Pro-Gun Rights as a State Senator, Betsy Johnson Is Now Open to Gun Control in Her Bid for Governor

Last week’s murder of 19 students and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas, spurs new questions about gun control.

Raging Grannies The Raging Grannies start the Silent March of Sorrow on Memorial Day, May 30, 2022 in Portland, OR. (Blake Benard)

When candidate for governor Betsy Johnson appeared May 28 at the ideas conference TEDxPortland, a raucous crowd forced a question on gun control.

In Johnson’s two-decade career in the Oregon House and Senate, she consistently voted against bills to regulate guns. In 2015, before the Legislature passed a comprehensive background check bill, she wrote an Oregonian op-ed against the idea: “What everybody wants, though, is to keep guns out of the wrong hands. There is no law that can do that. None. Even outright confiscation and a ban won’t keep guns out of the wrong hands.”

She also voted against a 2017 bipartisan red flag law, aimed at removing guns from troubled people, and opposed a 2018 bill to keep guns out of the hands of domestic abusers.

And Saturday was no different.

Johnson, who owns a submachine gun and describes herself, with her husband, as a gun collector, took a hard-line stance against gun control, saying there was no point in criminalizing different types of weapons: “The style of the gun does not dictate the lethality,” Johnson told the crowd, eliciting boos.

But on May 31, three days after that appearance, Johnson decided she favored apparently stronger background checks than the ones she voted against. She didn’t offer specifics.

“As governor, I will look to law enforcement and other experts in this field to propose improvements to our current background check system,” she tells WW. “Legislators from both parties will weigh-in with their ideas. For certain, we need better data, faster response, and more integrated information across states and among institutions to ensure guns are kept out of the hands of those who should not have them.”

Johnson is delicately trying to win support from the center in her unaffiliated bid for governor. To do so, the frank-talking Johnson may need to shift.

“I’ve always thought this was her Achilles heel,” says political consultant Jake Weigler, who has lobbied for gun control. “‘Hey, suburban woman, are you really going to vote for Machine Gun Betsy?’”

She explains her sudden reversal this way: “My willingness to support new laws reflects my belief that, as governor, I need to represent the views and concerns of all Oregonians, and not merely my own,” Johnson tells WW. “If I am asking others to compromise, I must lead by example and practice what I preach.”

Her switch occurred after WW asked the three leading candidates for governor how they would address gun violence.

We asked:

1. How would you explain the Uvalde shootings to a 10-year-old child?

2. What would you do if elected governor to prevent mass shootings?

Tina Kotek, Democratic nominee

1. I would assure the child that I am doing everything I can to keep them safe and that their teachers will do everything they can to keep them safe. I would say I’m going to work hard to help older children not do these kinds of things. Our niece asked, “Why would a kid hurt other kids?”

We know a safer future for our children is possible. It will take common-sense gun safety legislation. In this race for governor, I am the only candidate who has supported and passed legislation like expanding background checks to keep our communities safer.

2. As House Speaker, I passed legislation to keep guns from domestic abusers and stalkers, expand background checks, create a way for families to keep guns from someone who is a risk to themselves or others, and require safe storage of guns. As governor, I will continue to support common-sense gun safety, including banning ghost guns, preventing teenagers from purchasing assault weapons, and requiring completed background checks for all firearm purchases.

Both Betsy Johnson and Christine Drazan get high marks from the National Rifle Association and have a long record of opposing common-sense gun safety legislation. Oregon families deserve better.

Betsy Johnson, unaffiliated candidate

1. Nothing is more important to me, your family and your teachers than keeping you safe. We must prevent very violent and sick people from getting guns—with stronger background checks and raising the age to buy certain guns. We need more counselors to step in with troubled kids when they need help. Every school building should be safer so that people cannot enter without permission. And we should always support the police officers who help keep us safe. I want to reassure you that while the news may not make sense, our lives still do.

2. I will practice what I preach, rejecting the extremes and taking the best ideas from both parties to keep our schools and communities safe. While a lifelong gun owner and defender of the Second Amendment, as governor, I will support and enforce stronger background checks and raising the age to purchase certain firearms to 21. I will strengthen our failing mental health care system and put more counselors in our schools. We should intervene when warning signs of disturbing behavior are evident. We should support—not defund—our police. I will support increasing school security under local control.

Christine Drazan, Republican nominee

1. I remember the day my son came home from school afraid to go back to school the next day. He was anxious. We had a heart-to-heart conversation about his feelings, thoughts and safety. These are the conversations you have as a parent. I told my son the truth, there are people in the world who are not safe. There are people who harm strangers, there are people who hurt the very people they say they love. And the truth is, there is evil in the world. But there is also goodness and love, and kids have adults in their lives who work every day to keep them safe. All kids deserve to be safe at home and at school, and it’s important to know that this terrible crime is rare and that kids do not have to be afraid and that school is still a safe place.

2. As governor, my budget will provide dedicated funding to strengthen school safety measures and fully fund mental health services. That includes funding local priorities to invest in school resource officers, increasing access to mental health supports, and ensuring that individuals who should not have access to a school do not gain access.

Willamette Week’s reporting has concrete impacts that change laws, force action from civic leaders, and drive compromised politicians from public office. Support WW's journalism today.