Former state senator Mike Johnston has made progressive gun policies a major part of his campaign for Colorado governor in 2018, and that didn't go over well with at least one local. On Saturday, June 9, a supporter and family friend who'd put a Johnston sign in his yard woke up to discover a response: a bullet-riddled target stamped with the logo of the National Rifle Association.
"I feel terrible that this happened to him," Johnston says, adding, "He's a gun owner, and I am, too. Neither of us is anti-gun. I just think there are some common-sense things we can do to keep people safe."
Johnston's gun-law-reform policies, which include call for a universal background checks on online and in-person firearms buys, a bump-stock ban and the passage of red-flag legislation that would let authorities seize gats from people deemed a danger to themselves and others, has made him some high-profile friends. Note that former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, the man behind Everytown for Gun Safety and the affiliated Mayors Against Illegal Guns, gifted the campaign with $1 million, supplementing more than $5 million collected by Frontier Fairness, a political action committee supporting Johnston.
Meanwhile, Johnston's opponents are quietly suggesting that he's exaggerated his efforts at the state legislature on this topic. One source maintains that while he co-sponsored a bill regarding high-capacity magazines, he only spoke about it for twelve minutes during a ten-hour debate and insists he didn't take on the same co-sponsorship role in regard to a background-check proposal until it had already passed the state Senate on its third reading. In response, Johnston spokesperson Grace Hanover supplied this statement: "After the Aurora theater shootings, Mike worked hard with the Democratic caucus to fashion common sense gun safety proposals designed to try and prevent future mass killings. He’s proud of his work, sponsorship and advocacy for those ideas, and of the willingness of his fellow Democrats to stand with him against the NRA and gun rights extremists."
As for Johnston, he concedes that the aforementioned weekend incident left him feeling rattled.
"I was upstairs in the shower when all of a sudden, my daughter was knocking on the door and saying, 'Daddy, Daddy, you've got to come down,'" he recalls. "When I got down there, my friend said, 'Come outside,' and I did — and he said, 'I put up a yard sign, and this morning, I found this in my yard,' and lays out this silhouette with 35 bullet holes in it."
His friend "was scared, his kids were scared, and my kids were scared, too," Johnston continues. "I called the police and filed a report. It was a huge surprise and disappointment and shock that someone would do this in 2018."
Not that he believes the perpetrator is emblematic of all NRA types. "I think it's just a person who wanted to send a message, and it's a rare outlier. My friends who are gun owners and NRA members wouldn't support anyone who would try to intimidate people like that, and I don't believe the great majority of Coloradans and gun owners would, either."
Who might? Johnston doesn't point his finger straight at President Donald Trump, but he aims it in his general direction. According to him, "This is an unfortunate side effect of what happens when you have a country where the president and others are pushing people who think it's okay to bully and threaten and say and do things to others that you otherwise would never have said or done. We shouldn't have ten-year-old kids terrified that they're going to be shot because people are dropping things in their front yard. That's not where proper debates about policy should happen."
One location for such conversations, he believes, is around the family table. After the shooting at Santa Fe High School outside Houston, Texas, Johnston says, "I got together with four or five NRA members, three or four military members, two parents who'd lost children in school shootings, people who were survivors of Columbine, parents of kids who'd committed suicide or attempted it. For two hours, we sat around and talked about these things, and two amazing things happened. One is that 100 percent of the people there said they'd work toward passing red-flag legislation by the twentieth anniversary of Columbine next year, and the other is that everyone shared their contact information and promised to stay in touch and build on the relationships that developed that night. It shows you actually can work together on hard issues and make progress on resolving them."
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Westword's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Denver's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
Whether he'll get a chance to stage more get-togethers like this one as governor of Colorado will depend on what happens prior to the June 26 primary election. A variety of polls show Representative Jared Polis with a lead over former Colorado treasurer Cary Kennedy, Lieutenant Governor Donna Lynne and Johnston — and Kennedy's staffers are circulating numbers showing that she's actually in the lead. But Johnston isn't convinced that he's been left in the dust.
"That's not a very good indication of where the race is," he allows. "We've seen in our polling that we've been surging and are now in the twenties" — meaning that more than 20 percent of likely voters are in his camp. "Jared is still in the lead in the other polls we've seen, but his advantage is essentially a name-identification advantage — and we know that among voters who've heard of all of us, we win that head to head. So we feel good about where we are, and the more voters hear of us, the more they head in our direction. About 40 percent are still undecided, which means that a lot of people who've seen $10 million worth of Jared's ads have not decided to support him yet. We're hoping they'll come to us in the last weeks."
One person who probably won't commented on Johnston's Facebook post about the target incident in all-caps, writing, "VOTE OUT DEMOCRATS! THEY'RE ALWAYS THE ACTIVE SHOOTERS. THE NRA HAS ZERO BLOOD ON ITS HANDS." Accompanying this jeremiad was a graphic highlighting a tweet from a spoof account referencing White House Chief of Staff General John Kelly. It reads: "Here is a fact that may be inconvenient for those demanding #GunControlNow. The #NRA kills 0 people a day & receives $0 from the taxpayers each year. #PlannedParenthood kills 887 babies a day or 1 every 90 seconds & gets over $500 million from the taxpayers each year."
To put it mildly, Johnston has another point of view. "I think what happened underscores that some people take [gun control] very, very seriously and some small fraction even threaten," he says. "We saw threats at the State Capitol when we were passing bills about this, too. That's why it's important for people to realize we stand against it."