Rifle picture becomes campaign issue

A state legislator who represents Columbus recently posted an image of himself on social media holding an AR-15 style rifle in a Seymour gun store in what he said was indicative of his support of guns rights and small business.

Rep. Ryan Lauer, R-Columbus, who is seeking re-election in Indiana State House District 59, posted the image on Twitter last week following a visit to Fostech, a Seymour-based gun manufacturer.

Lauer said the company invited him to tour its facility and discuss “inconsistencies coming from our federal regulators,” among other topics. The tweet that accompanied the image stated, “I enjoyed meeting employees and learning a lot during an impressive tour of local manufacturer Fostech, a small business with a large impact in cutting edge defense technology serving both civilians and law enforcement. Thank you! #2ndAmendment #SmallBusinesses.”

When asked about his decision to pose with the weapon, Lauer said, “I’m a strong supporter of our Second Amendment, defending our constitutional rights. I’m also a strong supporter of our small businesses and of all the employees that are working hard every day to put food on the table.”

Lauer’s opponent in the November election, Democratic nominee Ross Thomas, said the image was “out of touch” with most people’s view of gun rights. Thomas has already seized upon the image in campaign material in which he brands Lauer as “extreme” on guns.

“We see the damage that’s done from these kinds of weapons that are not designed for sport and they’re not designed as a practical protector,” Thomas said. “To have that as a symbol of what you think the Second Amendment is about just seems out of touch to me.”

“If he feels that him standing there with an assault rifle makes him look tough, OK,” Thomas said. “I think it makes him look out of touch, and frankly, a little silly. But he can make his own choices.”

In his campaign literature, Thomas also accused Lauer of being disingenuous about his support of police officers.

“Like most politicians, Ryan Lauer claims to “back the blue” and support our police. But in 2022, Lauer supported a new law in Indiana that removed the requirement that those wishing to carry a handgun in public must first pass a background check and obtain a license to carry a handgun. This reckless law was supported by the NRA and gun lobbyists, but opposed by Indiana law enforcement, including the superintendent of the Indiana State Police, who rightly condemned the law for putting police officers at risk.”

Lauer maintains that the message he was trying to convey with the image of himself posing with an AR-15 style rifle was that “we have great people making great products in our community.”

“I go to lots of small businesses and tour their facilities and take pictures,” Lauer said.

The social media post comes as the country reckons with a seemingly endless series of mass shootings, many of which involving AR-15 style weapons.

As of this past July, there had been 15 mass killings in the United States this year, according to the Associated Press/USA TODAY/Northeastern University Mass Killing Database. Those incidents left 86 dead and 63 injured, according to wire reports. Guns were used in all of them, and in at least seven instances they were AR-15-style weapons. Mass killings were defined as incidents where at least four people were killed.

In July, a 20-year-old used an AR-15 style rifle to kill three people and injure two others at the Greenwood Park Mall. In May, the 10-year-old relative of a Columbus resident was among the 19 children and two teachers who were shot to death by an 18-year-old with an AR-15 style rifle at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas.

Lauer, however, is not the first politician in the United States to pose with a gun. Elected officials on both sides of the aisle have used guns as props in their communications with the public for years, though experts say the prevalence of such imagery has increased as of recent.

Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Kentucky, drew backlash last year after posting a Christmas card in which he and his family posed with AR-15 style rifles and other guns. The post states, “Santa, please bring ammo.” Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colorado, also posted an image of herself with her children who were holding AR-15 style rifles.

Elected officials across the country, as well as several candidates running for federal and state office, have posed with assault rifles in recent months, including some who have posed for photo-ops in gun stores.

Some Democrats also have used guns in their communications with the public. In campaign ads, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, shot a gun at an environmental and energy proposal bill and a lawsuit challenging the Affordable Care Act.

Pierre Atlas, a senior lecturer at Indiana University’s Paul H. O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs who studies gun culture in America, said he has noticed an increase in the use of AR-15 type rifles in political communication since the 2016 presidential election.

Generally, AR-15 style rifles are a “symbolic indicator” that the candidate or politician “is conservative and very, very pro-Second Amendment” and is often associated with the so-called “MAGA Republicans,” which refers to members of the GOP who strongly support former President Donald Trump, Atlas said.

“You don’t have to say anything, you don’t have to do anything. The image of the guy or woman with a weapon, especially if it’s like an AR-15 type assault rifle, that coveys it immediately,” Atlas said, referring to the general nationwide trend and not specifically to Lauer’s image.

“It’s very easy to do,” Atlas added. “You don’t have to run a political ad. You can just do it on social media.”

At the same time, the increasing prevalence of assault rifles in political communications has raised concerns that the promotion of these weapons by politicians is normalizing their use. Brady, a group pressing to end gun violence, told The Washington Post that the images give the “dangerous impression that firearms, and assault-style firearms specifically, are casual tools rather than dangerous weapons.”

“For the audience looking at the picture, those pictures can convey a lot of power to people who are more extreme as a way that, ‘Hey, this guy’s on our side,’ and it does normalize that kind of thing, and you see a lot more of it than you used to, especially with assault rifles,” Atlas said.