Missouri Senate Race Pits Military Veteran Against Washington Veteran

Oct 11, 2016

Chris Wells, a former Army combat medic, instructs a student during an NRA Personal Protection Outside the Home course at a gun range north of Liberty, Missouri.
Credit Peggy Lowe / KCUR 89.3

Chris Wells’ orders are crisp, terse and quick.

“Shooter ready. Access,” Wells says to his student. “Fire. Sight. Fire. Scan and access. Place the firearm on safe. Re-holster.”

His student reacts to each command, pulling his pistol from back and under his shirt, and fires twice. He then sets the safety and puts the pistol back into the waistband of his jeans.

“Alright,” Wells says, “good job, good job.”

This is one of several exercises Wells will run, teaching his student the fundamentals of carrying a concealed firearm in public. The course is one of many certified by the National Rifle Association and taught locally by Wells, called “Personal Protection Outside the Home.”

Wells, 31, is a former Army combat medic who now runs his own business, KC’s Firearms Institute. He’s a lifelong NRA member, which typically means you know how he will vote. But this year, the Independent Wells hasn’t yet decided if he will vote for GOP Sen. Roy Blunt or Democrat Jason Kander.

“The reality is, I know Roy Blunt’s record as being extremely pro-Second Amendment,” Wells says. “But I also know that Jason Kander is a combat veteran who clearly has an ability with a firearm.”

Chris Wells, an NRA-certified firearms instructor, shows a student the proper stance when taking aim with a gun.
Credit Peggy Lowe / KCUR 89.3

And we’ve all seen that ability. In one of the most talked about political ads of the year, Jason Kander, a tall, thin 35-year old, stands behind a desk in an abandoned warehouse.

He’s snapping together an AR-15 rifle – blindfolded – while taking on the Republican incumbent, Sen. Roy Blunt.

“Sen. Blunt has been attacking me on guns,” Kander says. “Well, in the Army, I learned how to use and respect my rifle.”

A former Army Captain who volunteered to serve in Afghanistan after 9/11, Kander puts the rifle together in 22 seconds, takes off the blindfold and throws down a challenge. 

“I also believe in background checks, so terrorists can’t get their hands on one of these,” he says. “I approved this message, because I’d like to see Sen. Blunt do this.”

In a race now called a toss-up, Blunt is facing a significant challenge in Kander, Missouri’s Secretary of State. Working on winning the Senate majority, Democratic groups have rushed in, with outside organizations spending roughly $5 million so far.

In a state with some of the loosest gun laws in the country, the ad has gained traction. So the NRA has come to Blunt’s rescue, spending nearly $1 million, second only to Ohio in Congressional race spending, according to The Trace.

Blunt, 66, is seeking his second Senate term after leadership positions in the House dating back to 1997. He gets an A from the NRA.

Guns are a big issue in Missouri, where just last month, the Republican-controlled Legislature passed a law that allows citizens to carry concealed weapons in public without a permit. A New York Times editorial called Missouri “the shoot-me state.”

“The ad has gone viral because it underscores the fact that Kander’s not anti-Second Amendment, he’s not anti-gun,” said Steve Glorioso, a Kansas City consultant who has run U.S. Senate campaigns for several Missouri Democrats.

Kander’s ad is a political party turn-about on two levels: gun rights and Blunt’s lack of military service, Glorioso says. Blunt took three college deferments during the Vietnam War.

“(The ad is) basically challenging Blunt to: ‘Hey big boy, you’re so pro-gun I bet you couldn’t do this with a blindfold on,” Glorioso says.

The Blunt campaign came back with an ad that mocked Kander, Dr. Seuss-style. 

“Some people can put together a gun blindfolded. Some do it really fast. Some really, really fast. Some do it upside down and blindfolded,” the ad says.

The ad links Kander with presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who is unpopular in a state expected to go for GOP nominee Donald Trump, and reminds people that the NRA gave Kander an “F” for his votes on the Second Amendment while serving in the Missouri House.

Democrats are trying to paint Blunt as a Washington insider, whose family has three lobbyists, including his wife, Abigail Blunt.

The NRA’s wrath with Kander is mostly tied to his vote against a bill that would have expanded Missouri’s Castle Doctrine, much like the “stand your ground” laws in other states. A fact-check piece by the Missourian found Kander’s claim of supporting the Second Amendment while in the state House to be “mostly true.”

University of Missouri political science professor Peverill Squire says it’s a curious year because the NRA endorsed the Republican in the Senate race, but the Democrat, Chris Koster, in the governor’s race over Eric Greitens, a former Navy SEAL. 

“I think the lines are blurred a little bit from what we traditionally see,” Squire says, “and to some extent it may help neutralize the issue for Democrats.”

Wells says the idea of a background check to keep firearms out of the hands of terrorists appeals to him. But as a lifelong NRA member, he worries that could go too far.

“You have to understand that there needs to be governance. But maybe not over-governance, which is what they’re afraid of happening,” he says. “And that’s why they give people like Jason Kander, even though he is familiar with firearms, an F rating.”

Peggy Lowe is investigations editor at KCUR and Harvest Public Media. You can find her on Twitter at @peggyllowe.