Prairie Lights: Quist dragged into unwinnable arms race

Despite Ed Kemmick’s pleas to resist, Democrat Rob Quist did indeed shoot a gun in one of his most recent campaign commercials. (Courtesy photo)

By Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

That ain’t no banjo, pilgrim.

I was rooting for Rob Quist, I really was. And not just rooting. I was also praying.

I’d get up in the morning, drop to my knees and I’d say, “Please, God, don’t let Rob Quist, in this truncated special-election season, give in to the temptation to shoot a gun in a television commercial.”


Ed Kemmick

But I suppose God knows who His friends are, and my prayers were not answered. As soon as the heat came on—as soon as it was hotter than a two-dollar pistol, as my aunt used to say—Quist broke down and broke out a gun, with the cameras rolling.

Specifically, he broke out a 30-30 rifle, which I believe he said had been protecting his family ranch since the Norman Conquest, and in the TV ad he used it to send a television to the Other Side Camp.

This was his attempt to establish his credentials as a gun-loving Montanan. Quist is running as a non-politician Democrat for the U.S. House seat vacated by Ryan Zinke, who was named by President Trump as secretary of the Department for the Eradication of Prairie Dogs, sometimes referred to as the Interior Department.

Quist didn’t need to tell us that he was not a politician. No politician in his right mind would say, in an interview with a Montana newspaper, that he thought it wouldn’t be so bad to establish a registry of people who own assault weapons.

This was the statement that was seized on by his Republican opponent, Greg Gianforte, and various national groups that are backing Gianforte because they know what’s best for Montana.

As Gianforte said in a recent mailer, “Rob Quist wants to destroy the Second Amendment and take away your rights.” He said somewhere else—and I wish I could find it now but I can’t—“What part of ‘shall not be infringed’ don’t you understand?”

Now, if God had listened to my prayers and given Quist good counsel, Quist would simply have responded, “What part of ‘A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State’ don’t you understand?”

But no. Instead, Quist dusted off his trusty family rifle and blew away a television playing one of Gianforte’s gun ads. I saw on Facebook that lots of Democrats were gushing over the Quist ad.

The Montana Cowgirl blog, headquarters of the Democratic resistance, called the ad “possibly the most powerful statement a Montanan running for office has made”—hang on; this sentence gets rather long—“about defending Montana from outside interests like the Copper Kings, Koch Brothers and Dark Money Billionaires we are seeing run for office these days.”

I was not aware that the Copper Kings were still pulling the levers of power in Montana, but never mind that. What about the claim that the ad is a “powerful statement,” apparently one of the strongest of its kind ever made?

How could that be, when few things have become more passé than a politician firing a gun in a campaign commercial?

Former Gov. Brian Schweitzer blasted a TV to smithereens just a few months ago, in an ad defending Supreme Court candidate Dirk Sandefur against “false ads.”

And in 2014, Matt Rosendale, now Montana secretary of state, pretended to be shooting at a drone over his ranch in a campaign spot. He was running for the Republican nomination in the U.S. House race, which was won by Zinke.

Also, if I’m getting the chronology right, Gianforte responded to Quist’s gunplay with an ad in which he uses a shotgun to exterminate a computer monitor emblazoned with the hair-raising words, “National gun registry.”

After watching some of these Montana gun ads again, I made the mistake of Googling “political ads with guns.” It’s like searching for “skateboard fails” on YouTube. There is no end to them.

And there is no other ad quite like the one aired by Eric Greitens, a former Navy Seal (like Zinke) who was elected governor of Missouri last fall. In one of his TV ads he was shown firing a high-power rotary machine gun; in another he is shooting a short-barreled AR-15-style rifle.

Greitens is a Republican. My favorite ad involved a Democrat, also a Missourian, by the name of Jason Kander. His ad showed him, blindfolded, assembling a rifle. The former Army captain, who served in Afghanistan, had also been attacked as anti-gun. But he lost his U.S. Senate bid, which tells you something about the futility of responding to Republican demagoguery on gun rights.

It is hopeless—worse, it shows a kind of desperation—to try to one-up the gun nuts. That is the path that leads an otherwise sane politician to put a big helmet on his pinhead and go joyriding in a tank.

Montana Republicans, whether they are the reincarnation of Thomas Jefferson or dimwits without a single thing to say about anything else that matters, will always accuse their Democratic opponents of wanting to erase the Second Amendment. To watch Gianforte’s TV ads, you’d think the tech-biz millionaire goes into the office wearing either camo or an orange vest.

Quist’s ad won’t stop the attacks on his stance toward guns. He could copy Greitens and shoot a machine gun, but that would only inspire Gianforte to unpack the mortars.

Montana Democrats, resist the temptation. It’s an arms race you can’t win.

Ed Kemmick has been a newspaper reporter, editor and columnist since 1980. Except for four years in his home state of Minnesota, he has spent his entire journalism career in Montana, working in Missoula, Anaconda, Butte and Billings. “The Big Sky, By and By,” a collection of some of his newspaper stories and columns, plus a few essays and one short story, was published in 2011.