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Who owns more guns, Tim Walz or Jeff Johnson?

Jeff Johnson, the Republican candidate for Minnesota Governor. Nathan Bowe / Forum News Service1 / 2
Tim Walz, Democratic candidate for Minnesota Governor. Submitted photo 2 / 2

ST. PAUL — Tim Walz, the Democrat with the "F" grade from the NRA, wants to ban bump stocks, expand background checks and give courts the authority to temporarily take away someone's guns if the person is deemed a threat, as well as ban "military-style assault rifles" in Minnesota.

Jeff Johnson, the Republican with the NRA's "A" grade and endorsement, wants none of that. He opposes any tightening of gun laws.Guess which one of the two candidates for Minnesota governor owns more guns.

Walz. He owns three today. The Nebraska native and former Mankato High School teacher grew up with guns and was given his first at age 11.

Johnson has never owned a firearm. He's hunted since his youth, but always borrows a gun.

To be clear, gun ownership has never been a prerequisite for gun-rights supporters, but Johnson acknowledges his alliance with the NRA might not be typical.

"I am an NRA member, which is different I guess because I don't own guns, but those issues are important to me," he said.

It's unclear how critical a role gun policy will play in the race for governor to succeed Gov. Mark Dayton, a Democrat, who has owned guns over the course of his life and has supported some gun control measures.

Candidates and strategists from both parties across numerous offices say health care and economic issues are top among voters' concerns. But guns bring out greater passions.

Traditionally, the polarizing issue has mattered more to Republicans than Democrats, as those opposed to more gun restrictions have placed a higher priority on the issue than gun control advocates. That explains why many polls have shown that Americans — and Minnesotans — generally favor a higher level of restrictions than their elected officials have been willing to support.

For many gun owners, the relationship with firearms is deeply personal, affording guns a unique place among their personal possessions.

Walz is no different.

Walz's first gun memory

"Early," he said, a nostalgic smile drawing across his face. "Going with my dad. We'd go out pheasant hunting. My first gun was .22 (rifle). It was a pump-action .22. Remember the old ones they had?"

Walz, who now represents southern Minnesota's First District in Congress, said he grew up with guns, "mostly shotguns," which were used for hunting, "mostly grouse and pheasant hunting," although occasionally ducks and wild turkeys. He said he'd tag along with his brother, who was "huge into deer hunting."

The retired Army National Guardsman has never drawn on another person, but in the military he said he "could fire expert with an M16, and I fired howitzers and everything else." He said in his adult life he's taken up shooting trap, skeet and sporting clays — shotgunning sports where one fires at flung targets emulating the flights of birds. He belongs to the Caribou Gun Club in Le Sueur. And he still hunts, although "I don't get out as much as I'd like any more."

He currently owns a Beretta A400 .12-gauge semi-automatic shotgun and two older guns handed down from his wife's grandfather: a double-barrel Winchester Model 24 from the 1930s and an M1 Garand, the semi-automatic combat rifle the grandfather used during World War II.

Johnson's first gun memory

"It would have been as a kid," said Johnson, Hennepin County commissioner and former state lawmaker who grew up in Brainerd. "I grew up in a family that didn't hunt, so it was not a way of life for us as it was for a lot of my buddies, but it probably would've been in late elementary school where I went out with one of my friends and his dad and did some bird hunting. ... It was probably 12, 13 years old, somewhere in there."

Johnson said he has enjoyed hunting for much of his life, although he never became so enamored with it as to purchase his own firearm.

"Once in a while if one of my buddies would go out, he'd invite me and he'd loan me a gun and we'd go out together," he said. "Now I hunt maybe once a year with some friends. We go out pheasant hunting."

'Positive' experiences with guns

Both Walz and Johnson grew up in rural areas, and each noted their experiences far from high-crime areas — and in an era before mass school shootings dominated headlines — resulted in a view of guns detached from the lethal violence that often undergirds the gun debate today.

"I'm not sure my personal experience affects it dramatically," Johnson said of his current views. "My experience with guns has been a positive experience, and I've never had a problem with a gun, whether it is somebody who is close to me or myself. For me, the issue is more about the Second Amendment and the Constitution and the rights of law-abiding people. So it's less about my personal feelings or my personal experience."

Walz uses an analogy commonly used by firearms owners and safety instructors: Guns are tools.

"It's hard for me to explain to people who haven't been around firearms that much, but I see them much as I see my chainsaw: They're useful, but they can be dangerous if you don't know what you're doing," he said. Gun violence was unknown to him. "Growing up, I had never heard of anybody getting shot and didn't know any one. Since I've been campaigning for governor, I know a lot of people who've had family members shot and who were shot."

Changing views?

Johnson's defense of gun rights has been essentially consistent for years. His current positions are straightforward: He strictly opposes any changes except perhaps allowing a voluntary expansion of background checks for private gun sales. Such sales can range from a father giving his rifle to a child to a private collector selling a firearm to another collector. Critics call this the "gun show loophole."

Walz's positions take explaining. Because they've changed.

For years, Walz received favorable views — and campaign donations — from the NRA's political arm. In fact, since Walz was elected to Congress in 2006, his campaigns received $18,950 from the NRA — more than any other Minnesota member of Congress, Republican or Democrat, during that period, according to federal campaign records. He wasn't hard-line anti-gun control; he gradually came to support more gun-control measures such as universal background checks and the adoption of "no fly, no buy" legislation, which would have blocked the sale of firearms to people whom the U.S. attorney general said had "reasonable suspicion" to be engaged in terrorism.

But it wasn't until February, a week after the shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., that he announced on Facebook he was fully parting ways with NRA, would donate all past donations and support an "assault-weapons ban in Minnesota."

Since then, he's tried to position himself as a type of ambassador between Second Amendment defenders and gun control advocates, calling it an attempt to balance "personal freedoms versus the greater good."

He said: "I think, done right, the experience I had with firearms would not have been changed at all. I would've still would've been able to go hunting with my friends and family. I still would be able to own those firearms that I have."