Heard on the Hill

He wrote the background check bill. He also shoots a mean pigeon

Mike Thompson won ‘Top Gun’ at a congressional tournament

Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., talks strategy with Olympic gold medalist Kim Rhode during the 2005 Congressional Shoot-Out in Maryland. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

After demolishing target after target in a hotly contested shooting tournament, Rep. Mike Thompson earned the title of “Top Gun.” He’s owned guns for as long as he can remember, loves a good duck hunt and eats all the meat he kills.

Oh, and he’s also the one who introduced the background check bill poised to pass the House this week.

The most sweeping federal gun control measure to make it out of the chamber in decades, it would require background checks for all firearm sales in the country, even private exchanges. Closing that loophole would shut down an invisible market in which weapons change hands freely between friends and strangers with little oversight, advocates say.

At first glance, it’s a strange combination: a lifelong hunter leading the charge to tighten restrictions on the tools of his sport. But Thompson doesn’t see it that way.

“My buddies that I hunt with and shoot with, they get it,” the California Democrat said in an interview Tuesday. “They know we need to have laws on the books that keep our communities safe.”

“They also know that this idea that governments are going to come take our guns away is poppycock,” he added.

Come May, you’ll find Thompson and dozens of his fellow lawmakers in Glenn Dale, Maryland, for a day of yelling “Pull!” and blasting clay pigeons out of the sky. The tournament pits Republicans and Democrats against one another in rounds of skeet, sporting clay and trap shooting, and is sponsored by a foundation affiliated with the Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus, of which Thompson is a member.

“I enjoy shooting, And I enjoy the camaraderie with my colleagues,” he said. “If you win a trophy, that’s just ice cream.”

For years the annual event was known as the Great Congressional Shoot-Out, but now it goes by a more dignified name: the Congressional Clays Competition. Thompson won the whole shebang in 2015, and last year he took the top score among Democrats, ceding the grand prize to Florida Republican John Rutherford.

Rutherford is not among the handful of Republican co-sponsors who signed on to the background check bill. Neither is Duncan Hunter of California, who topped the trap group at last year’s competition, or Jeff Duncan of South Carolina, who won in skeet shooting.

And while Thompson has no trouble squaring his support for the Second Amendment with the restrictions contained in his bill, he acknowledges that his Napa Valley district contains a multitude of positions on gun control. Camo-sporting hunters are as common there as boutique vineyards, including one owned by the congressman himself.

“I certainly have folks in my district who think that any regulation of firearm ownership is a problem. And I have folks in my district who think without total regulation it’s a problem,” he said.

His own feelings came to a head when he was sitting in a duck blind in 2012. That’s when he first heard about the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School. “My phone started buzzing and I opened it and read the horrific news that all these little children and these teachers had been murdered,” he told the Los Angeles Times a few years ago.

Thompson is a member of the moderate Blue Dog Coalition, which was nearly wiped out by the tea party wave of 2010 and has struggled to rebuild as the Democratic Party trends further to the left. While his background check measure faces a decidedly uphill climb in the Senate and stiff opposition from the NRA, opposing gun violence doesn’t make him any less of a sportsman, he said.

“I eat everything that I take home,” Thompson said. “As a matter of fact, I had spaghetti sauce at home this weekend that my wife prepared from venison that either my son or I captured.”

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