Gary Johnson, the Libertarian presidential candidate who is polling in the low double digits since winning his party’s nomination, offered two careful responses to the mass shooting in Orlando.
In a Sunday afternoon tweet, Johnson called for “a time to mourn, be strong & be what makes America great.”
Thoughts are with the #Orlando victims & a community who has been attacked. It's a time to mourn, be strong & be what makes America great.
— Gov. Gary Johnson (@GovGaryJohnson) June 12, 2016
Later, in a statement to The Washington Post, Johnson clarified that it was not a time for politics.
“In this immediate aftermath of what is clearly a tragic and despicable attack, our thoughts must be with the victims,” Johnson said while he monitored events from New Mexico. “Regardless of what the motivation is ultimately found to be, this violence against innocent people simply going about their lives is both cowardly and infuriating. We must allow the authorities to do their jobs, understand how this attack came about, and then respond accordingly. It is not a time to either politicize or jump to conclusions.”
Just two weeks before Sunday’s shooting, Johnson was in Orlando, waging a surprisingly tight but successful fight to lead the party. He won an even tougher battle to confirm Bill Weld, the former Republican governor of Massachusetts, as his running mate. In both cases, Libertarians demanded that Johnson abandon any nuance on gun laws, and stop talking about cases where people might be denied firearms.
Johnson, who served as governor of New Mexico from 1995 to 2003, had always run as a friend of gun rights. In 2012, during his first run for president, he told the journalist Ray Downs that the Second Amendment was a bulwark against tyranny.
“In this country, we have a growing police state — if people can own assault rifles or automatic rifles, I think leads to a more civil government,” Johnson said. “You can look at the most egregious examples of the war on drugs where federal agents have gone in and killed individuals without their being any justification whatsoever. And if these individuals that were killed were to have known to possess automatic weapons or assault weapons, maybe they would have been more careful and more diligent when it comes to due process.”
But the 2016 Libertarian race occurred in the shadow of shootings in Newtown, Conn., Charleston, S.C., and other shootings that led to questions about how mentally disturbed people got their hands on powerful weapons. In interviews, Johnson said that, ideally, mentally ill people who intended to cause harm to themselves or others should not obtain guns. And in a Fox Business-hosted debate, Johnson’s rival Austin Petersen suggested he was building a slippery slope by suggesting there was any circumstance where people could be denied Second Amendment Rights.
“I find it difficult to be able to come up with a piece of legislation that would address that,” Johnson admitted of the mental health issue.
“Don’t you think King George would have determined the colonists to be mentally ill?” asked Petersen, rhetorically.
Johnson dropped the topic, but gun rights became a flash point when he tapped Weld as a running mate. As governor of Massachusetts, Weld had supported some of the state’s firearms restrictions — infamous among Libertarians. Weld wrote a pre-convention message to delegates, assuring them that his viewed had evolved since the 1990s.
“I went along with some modest restrictions on certain types of firearms,” wrote Weld, apologetically. “I was deeply concerned about gun violence, and frankly, the people I represented were demanding action. Sometimes, governing involves tough choices, and I had to make more than a few. Today, almost 25 years later, I would make some different choices. Restricting Americans’ gun rights doesn’t make us safer, and threatens our constitutional freedoms. I was pleased by and support the Supreme Court’s decision in the District of Columbia vs. Heller — a decision that embraced the notion that our Second Amendment rights are individual rights, not to be abridged by the government.”
On May 29, when Johnson and Weld secured their nominations, they had effectively pledged not to deviate from the Libertarian Party’s platform on gun rights. Approved that weekend, it read: “We oppose all laws at any level of government restricting, registering, or monitoring the ownership, manufacture, or transfer of firearms or ammunition.”
That went further, though with less detail, than the Republican Party’s platform. In 2012, the GOP went on record against any new restrictions on firearms, referring to the expired Assault Weapons Ban as “the ill-considered Clinton gun ban,” and opposing “frivolous lawsuits against gun manufacturers.” But the 2016 primaries seemed to produce a candidate with more heterodox views. In his previous flirtations with a presidential bid, most notably in 2000, Donald Trump defended some limits on weapons sales and suggested that it was foolish not to.
“The Republicans walk the NRA line and refuse even limited restrictions,” Trump wrote in “The America We Deserve,” his 2000 policy manifesto. “I generally oppose gun control, but I support the ban on assault weapons and I also support a slightly longer waiting period to purchase a gun.”
In the 2016 primaries, Republicans led by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) haphazardly attacked Trump for his old stance. He abandoned it. And on May 20, as the presumptive party nominee, Trump received the endorsement of the National Rifle Association and gave a lengthy speech opposing any restrictions on firearm ownership.