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Montana Gov. Steve Bullock on gun reform and how to win back red states from Trump

Democratic presidential candidate and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock called on fellow gun owners to support gun law reforms in the wake of two mass shootings.

The red state governor campaigned for reelection in 2016 by opposing an assault weapons ban and universal background checks on gun purchases. His recent reversal on both issues before jumping into the 2020 presidential race has led to skepticism among some of his liberal colleagues. 

But now, Bullock is in a unique position to push for gun reform. He is one of only seven Democrats to lead states that President Donald Trump won in 2016. In Montana, he says he’s gotten good at finding common ground with Republicans, who command solid control over the state legislature. He says universal background checks on gun purchases are a good place to start.

“It’s not just Democrats that say they would like [background checks,]” Bullock told PBS NewsHour managing editor and anchor Judy Woodruff in an interview. “I mean NRA members say this makes sense,” he added. 

Bullock recently disclosed that his 11-year-old nephew was killed by in a schoolyard shooting two decades ago, by a 10-year-old boy who brought a gun to school. Bullock now has a son in the sixth grade doing active shooter drills at school;his son is who comes to mind when he thinks about reforming gun laws. 

“It’s reached a crisis,” Bullock said. 

Trump won Montana by 20 points in 2016. Bullock won the state by four points. But he isn’t shy to point out that the president’s language and “equivocat[ing]” on white nationalism — including some echoed in a manifesto authorities have linked to the El Paso shooter — has contributed to violence. “I would never want to put the blood of people all across this country on one person’s hands,” Bullock said, referring to Trump. “But for him to say we have to speak with one voice when it comes to speaking out against racism and white nationalism and bigotry when so much of the language that he’s used over the last two and a half years has included racism and equivocation on white nationalism and bigotry — You can’t say this just the day after shootings when you haven’t lived it for the last two and a half years.” 

Other highlights from the interview:

  • On fundraising with lobbyists while waging a legal battle against dark money in politics: Bullock brushed off criticism that he planned to attend a D.C. fundraiser co-hosted by a federally registered-lobbyist who lobbies in dark money, while at the same time pledging to help stop undisclosed financial contributions from influencing American politics. “They certainly don’t give money to me,” Bullock said when asked about the lobbyist and fundraiser co-host Jay Driscoll. “One individual helping out at a fundraiser certainly isn’t going to be influencing my everyday actions.”   
  • On his criticism of the national Democratic party: Bullock, who often points to Democrats in Washington as all talk and no action, said he’s the only 2020 contender who’s been able to win in Trump country. “If we can’t win back some of these places we’ve lost we’re not going to win,” Bullock said of the 2020 election. “I think I have a little different perspective than most folks here.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    We now continue our series of conversations with Democratic presidential candidates.

    Steve Bullock is the two-term governor of Montana. And he joins me now.

    Governor Bullock, thank you for being here.

  • Steve Bullock:

    Judy, it's great to be with you.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, you are the governor of a state of a little over a million people, very red, very conservative. Donald Trump won it by over 20 points.

    Why should Democrats support you?

  • Steve Bullock:

    Well I think that, yes, I'm the only one in this race that actually won in a state where Trump won. He took Montana by 20 points. I won by four; 25 percent to 30 percent of my voters voted for Donald Trump.

    If we can't win back some of these places we lost, we're not going to win.

    And it's also more than that. Even with what is right now a 60 percent Republican legislature, we have been able to Democrat that you can get meaningful things done that impact people's everyday lives.

    And people want both the economy and D.C. to work for them. I mean, outside of Washington, D.C., I think I have a little bit of different perspective than most folks here.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You have called yourself progressive, and you have favored things like the Earned Income Tax Credit. You were able to expand Medicaid in the state of Montana.

    But there are other Democrats, like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, who would say the country needs big and bold after Donald Trump, it needs things like the Green New Deal, like Medicare for all.

  • Steve Bullock:

    Yes.

    And I call myself progressive, and believe it, because at the core of that word really is progress. We need to be able to make a meaningful difference for people's lives. We can't just talk about the challenges. We have to actually first be able to hear Americans, and address those challenges.

    So I want to make sure that, as I'm proposing things, it's not like with Medicare for all. I don't discount it because it's like you couldn't get it done necessarily.

