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Minnesota state representative shoots straight from the hip

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2013 10:12 a.m. CDT

(MCT) — MINNEAPOLIS — He’s 62 years old, been shot at a couple of times, lives on the farm in southern Minnesota where he grew up, hunts coyotes with an AR-15 and is open to meeting new women.

But first, he asks, “Please send photos . . .

“Of your gun collection.”

He’s Tony Cornish, Republican state representative from Blue Earth County.

So popular is Cornish among his constituents that he ran unopposed last fall while coasting to a sixth term.

In St. Paul, however, where he’s the face of gun rights at the Capitol, he’s sometimes less popular, even downright loathed, particularly this legislative session, when a minor blizzard of gun bills has been introduced.

Not to worry, Cornish says confidently, he and other Republicans have enough votes, along with those from rural Democrats, to block any proposals that reduce gun rights.

“They won’t pass,” he said.

A one-time city cop, deputy sheriff, conservation officer, police chief and, yes — speaking of big guns — Army tank commander, Cornish legally packs what he advocates, either a .40 caliber Glock on his hip — if he’s wearing a sport coat — or a Smith & Wesson in his pocket.

“After being shot at a couple of times and receiving a number of death threats, and never knowing whether I might come across someone I arrested years ago,” he said. “Well, I guess after 36 years as a peace officer, I’d just feel bare without it.”

Plain-speaking, Cornish seems at times a throwback among legislators, reminiscent, in his forthrightness, of Charlie Berg, the onetime Democrat, onetime Republican, mostly independent lawmaker from Chokio in west-central Minnesota.

Sometimes underestimated, in that respect he’s also not unlike the outwardly wacky but ultimately effective retired Sen. Bob Lessard of International Falls.

“Tony and I came into the Legislature the same year, 2002, and he came in with guns blazing, so to speak (for his legislative agenda),” said St. Paul Democrat Rep. John Lesch. “But in the years since I’ve seen him become more contemplative on his approach.”

— — -

“I never went to college and don’t claim to be a constitutional scholar,” Cornish said. “In fact, if you go through the legislative handbook, under ‘Education’ you’ll see some legislators went to Harvard or Hamline or wherever.

“Mine says, ‘Garden City High School.’ ”

Upon graduation from which, in 1969, Cornish tried his hand at farming while moonlighting, two weeks a month, as a cop in Amboy, Minn., population real small.

This was before Blue Earth County hired him as a deputy sheriff and, in 1980, before the Department of Natural Resources brought him on as a conservation officer (CO).

“I always wanted to be a conservation officer,” he said. “But I didn’t apply because someone told me I needed a college degree in ecology or entomology or some other subject. Then I found out all you needed, when I was hired, was to be a peace officer.”

Briefly trained, Cornish was soon shipped by the DNR to Northome, population 312 and ground zero in northwest Minnesota for bad guys, beavers and timber wolves.

“The warden before me left because the wolves and beavers drove him crazy,” Cornish said. “Also, he had a head-on crash with some deer shiners, and they dragged him out of his truck and into the woods and put a gun to his head.

“After that, he wanted a transfer.”

Covering 2,100 square miles, including the southern half of Koochiching County and the northern half of Itasca County, Cornish passed large chunks of his days with a Duluth pack full of dynamite strapped to his back, hiking into the woods to blow up beaver dams.

“Everybody hated beavers,” he said. “Farmers couldn’t get to their cattle on flooded roads. Timber companies couldn’t get their work done.”

The only written reprimand Cornish received in his 23-year career as a CO, he said, was beaver-related.

“Beavers had blocked a river along a highway in spring, and the ice was backing up the water,” he said. “I had state troopers stopping traffic while I blew up the dam.

“I lit the fuse and everything blew up and, as usual, I was wet head to toe, covered with mud, standing alongside the highway. Then a lady in a car the troopers had let through rolled down her window and said, ‘Are all those poor beavers going to die now?’

“I said, ‘I hope so, ma’am.’ That got me a reprimand.”

— — -

Today, Minnesota conservation officers have first-rate equipment: snowmobiles, four-wheelers, pickup trucks.

But it wasn’t always so, and Cornish — comfortable as a leader — eventually would serve three terms as president of the conservation officers’ union, a position he used to agitate for modernization of the corps.

In 2002, he ran for office. When elected, he no longer could be a conservation officer, and retired.

A lifelong hunter, Cornish today owns 70 acres of good wildlife habitat literally out his back door, where he often sits for deer or plinks coyotes.

“As a legislator, I’ve been labeled primarily as a gun advocate,” he said. “But my first term I think I passed as many bills as any legislator. Law enforcement. Public safety. Peace officer rights. I’ve scattered bills over a wide field. But the gun issue is so emotional it’s what I’m remembered for.”

This session he might also be remembered for helping to pass one or more “gun bills.” The state, he said, needs to do a better job of keeping guns out of the hands of criminals and people with certain mental health issues.

“The background-check system needs to be improved, but it’s complicated and it will cost money,” he said. “If we mandate upgrades to the system, we’ll have to get it right, and it’s going to cost money.”

Heather Martens of Protect Minnesota, a group that would like to see gun laws tightened, wants Cornish to go further.

“We just don’t agree with him, and we don’t think he operates in good faith,” Martens said. “He believes guns are an unlimited right, no matter how many people die. We believe gun deaths can be prevented and that prevention is warranted.”

Cornish disagrees. Background checks on gun sales between private parties? “No.” Restrictions on modern sporting arms, or what commonly are called assault-style rifles of the kind he uses to hunt coyotes? “No.” Prohibition of high-capacity magazines? “No.”

“None of those will reduce crime,” he said. “And none of those bills will pass. We’ve got the votes to block them.”

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