In a time when student walkouts over gun control are frequently in the news, Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts is leaning in to his support for the National Rifle Association.
Ricketts plans to speak this week at the NRA’s forum in Dallas where he will talk about “the importance of the Second Amendment in 21st-century American life, and passing on the tradition of responsible gun ownership to the next generation,” said spokesman Matthew Trail.
Both supporters and opponents say the appearance isn’t surprising, but the reaction from each side shows that the NRA is a divisive organization.
Papillion Republican Patricia Harrold, 44, said Nebraska values include support for firearms.
“I’m proud of him, actually, going to speak at the convention, because he’s someone who can articulate our tradition and our history and our support for the Second Amendment,” she said.
But Colby Klaus of Thayer County, a 28-year-old Democrat who lives on a farm, said the decision was “pretty tone deaf” — though he said he was already not a fan of the governor.
“It just seems like he’s more interested in focusing on things that are an easy sound bite to put in an email and appeal to right wing voters,” he said.
This is not a new stance for Ricketts — the governor had previously invited the NRA to host the convention in Nebraska, and the group’s political arm has endorsed him.
Vice President Mike Pence is also scheduled to speak at the event, and the White House said Monday that President Donald Trump also will attend. This will be the fourth year in a row that Trump has addressed the NRA, and last year he became the first sitting president to do so.
The NRA has been criticized lately for taking hard-line stances on gun rights. Students at thousands of schools in Nebraska and around the country have staged walkouts to protest what they see as lax gun laws after 17 died in the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
But there are signs that the NRA still enjoys broad support. The NRA’s Political Victory Fund (the NRA political arm) recorded its highest monthly contribution total since 2000, according to an analysis of campaign finance reports by the Florida Sun Sentinel. The NRA’s campaign fund collected $2.4 million in March, the highest monthly total in 18 years when adjusted for inflation. About 80 percent of the contributions were donations of $200 or less.
The post-Parkland protests have shown more staying power than the reaction to previous mass shootings, said Kevin Smith, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
But he noted that in largely rural, largely Republican Nebraska, there aren’t signs of a fundamental shift in attitudes on guns.
“I don’t see how this really hurts, that there’s any kind of political cost to Gov. Ricketts for talking at the NRA,” he said.
Ricketts’ campaign spokesman described him as a “lifetime NRA member, proud gun owner and avid sportsman.” He also touted the governor’s support and signing of a new law that shields gun-ownership records from public inspection.
State Sen. Bob Krist, a Democratic candidate for governor, calls himself a “defender of the Second Amendment,” but he added: “I think there is some responsibility involved with actually owning a weapon.”
Krist, who served in the Air Force for 21 years, said he would be in favor of banning some military-style weapons. He also said he wants to see measures to make schools safer and to strengthen background checks for gun purchases.
Krist also criticized Ricketts for vetoing a bill from State Sen. Lynne Walz of Fremont — a fellow Democrat who is running as Krist’s lieutenant governor — that would have used private donations to match troubled children and their families with local mental health services.
That, Krist said, is a school safety issue.
Ricketts’ campaign said he vetoed the bill because it “forced state government to act as a pass-through for private funds and neglected to address parental rights.”
School safety is a high priority for Marrianne Williams, a 53-year-old mother who works part time for Democrat Dennis Crawford’s 1st District congressional bid. Williams said it is sad to watch her middle school-aged daughter participate in school shooter drills. She said that unlike tornadoes or other types of drills, the number of school shootings is controllable.
“(Ricketts) has aligned himself with an organization with no intent of trying to control that,” she said. “In fact just the opposite — their solution is to sell more.”
But the planned NRA appearance has brought more support for Ricketts from voters like 48-year-old Paul Kroeker of Henderson, who said he’s a libertarian-leaning Republican who’s not always a Ricketts fan.
“But strictly speaking from gun ownership, I totally support him representing Nebraska at the NRA,” Kroeker said.
This report includes material from the Washington Post.