    I do discount it in as much as I don't think that's the best policy solution. And the most progressive solution is to make sure everybody has health care that's affordable. And you can do that without upending what's been about — it took about 70 years to get to where we were when the Affordable Care Act passed.

    So, let's build on that. Let's not just rip it apart.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Guns, uppermost in our minds right now, as you know.

    Your own family has been touched by gun violence. You have talked about your then 11-year-old nephew being shot to death on a school playground, what, 25 years ago.

    When you campaigned for reelection in 2016, you were against universal background checks.

  • Steve Bullock:

    Sure.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now you are for them. Why the change?

  • Steve Bullock:

    Things like universal background checks, it's not just Democrats that say they would like this.

    I mean, NRA members say this makes sense. And, as a gun owner I mean, I'm calling on other gun owners to say, we all want to keep our communities safe. We can do it in ways that — with, as an example, universal background checks.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But you acknowledge your position changed…

  • Steve Bullock:

    Absolutely.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    … because of what you have seen.

    Some people are saying President Trump's language, his rhetoric has contributed to part of what's going on. How do you see it?

  • Steve Bullock:

    Yes.

    I — certainly, in — he has — you know, I would never want to put the blood of people all across this country on one person's hands.

    But for him to say we have to speak with one voice when it comes to speaking out against racism and white nationalism and bigotry, when so much of the language that he's used over this last two-and-a-half years has included racism, equivocating on white nationalism, and bigotry.

    So you can't say this just the day after shootings, when you haven't lived it for last two-and-a-half years.

    I do think that, you know, when tacitly even, white nationalists might think, well, this guy, if he equivocates on Charlottesville, he has my back, I don't think that helps at all with what we are as a country.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Campaign finance. You have been waging a legal battle against so-called dark money. This is money from donors who aren't identified.

    You recently won a lawsuit against the Trump administration having to do with foreign money, transparency.

    My question is, without a constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, which, as you know, lifted restrictions on corporate political spending…

  • Steve Bullock:

    Sure.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    … is there a way to keep dark money out of American politics?

  • Steve Bullock:

    Oh, I think there absolutely is.

    Even in Montana, with a two-thirds Republican legislature, we passed a law that said, if you are going to spend in our elections — I don't care if you're a 501(c)(4). I don't care what you call yourself.

    In the last 90 days, you have to disclose all that spending in contributions.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, two other things.

    You would, then, support an amendment to overturn…

  • Steve Bullock:

    I would love to see the 28th Amendment passed.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    … the Citizens United?

  • Steve Bullock:

    Absolutely.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So you're fighting dark money. But we know that you are also tonight in Washington scheduled to attend a closed-door fund-raiser with a registered lobbyist as one of the co-hosts, a man named Jay Driscoll. This has been reported by the Center for Public Integrity.

    He's lobbied 35 or so clients just this year, many of whom give corporate money, but don't disclose.

  • Steve Bullock:

    Yes, but they certainly don't give corporate money to me.

    I mean, the fact that we could even be having this conversation is what I want to add, is the sunshine and transparency. And as much as many of the presidential candidates now have super PACs, some may even take corporate PAC money, I have said no PACs, know super PACs, all individuals, and disclose completely, under the allowable rule, so that we can have this conversation, so that one individual helping out a fund-raiser certainly isn't going to be influencing my everyday actions.

    And I think that it's — to me, more nefarious is the lack of transparency and sunshine.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The environment.

    You don't support the Green New Deal, which critics say is too radical. But if climate is an existential threat, why not do something dramatic?

  • Steve Bullock:

    Oh, no, and we do have to take bold and immediate steps. I mean, I'm from the West. Our fire seasons are 48 days longer than what they were about four decades ago.

    So, rejoining Paris. The auto industry didn't even want the removal of these fuel-efficiency standards. Investing in technology and research, so we can get more renewables onto the grid.

    We know the scientists say we have to be carbon-neutral, not as a country, but as a world, by 2050. I think we could do it by 2040 or even earlier.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    All right, we will leave it there.

    Governor Steve Bullock, thank you very much.

  • Steve Bullock:

    Thanks for having me, Judy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And our series of conversations with the Democratic presidential candidates continues tomorrow with billionaire philanthropist Tom Steyer.

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