrage, but no action.

“I think they played a game with us,” she said. “It’s a real disappointment.”

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