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Ron Johnson, Gun Reform Advocate?

That’s what his staff claims. But let’s look at the record.
June 10, 2022
Ron Johnson, Gun Reform Advocate?
Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., is seen after the senate luncheons in the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, May 18, 2022. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

Following the school shooting in Texas that left 19 children and two adults dead, Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson offered up some incisive analysis of the root causes of gun violence.

“There’s a sickness in our society,” he told Fox Business host Neil Cavuto on May 26. “I’ve always said, overall the solution is renewed faith, stronger families, more supportive communities. I don’t think it’s helpful that kids are spending so much time in front of a computer screen, playing these games, being alienated, bullying on social media platforms.”

After brushing off Cavuto’s inquiries about whether it might make sense to bar teenagers from buying assault weapons or conduct “stiffer” background checks (“You know, no matter what you do, people fall through the cracks”), Johnson zeroed in on the real culprit: wokeness.

“We stopped teaching values in so many of our schools,” he lectured. “Now we’re teaching wokeness. We’re indoctrinating our children with things like CRT—telling some children they’re not equal to others, and they’re the cause of other people’s problems.”

Leaving aside that teachers across the land are by and large not telling this to school children, Johnson’s remark was so idiotic that Cavuto objected, noting that mass shootings in schools have been happening “long before CRT.” Johnson’s response: “Well, I think CRT has been going on under the radar for quite some time, as well.” If only we had known.

Wisconsin State Journal reporter Alexander Shur emailed Johnson spokesperson Alexa Henning the afternoon of the senator’s Fox appearance to ask, “Does Johnson think school shootings will reduce in number if schools stop teaching ‘CRT’ and ‘wokeness’?” In a reply the next day, Henning insisted that Johnson “did not blame CRT [for] mass shootings.” He was just responding to a question about mental illness, she said.

“If the media were honest, they would be doing two things,” Henning wrote, in a portion the State Journal did not include in its May 28 story by state government reporter Mitchell Schmidt:

[F]irst, they would be covering the full context and transcript of the senator’s remarks and second, they would be covering the efforts the senator made – which Democrats blocked – to make schools safer in this country. But the media are advocates for the Democrat party and the radical left that use the politics of personal destruction in order to push their shared agenda.

I did as Henning advised. Here are links to the Fox Business video and to a transcript of Johnson’s remarks I created using Otter. Reviewing both in detail, I have failed to uncover a context in which Johnson’s comments seem even slightly less deranged.

But the most stunning part of Henning’s reply was this: “The senator has supported a number of common sense improvements to background checks and guns laws.”

He’s done what?

What “number of common-sense improvements” has Johnson backed? Is it the number zero? Is the Wisconsin Republican—who has raked in enough money from the NRA over the years to earn 15th place, just below Mitch McConnell, on its lifetime donations leaderboard for the Senate—an advocate for gun reform? Really?

As he runs this fall for a third Senate term that he promised not to seek, Ron Johnson is fighting for his political life. He will face one of several Wisconsin Democrats competing in an August 9 primary: Lt. Governor Mandela Barnes, State Treasurer Sarah Godlewski, Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson, or businessman Alex Lasry.

Johnson’s recurring gaffes may help explain why his average approval rating in recent polling is just 35 percent, compared to 44 percent who view him unfavorably. He’s called climate change “bullshit.” He’s said the January 6th Capitol riot “didn’t seem like an armed insurrection to me.” He’s touted mouthwash as a treatment for COVID-19.

But Johnson’s “CRT makes ’em do it” crack was next-level.

Henning, in her response to the State Journal, noted that Chuck Schumer, the Senate majority leader, had that same week blocked a bill sponsored by Johnson called the Luke and Alex School Safety Act. “It passed out of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee, when the senator was chair, twice with unanimous support, but Democrats have consistently blocked it from becoming law,” she wrote.

The bill, which has four cosponsors, all Republicans, would codify into law an existing national clearinghouse of school safety best practices. This clearinghouse would spread the word about “grant programs or resources that can be used to improve school safety” and “develop materials to assist parents seeking to identify the best practices in place in their schools.” (Johnson backs a similar bill called the Pray Safe Act, to identify best safety and security practices for houses of worship and faith-based groups.)

Schumer blocked action on the school safety clearinghouse bill on May 25 after Johnson spoke in its favor on the Senate floor. Schumer said he wanted to add gun-safety amendments to another bill, the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act, and would consider including Johnson’s amendment among them. Johnson called it “a sad day for the United States Senate.”

Aren’t they all?

