In the wake of shootings, Alaska Rep. Peltola finds herself in a ‘tough position’ on guns

Firearms


WASHINGTON – When Alaska U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola joined an Alaska Public Media call-in radio show this week, a self-proclaimed Peltola supporter and longtime hunter called in.

“I admire Representative Peltola, I remember when she was a legislative aide in Juneau many years ago, and watched her in the Legislature and was very impressed with her and still am – except for one thing. There is absolutely no reason why any Alaskan needs to own an AR-15.”

“Why in the world do you think anybody should own an AR-15?” the caller asked on Tuesday on Alaska Public Media’s “Talk of Alaska” program.

In her response to the question and follow-ups from the host, Peltola, a Democrat, said there are “many clear steps” to protect children without infringing on law-abiding gun owners’ rights, adding that while certain firearms are “not always applicable to hunting,” some automatic weapons are used to control predators like wolves. She also pointed to broader mental heath issues and isolation as contributors to school shootings and said that Congress needs to be “open-minded” to find solutions.

The caller was not the only Peltola supporter to recently express frustration with her posture on guns. The caller’s question came soon after a school shooting that left three 9-year-old students and three adults dead in Nashville, Tennessee. After the shooting, some Alaskans who want to see Peltola be more aggressive on gun control criticized her on social media.

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However, Peltola’s positions on guns are also in line with many in a state where support for gun ownership is strong, including in regions where Alaskans rely on guns for hunting. That means as a Democrat and a moderate, Peltola is negotiating pressure from all sides — a fact that some of her supporters acknowledge.

Peltola has said she is a staunch supporter of the Second Amendment. A gun owner herself, she has said she will fight to protect Alaskans’ right to buy and own firearms.

Peltola is also a Democrat with a D rating from the Gun Owners of America lobby. While campaigning she said she is open to some gun reforms like waiting periods, secure weapons storage, universal background checks and raising age limits for certain guns and ammunition.

Her positions on an assault weapons ban and red flag laws have been more opaque. Peltola’s office did not respond to specific questions about her stances in time for this story, including if she would support an assault weapons ban, what mental health legislation she would support to address gun violence and her response to recent criticism regarding her stance on gun issues.

April Rochford, an Alaska gun safety advocate, acknowledged some Peltola supporters’ disappointment with the congresswoman on gun issues. But she thinks Peltola would be more open to discussing gun safety policy than her predecessor, the late Republican Rep. Don Young, who was on the National Rifle Association board.

“I get everybody’s frustration. Mary Peltola is still a better alternative to Don Young,” Rochford said. “…Mary Peltola, I think there’s still hope for her, and I think that she’d be willing to sit down and have conversations about it.”

Rod Arno, the policy director for the Alaska Outdoor Council, the state’s NRA chapter, said Peltola lends an important perspective in Congress to convey the role of guns in Alaska.

“NRA would not like to see any infringement, and so she’s in a tough position, but having her there, it’s really advantageous, I believe, for Alaska,” Arno said.

A subsistence hunting background

As a gun owner and Democrat, Peltola is in the minority in the House of Representatives. Last Congress, only 25 Democrats confirmed they have a gun — let alone 176 like Peltola has said she owns.

Meanwhile, 64.5% of adult Alaskans share their home with a firearm, according to the RAND Corporation, a think tank. Guns are a critical part of a subsistence lifestyle for rural Alaskans and Alaska Native people. Peltola, who is Yup’ik and grew up in Western Alaska villages, has said her background subsistence hunting has informed her perspective on firearms.

“We are so accustomed to understanding our reliance on guns and ammunition, and they’re just really a part of our households and making sure we have food security,” Peltola said on the ADN Politics podcast after she won the special election to replace Young.

Arno, from the Alaska Outdoor Council, said Peltola’s appreciation for subsistence hunting makes her a strong voice in Congress on the hunting need for guns in Alaska.

She has “for years been steadfast. When she was in the Legislature in Alaska, knowing the importance of having access and the opportunity to possess firearms and ammunition for food security, for gathering the wild harvest, as well as for protection from basically predators,” he said.

Arno said the Outdoor Council does not want to see the federal government engage on gun control and thinks management is better left up to the states.

The National Rifle Association gave Peltola a D-rating during the campaign. Arno said the Outdoor Council was not involved in the national endorsement process. The Council endorsed House Republican candidate Nick Begich III in the Nov. 2022 election.

