Ohio Governor John Kasich learned of last October’s shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon, which left 10 dead, during a televised interview. While informing him of the shooting, an NBC reporter called Kasich a “supporter of gun control” who once earned an F rating from the National Rifle Association (NRA).
The Republican presidential candidate immediately corrected him. “I’ve received an A rating since I’ve been governor,” said Kasich, who won his first gubernatorial term in 2010. “You can strip all the guns away, but the people who are gonna commit crimes or have problems are always gonna be able to have the guns,” he added. “People feel like, ‘I’d like to be able to protect myself.’”
In 1993, following a different mass shooting, Kasich saw the issue another way. After a man used a semiautomatic pistol to fatally shoot eight people at a San Francisco law firm, he was one of 215 House members to vote for a ban on assault weapons that became law in 1994. It was that vote that earned Kasich the failing NRA grade.
A decade and a half later, in 2009, Kasich returned to politics from a private sector sojourn to run for Ohio governor — and the NRA gave its endorsement to his opponent, incumbent Democrat Ted Strickland.
Kasich managed to win that campaign. He also got the NRA’s message. During his tenure in the House of Representatives from 1983 to 2001, his record on guns was mixed: While he voted for the assault weapons ban, he also voted against the Brady Bill, which established current background check laws. As governor, by contrast, Kasich’s record has been unambiguous: He has not vetoed a single pro-gun bill passed by the Republican-dominated general assembly.
As he runs for president, Kasich’s shift on guns makes him a good example of how Republicans who are considered to be relatively moderate handle the issue. His campaign websites declares that he “continues to be a strong supporter of the right to bear arms” and notes that Kasich “is a gun owner himself.”
But he doesn’t hope to rival his competitors who are eager to share photos of themselves firing or holding weapons. His pro-gun record instead helps insulate him from gun lobby ire and allows him to focus on the fiscal issues central to his bid. Kasich’s platform builds largely on his experience chairing the House Budget Committee when he was a congressman, and then working as an investment banker during his years out of elected office.
“He’s not a gun guy,” said Jim Irvine, president of the Buckeye Firearms Association. “The gun issue just isn’t his issue. I don’t mean that as any slight on him.”
Kasich’s alleged lack of enthusiasm for firearms did not stop him for quickly building as gun-friendly a record as he could. In May 2011, five months into his first gubernatorial term, he signed a bill allowing concealed handguns in bars. Later that year, he signed legislation making it easier for people with misdemeanor drug convictions to buy guns. In 2012, he signed a bill allowing guns in the parking garage of the Ohio Statehouse. The measure also let gun owners transport loaded clips in their vehicles and expanded concealed carry permit reciprocity policies between Ohio and other states.
In December 2014, Kasich quietly signed a bill that reduced the training necessary to obtain a concealed carry permit from 12 to eight hours, and eliminated the training requirement for renewing a permit.
“To run in Ohio, it’s pretty much where you have to be,” said Toby Hoover, the founder and director of the Ohio Coalition Against Gun Violence. “I think that is really why he did it. I feel he really is kind of moderate on the issue, like he probably is on a lot of things.”
Though pro-gun groups have not forgotten his House votes, they voiced no complaints with Kasich’s record as governor.
“He’s signed every bill at his desk,” Irvine said. “We want someone who’s always been perfect, but you know, it’s kind of like picking out a perfect spouse. Political candidates are the same. I don’t know that there is any perfect one.”
Kasich managed to get his NRA grade raised to a B during his 2010 gubernatorial bid. And when he ran for reelection in 2014, the NRA raised Kasich’s rating to an A, and supported his reelection. An NRA spokeswoman did not respond to inquiries about how it calculated those grade increases.
Kasich’s evolution mirrors a shift by Republicans in Ohio and nationally. In the 1990s and aughts, the state’s top Republicans, including former Ohio Governor and Senator George Voinovich, former Senator Mike DeWine, former Governor Robert Taft III, and top GOP statehouse leaders supported some gun regulations, which angered gun rights groups. Perhaps as a result, their replacements toe the NRA line.
Kasich is “part of that,” Irvine said.
But because he was out of office during the transition, Kasich’s two periods in office starkly highlight the shift. He did not slowly evolve. He returned to office transformed, adapted to a new political reality.
Kasich’s campaign did not respond to inquiries from The Trace.
In the Republican presidential field, Kasich, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, and real estate developer Donald Trump are also working to distance themselves from past support for some gun restrictions in a bid to court primary voters.
Tolerance for heterodoxy on guns has also waned among Democrats. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has made Vermont Senator Bernie Sander’s past pro-gun votes her top talking point for attacking his progressive reputation. Under fire, Sanders recently reversed his position on exempting gun manufacturers from lawsuits.
In Ohio, Strickland has dramatically reversed his past pro-gun positions as he works to win a primary fight with Cincinnati City Councilor P.G. Sittenfeld. In five years, Strickland and Kasich have virtually traded positions on guns. Both say they have learned from past events. But critics credit another motivator.
“These guys want to get elected,” Hoover said. “They go whatever way the wind’s blowing.”
[Photo: Flickr user Michael Vadon]