The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A Republican pushed mandatory AR-15s. After mosque shootings, he says it was a ploy to bait the left.

Andrew McDaniel, a Republican state lawmaker in Missouri, says he wanted to cause a stir but regrets the national spotlight trained on him following the terrorist attack in New Zealand. (Andrew C. McDaniel State Rep. for District 150/Facebook). (Andrew C. McDaniel State Rep. for District 150/Facebook)

As New Zealand reeled from early reports on Friday that a gunman had opened fire on two mosques in Christchurch, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said her “thoughts” were with the victims and their families — for a moment appearing to echo a stock response, “thoughts and prayers,” to mass shootings.

The next morning, however, as details emerged about the variant of the AR-15 employed by the alleged perpetrator, she vowed, “Our gun laws will change.” Government officials began weighing options in cabinet discussions on Monday, and they expect to unveil changes within 10 days.

A very different initiative in Missouri suggests why a similarly fast-track approach is virtually unthinkable in the United States.

When Andrew McDaniel, a Republican member of the state’s House of Representatives, got wind of the possibility that owning semiautomatic rifles could become more difficult halfway around the globe, a feeling of patriotism washed over him. “I’m glad I live in the USA,” McDaniel, 35, said in an interview with The Washington Post.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced March 18 her cabinet’s decision to change gun laws. (Video: Drea Cornejo/The Washington Post)

If the former sheriff’s deputy, first elected in 2014 to a southeastern Missouri district, had his way, everyone in his state between the ages of 18 and 35 would own an AR-15.

Well, sort of.

He introduced legislation late last month that would require residents in that age range to purchase a version of the semiautomatic rifle. The bill is called the “McDaniel Militia Act.” Another measure, the “McDaniel Second Amendment Act,” would require everyone over the age of 21 to own a handgun. Each bill would also provide $1 million in tax credits for residents who purchase the weapons in compliance with the ordinances.

New Zealand shooting: Prime minister says gun reforms are coming

The measures appeared to embody the particular American allegiance to the AR-15. The National Rifle Association calls the firearm “America’s Most Popular Rifle.” A Virginia roofing company recently announced a promotion offering a free AR-15 with every roof installation. (The company did not respond to a request for comment.)

At first, McDaniel’s proposals hardly made waves. But local media became interested on the same day that authorities say 28-year-old Brenton Tarrant used five weapons — all obtained legally, including two semiautomatic weapons — to turn Friday prayers in Christchurch into a tableau of hatred and horror.

Part of the reason Tarrant enlisted firearms in his crusade, according to a 74-page manifesto that authorities have linked to the Australian national, was to deepen American discord over the Second Amendment, “to create conflict between the two ideologies within the United States on the ownership of firearms.”

There were already signs over the weekend that he had succeeded. After Beto O’Rourke, a former Texas congressman and current Democratic presidential candidate, said Saturday that he did not think it was responsible to continue selling AR-15s in the United States, “Fox & Friends Weekend” co-host Pete Hegseth urged viewers to “go out and get your second AR-15 today.”

The bruising debate over guns took on increased significance because of a 4-to-3 decision of the Connecticut Supreme Court last week finding that gun manufacturers are not necessarily immune from liability for crimes committed with their products. The suit was brought against Remington, which makes the Bushmaster AR-15-style semiautomatic rifle used by Adam Lanza in 2012, when he killed 26 people, including 20 children, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

As the AR-15 became a flash point in the response to the terrorist violence in New Zealand, McDaniel’s legislation emerged from the obscurity of Missouri’s legislative docket. Neither measure has been scheduled for a hearing.

Nevertheless, television stations in Kansas City, Mo., grew interested in the eponymous bills. Reports appeared in newspapers in St. Louis and Tulsa. The conservative website the Daily Caller weighed in. So did Splinter News, from the other end of the ideological spectrum.

Soon, McDaniel was forced to clarify that he didn’t — technically speaking — support his own bills, at least not as written.

He wants the tax credits for firearms purchases, but that part about requiring everyone to own a gun? It was a tactic to try to bait the left.

“I wanted the media and the other side to jump on it, to show that our Second Amendment rights are under attack,” McDaniel said. “I don’t actually support mandates, hardly ever.”

But he didn’t expect the national media to get involved, a development that has cast a harsh light on his efforts, he said, because of the timing of the mosque attacks in New Zealand. He called the massacre, which left 50 people dead, “horrific” and said he “should have known” that the media would seize on his legislation in the wake of a tragedy. It’s true, he acknowledged, that his intention had been to elicit breathless coverage in the press, but only from “local news organizations,” he said.

The AR-15 is again in a national spotlight because it is consistently favored by perpetrators of mass shootings — whether in Newtown, Parkland, Fla., or Las Vegas. The name is short for Armalite rifle, borrowed from the company that developed the weapon, which allowed soldiers in Vietnam to kill a large number of people very quickly. After the Federal Assault Weapons Ban lapsed in 2004, only a handful of statewide prohibitions stand.

AR-15s are legal within certain specifications in New Zealand, where gun laws are more strict than they are in the United States but looser than regulations in Australia and much of Europe. In 2017, about 1.5 million guns were owned by civilians in the country of nearly 5 million, according to a tracking website maintained by the University of Sydney School of Public Health. A set of new rules went into effect following what had previously been the deadliest gun massacre in New Zealand’s modern history, when a shooting rampage in 1990 left 14 people dead, including the gunman.

Advocates of stricter gun control claim that mass murderers would be able to do less damage without such deadly weapons. But McDaniel said he would respond to this point with “the same argument I always use — people are going to be evil and do evil things no matter what.” The only hope, he maintained, is that potential victims can “protect themselves against other evil people.”

Defending the AR-15 against the weapon’s critics, McDaniel has found himself in a familiar role. He decided to run for office in the first place, he said, to rebut arguments coming from the left.

He said he couldn’t remember the specifics of what bothered him but recalled being “aggravated at the news” and at “far-left ideas” he encountered on television.

“So instead of writing crazy stuff on Facebook, I decided to try to help people,” said the state lawmaker, now in his third term. In addition to gun rights, he said he is also active in trying to stop abuse in nursing homes.

He said he still hates politics.

“I’m a country boy, born and raised on guns,” said the Republican, who was featured in a 2016 story in St. Louis magazine called “Guns Gone Wild.” At the time, McDaniel was working on legislation to exempt gun owners with concealed-carry permits from submitting to federal background checks, according to the article, which pinpointed Missouri as ground zero in the “slippery slope” toward “having no gun restrictions at all.”

The lawmaker’s ultimate goal was to be a prosecutor, he said, but he didn’t have the funds to get far enough in school. He still hopes to complete a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice.

From his time policing the rural floodplains of Pemiscot County, where southeastern Missouri dips into a nook between Arkansas and Tennessee, he learned a lesson that has stayed with him: “Law enforcement’s not always going to be there.”

“I always have a gun on me, I’ll put it that way,” he said. “It’s an attachment to my body.”

More from Morning Mix:

‘I have to perform to save my life’: Medical bills kept rock legend Dick Dale touring till the end

He claimed his first wife died from a fall. Now police say he stabbed his second wife to death.

Fraser Anning, egged after mosque attacks, may be Australia’s most reviled politician