BOISE – Democratic candidate Walt Minnick leads Republican U.S. Rep. Bill Sali by a seven-to-five margin in one of the most telling polls of Idaho’s 1st Congressional District race: a tally of the two rivals’ personal firearms.
In Idaho, gun ownership – especially in tight elections – can be a way for candidates to communicate shared values with residents, many of whom hunted before they could watch PG-13 movies.
Minnick owns seven guns: three pistols, a .22-caliber rifle, two Remington shotguns and a pellet gun he’s used to teach his children to shoot. Sali, who in 2006 helped fight off an Army National Guard effort to restrict shooting in a Snake River raptor preserve, owns two shotguns and three rifles.
Now Minnick and Sali are dueling over who would best stick up for Second Amendment rights. Sali won an A-plus rating from the National Rifle Association on a questionnaire; Minnick got a D-plus.
Meanwhile, Minnick, a 66-year-old former business executive who tied for the highest score in his 1970 U.S. Army class’s marksmanship test, was endorsed by a rival group, Maryland-based American Hunters and Shooters Association, which says the National Rifle Association backs candidates for partisan reasons.
“I think guns are part of our American culture,” Minnick said earlier this month. “There is no one more opposed to gun control than I am.”
Sali, a 54-year-old lawyer from Kuna, retorted, “He believes it’s OK to go out and shoot a deer, but not a criminal intruder in your own home.”
For a glimpse of how deeply guns resonate in Idaho, take Greenleaf, a town of fewer than 1,000 founded by Quakers in the sugarbeet and mint fields above the Snake River. In 2006, it passed a law asking residents who didn’t object on religious grounds to keep a gun at home.
The hamlet’s mayor, Brad Holton, who owns 25 rifles, estimates that as many as 40 percent of eligible voters in Greenleaf see gun rights as a decisive ballot issue. While few think Minnick aims to ban guns, Holton said some fear he would be more likely to back laws limiting acceptable weapons.
“The peace-driving people, they’re saying, ‘We’ve got to get Walt in there because he’s going to reduce the variety of guns,’ ” Holton said. “But there are other people who have Uzis. To me, they are gun pursuers that love the right of firearms. They pursue it as far as that will go. I personally don’t have them, but I understand that people enjoy them.”
At the center of this debate is the 27-question NRA survey Minnick completed earlier this year.
The survey included this question: “The NRA opposes gun bans as a violation of both the Second Amendment and common sense. (However, fully automatic firearms, short-barreled shotguns, and certain ‘destructive devices’ are currently very strictly regulated.) Which of the following statements best describes your opinion about banning firearms?”
Minnick, an NRA member, wrote “firearms with no legitimate sporting or recreational use” should be banned.
Andrew Arulanandam, an NRA spokesman in Virginia and a former Idaho GOP state director, said that answer won Minnick the poor rating.
“It’s reasonable to conclude, based on Walt’s response … that he believes that a woman with a restraining order against a violent ex, or the parole officer who has a conceal-carry permit to defend himself and his family from some of the people he deals with in his line of work, that these people don’t deserve to own a firearm,” Arulanandam said.
Minnick aides counter that the question referred to unconventional automatic weapons, short-barreled shotguns and “destructive devices.” His response was never meant to be interpreted as opposition to handguns used for self defense, said John Foster, Minnick’s spokesman in Boise.
“From Walt’s perspective, there’s no reason for someone to have a howitzer in their backyard or a .50-caliber machine gun in their garage,” Foster said. “It’s about protecting the rights of lawful gun owners by making sure they stay out of the hands of felons and criminals.”
Minnick’s answers did conform with the NRA’s stance opposing registration, federal licensing and waiting periods – and backing the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 2008 decision to overturn a Washington, D.C., handgun ban.
Sali aides said Minnick isn’t sincere.
“He’s not a friend of the Second Amendment,” said Wayne Hoffman, Sali’s campaign spokesman. “He just doesn’t like the fact that the NRA is calling him on it.”
American Hunters and Shooters Association touts itself as “a gun owners association that doesn’t have a radical agenda” and accuses the National Rifle Association of hijacking mainstream gun owners’ heritage with an anti-conservation message. Its directors say Minnick’s stance on guns – and membership on boards including the Idaho Conservation League – made the choice easy.
“We believe Minnick is going to protect our guns and the places where we learned to hunt and fish,” said John Robinson, its chief of staff. “With Sali, we see a future where our wild lands have been sold off to the highest bidder to be harvested, logged, mined and carved up with roads.”