Austin Petersen, the 2016 runner-up for the Libertarian Party presidential nomination and current contender for the Republican nomination for a Senate seat in Missouri, has always believed in free possession of fully automatic weapons (machine guns) for American citizens. As he reminded me in a phone interview this week, one of his colorful slogans during his L.P. run was, "I believe in a world where gay married couples are free to protect their marijuana fields with fully automatic machine guns."
"I've been saying this for years," Petersen notes. But he felt inclined to say it again in the past week because his most prominent rival vying for the GOP Senate nod, current state Attorney General Josh Hawley, "on the day he declared [for the nomination] also declared for banning firearms accessories via executive orders. He's to the left of Obama, and he made it important for me to differentiate myself."
It's one thing for someone from the knowingly radical-for-freedom Libertarian Party to say that sort of thing. But such an attitude is rare among would-be candidates for the major parties. Still, Petersen is confident that doing so in the context of the fight for the GOP nod to run against Democratic incumbent Claire McCaskill will help, not hurt.
"Not just Republicans, but even Democrats in Missouri are pro-gun," Petersen says. "The Missouri Senate voted to nullify federal gun laws in the state; we have permitless concealed carry as well as open carry."
In "response to Democrats pushing hard left and saying we should repeal the Second Amendment," Petersen says that we should repeal the 1934 National Firearms Act (NFA), which among other things placed strong licensing and tax requirements on machine guns, and also repeal the Hughes Amendment to the 1986 Firearms Owner Protection Act, which barred all possession of machine guns made after its passage. Second Amendment advocates "need to stop playing defense, and go on the offense," he tells me. "If they talk about repealing the Second Amendment, let's push in the opposite direction. The best defense is a good offense so let's talk about repealing the NFA and the Hughes Amendments."
Petersen recently got himself into a Twitter squabble with gun control advocate Shannon Watts that dragged in television personality Montel Williams. Petersen thinks Watts made a fool of herself by prodding him about ordnance and nukes, which are matters not relevant to the NFA. Petersen doesn't think NFA repeal is that out-there a position, pointing to a Whitehouse.gov petition to do so with over 285,000 signatures. "It's time to stop placating people having a conversation about how to limit our rights; let's get the conversation to where people are talking not about limiting gun rights but expanding them, and that's what I'm trying to do" by calling for NFA repeal.
He's running Republican, Petersen says, because thousands of phone calls made to past supporters from his L.P. run showed that nearly all of them wanted him to wave the GOP banner. But that doesn't mean his fans don't have a hardcore radical streak when it comes to Second Amendment liberty. "Dollars talk. We had our single greatest fundraising day" after reiterating his support for private machine gun ownership. "We got a lot of 'attaboys' and as far as anger from the left, well, those people weren't going to support me anyway. Missouri is a pro-gun state, we don't have a lot of gun-grabbers."
Petersen pushes back against the idea that advocating private civilian machine gun ownership is unbearably eccentric in the current gun control debate. "I want to bring the conversation back to our rights, rather than being about trying to justify why I need something, why don't you tell me why I can't?"
When challenged about why he can't support "reasonable gun control," Petersen counters cheekily with his belief in reasonable new laws like the "Hearing Protection Act" (to allow for sale of suppressors without a tax stamp, basically treating suppressors the same as long guns when it comes to legal hoops) and national concealed carry reciprocity among states.