Rochford, the Alaska gun safety advocate, grew up in the state and recognizes that guns are an important part of subsistence lifestyles. She said she would like to see Peltola advocate for legislation like safe gun storage laws.

“I think that Mary Peltola isn’t aware that there are avenues that we can go down that will address the problem, but still protect the lifestyle that she grew up with and wants to protect,” Rochford said.

Rochford said she voted for Peltola knowing she is a moderate but would be more open to conversations on gun violence than her opponent, Republican former Gov. Sarah Palin, who, Rochford said, “would have put an assault rifle in everybody’s bedroom.”

“I wished she was less moderate, but it’s good,” Rochford said of Peltola. “I think it’s good for Alaska to have somebody kind of in the middle.”

Warren Jones of Anchorage is a gun-owning military veteran who supports Peltola and gun reform measures. He acknowledged that Peltola has to balance perspectives across the political spectrum on guns.

“I’m sympathetic to the position of being a representative for all of Alaska, because that’s the role that she’s in, right?” Jones said. “She’s the representative. That means that she represents all of Alaska, and so that includes even people that disagree with me.”

Jones owns an AR-15 because he has the most familiarity with the firearm from his days in the military. He said he would like to see “means restriction” policies like red flag laws, which would prevent people deemed a threat to themselves or others from owning or buying a gun.

“I’m not necessarily for a gun ban, or a ban on, like, assault rifles, even though my feelings wouldn’t be hurt if they did,” he said.

“…I’m still confident in Mary and would vote for her again at this point, you know, whether she voted for some kind of weapons ban or not,” Jones said.

Pointing to mental health

In the wake of the Nashville school shooting, Democratic President Joe Biden called on Congress to pass an assault weapons ban. Though such a ban has little chance of being considered in the Republican-led House, it has become a rallying cry for some Democrats eager to enact gun control reform.

The Alaska Democratic Party endorsed Peltola during the campaign last year. Executive Director Lindsay Kavanaugh said in an emailed statement the party platform supports the Second Amendment, responsible gun ownership and “legislative action that would ban the sale of military assault-style weapons to the general public.”

But, Kavanaugh added, “we recognize that Representative Peltola is working in a bi-partisan manner to address gun violence while listening to all of her Alaskan constituents on this issue,” she said.

Asked about an assault weapons ban, Arno of the Outdoor Council said he doesn’t want to see federal regulation on firearm ownership, but that he has faith in Peltola’s decision-making.

“I think that we would trust in her judgment and we’re actually fortunate, this time to have her as a representative from Alaska in the Democratic Party because she explained that there is a balance and another use of firearms,” Arno said.

While gun reform in Congress is stalled, Peltola said on Talk of Alaska that she is “open to any workable solution that has the votes to get there,” but is nervous to back legislation that is unlikely to become law.

Before Peltola took office last year, a Democratic Senate and House passed the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, the first gun reform measure in nearly 30 years. The bill, supported by Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, enacted “commonsense” gun safety measures like funding for states to enact red flag laws and enhanced review of juvenile and mental health records for under-21 prospective gun buyers.

This year, in a divided Congress, gun reform legislation faces a much steeper climb.

Peltola has suggested considering legislation that addresses mental health might gain more bipartisan support, though she has not laid out specific policies she might back. She has pointed to mental health problems and feelings of isolation in American society as contributors to mass shootings.

“If you look at many of these perpetrators, they’re very, very isolated, and humans are not designed to be isolated. We really need other people,” Peltola said Tuesday on Talk of Alaska. “And some of these mental health issues, I think, are a product of very isolated existences.”

Rochford, the gun safety advocate, said she thinks that while mental health is an issue that needs to be addressed, gun safety policy can better address the violence in the short term.

“There’s a mental health part of it, but that is a much more intricate, long-range problem to solve,” Rochford said. “Whereas, you know, keeping guns away from people who have violent tendencies, that’s something we can do with legislation.”

Rochford said she thinks Peltola can help address gun violence.

“I just think she needs to open up her doors and have some conversations about it,” Rochford said.

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Reporter Riley Rogerson is a full-time reporter for the ADN based in Washington, D.C. Her position is supported by Report for America, which is working to fill gaps in reporting across America and to place a new generation of journalists in community news organizations around the country. Report for America, funded by both private and public donors, covers up to 50% of a reporter’s salary. It’s up to Anchorage Daily News to find the other half, through local community donors, benefactors, grants or other fundraising activities.

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