Schumer’s decision was also lambasted by the father of one of the children killed in the Parkland, Florida school shooting in 2018. Max Schachter tweeted, “This bill will save… lives.” It’s at least true that the bill, unlike most Republican initiatives in this area, probably wouldn’t actively make things worse for students, and for that reason, it deserves fair consideration. But it’s important to point out that it would not do anything to improve background checks or change what Henning calls “guns laws.” Neither the bill text nor a Senate analysis even includes the words “guns,” “firearms,” or “background checks.”

If Senator Johnson has given his support to measures that explicitly and directly address the issue with reference to these terms, we must look elsewhere for it.

I emailed Henning last week, asking her what other “common sense improvements to background checks and guns laws” the senator backs.

She responded with a list of measures Johnson has “supported in the past.” It was a short list: It consisted of one bill introduced in late 2017 and four amendments to other bills that are even older.

So, first off: Johnson, according to his own office, has not backed any measures improving background checks or gun laws for more than four years.

But let’s wade into the shallow pool of legislation that Johnson’s office pointed out.

The 2017 bill, known as the Fix the NICS Act, amended the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act to strengthen reporting requirements for federal agencies regarding the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. It passed with bipartisan support as part of an appropriations bill and was signed into law by President Donald Trump in March 2018. Johnson was one of 77 Senate cosponsors.

The House version of the bill called on the attorney general to prepare a report to Congress on how often bump stocks are used in crimes, although it did not impose any restrictions on them. The Senate version, which Johnson backed, contained no mention of bump stocks at all, and the appropriations bill that passed does not mention them, either. (In December 2018, responding to a memo from then-President Trump, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives would clarify “that bump stocks fall within the definition of ‘machinegun’ under federal law,” thereby making them illegal.)

In November 2017, the Fix the NICS Act was put up for a vote on the same day as the Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act, an NRA-backed bill The Washington Post noted would “greatly expand the ability of Americans to carry concealed weapons across state lines.” That bill passed in the House but disappeared after being referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee. (Johnson is now a cosponsor of that bill’s latest incarnation, the Constitutional Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act of 2021.)

That leaves the four amendments that Henning cited. Three of these involve failed attempts—in 2013, 2015 and 2016—to tack on Republican Senator Chuck Grassley’s Protecting Communities and Preserving the Second Amendment Act to other legislation. Each attempt never had a real chance of garnering sufficient votes to clear a Democratic filibuster.

The proposed act’s stated purpose, as first set forth in 2013, is to “address gun violence, improve the availability of records to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, address mental illness in the criminal justice system, and end straw purchases and trafficking of illegal firearms, and for other purposes.” But the bill, reintroduced this year without Johnson signing on, is opposed by most Democrats; according to The Hill, its “other purposes” include “codifying protections for gun owners, such as allowing interstate firearm sales and transportation.” The Atlantic also flagged its “NRA-approved emphasis on increasing consideration of mental health in background checks.”

The fourth amendment supported by Johnson was known as the Protect America Act of 2015. Introduced by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), it granted the attorney general “the authority to deny the sale, delivery, or transfer of firearms to dangerous terrorists,” called for “information sharing regarding attempted firearms purchases by suspected terrorists,” and authorized “the investigation and arrest of terrorists who attempt to purchase firearms”—all of which sound like good ideas. (The text even specified that domestic terrorism was included in its purview—an important clarification, given that some past legislation targeting terrorism has for political reasons excluded domestic purveyors of terror.)

But along with the 2015 version of Grassley’s Protecting Communities amendment—and more than 30 other amendments similarly tacked on—the Protect America Act was deemed extraneous to the bill it was intended to amend and summarily ruled out of order.

So it does appear that Henning is right: Senator Ron Johnson has supported some legislation that arguably aims to do something about the epidemic of gun violence in America. That he and his team point to this as a positive thing about his record in Congress should be a cause for celebration.

But none of this Johnson-backed legislation has ever aspired to be transformative, and none of it entails new constraints on gun owners or types of guns. Aside from this meager record, there is little other evidence of Johnson’s determination to pursue common-sense improvements in this area.

The senator seems to have other priorities.

In the current Congress, Johnson is the lead sponsor of a recently introduced bill to subject all pandemic-related agreements reached by the World Health Assembly to Senate approval and the cosponsor of a bill to prohibit the “unfair treatment” of cadets and midshipmen who refuse to get vaccinated for COVID-19. He’s also cosponsoring the Muslim Brotherhood Terrorist Designation Act, the END CRT Act, and the Stop Dangerous Sanctuary Cities Act.

Who has time for common-sense gun reforms when the nation has real problems like these?

Bill Lueders

Bill Lueders, former editor and now editor-at-large of The Progressive, is a writer in Madison, Wisconsin.