Sitting across the table from Mark Christensen, the blonde-haired, blue-eyed state senator from Imperial, I can't help but wonder if he's packing heat. After all, the National Rifle Association-endorsed Christensen, 48, has introduced some of the most radical gun-rights bills in the country, including a measure that would have allowed teachers to carry guns in school. Another, the so-called “castle doctrine” or “make my day” law, would allow people to use deadly force to protect themselves or others in their homes, vehicles or workplace. Another proposal would allow the use of force to prevent harm to a fetus — raising concerns that the law might have made the murder of abortion workers “justifiable homicide.”
Cocksure, Christensen has earned his reputation around the Capitol as a hardcore gun advocate. Raised on a farm in Southwest Nebraska, he speaks with folksy language — “every boty” and “thar.” Charismatic with a sly grin, it's clear he enjoys notoriety. And he talks about guns with the exuberance of little boys playing cowboys and Indians.
“A lot of officers, those people will carry three to five guns. Most people don't know that. You see one, but they have one available to each arm, because if you get a shot on me and I'm right-handed, I can no longer operate this gun,” he says, reaching with his left hand to his right hip. “They've got one that they can get for this one.”
Relaxing in his chair in a gray suit and blue-striped tie after a long day on the legislative floor, he's patient and thoughtful during a 90-minute interview with The Reader . We focused on why he would be so eager to take on such contentious issues as abortion, arming teachers, repealing the national healthcare law, human trafficking and President Barack Obama's birth certificate.
“I believe you're down here not just to vote or do little things to make it look like you're doing something,” he says. “I believe your tackling huge social issues is gonna make the state a better place. I guess I've always believed if you can't take a huge issue head on there's no need even messin' with it. Small tweaks generally don't do the job."
Spankin' and Shootin'
Christensen talks a lot about moral decay — his justification for the bill to allow security guards, administrators and teachers to carry concealed handguns on school property, provided they also have a state-issued permit.
“The moral change in America's been, well, you can't spank kids in school. You can't touch a kid in school. So they don't respect,” he says, ''cause you've had the moral decay that comes from government and society, we now have more problems.”
When he was in high school in Arapahoe, he says administrators would walk out to the parking lot to admire the guns in the racks of students' pickup trucks.
“No one seen it as a problem. Everybody respected guns and respected authority. Now, we've told people kids are right, teachers are wrong,” he says. “Instead of spank 'em [smacks his hands], deal with it, be done with it.”
Spurred by the Millard South school shooting in in January, Christensen's bill, LB 516, didn’t make it out of the Judiciary Committee. The Nebraska Association of School Boards testified against the bill, as did many others who argued having guns in schools would create more potential for tragedy. Christensen believes students — stable or not — who know other people are armed, will think twice about bringing a gun to school. But in case of an active shooter in a school, he pictures a scenario where an administrator or teacher ends the horrifying situation with a bullet.
“I believe [administrators and teachers] are to be in control of the classroom at all times,” Christensen says. “If you're the professor or the teacher and I show up with a gun are you now in control? No. You're not. That gun is in control. The person with the gun now has demanded respect.
“Now, are you going to be able to do anything if you're carrying? No. But could another teacher or an administrator from another room? Most likely. The opportunity will come.”
Christensen says he never expected the bill to pass. But he takes credit for having initiated the discussion, which he says helped pave the way for Sen. Burke Harr's bill that allowed off-duty officers to carry weapons at school functions. That bill was tacked onto a Christensen measure that would allow some people formerly barred from buying or possessing guns, because of mental health problems, to do so if they could prove they no longer suffered from the mental condition. Of the 28 bills he's introduced this term, that measure was the only one enacted.
Regardless, arming teachers and other Christensen proposals follow a clear strategy of pushing to the extreme edge of an issue to create space for what he sees as progress somewhere in the middle.
“Quite often, if you have somebody that's willing to take on a big tough issue, in the next year or two, even if it doesn't go the first year, you'll see some smaller, what I still call big improvements, come out of it,” he says.
Heaven is for Real
Christensen's a lamb eager to sacrifice for the socially conservative cause. He was raised conservative on a family farm near Arapahoe, whose population was more than 97 percent white in 2000, according to the U.S. Census.
“I grew up understanding we've got to protect our gun rights as well as our individual rights if we're gonna maintain a strong, healthy nation,” he says.
Abortion is an individual right Christensen doesn't support. You'd be hard-pressed in the Legislature to find a more ardent opponent of women's right to choose — even in the case of rape.
After becoming a born-again Christian as a child, he says his belief solidified when he heard about the story that became the bestselling book Heaven is for Real . The book was co-written by Imperial native Todd Burpo, Christensen's pastor at Crossroads Wesleyan Church, and Lynn Vincent, the ghost-writer behind Sarah Palin's Going Rogue . Sold as nonfiction, the book recounts the story of Burpo's son, Colton, who says he had a near-death experience at 4 and went to heaven during an emergency surgery for a burst appendix. The account, which included meeting Jesus, John the Baptist and his unborn sister who was a miscarriage, has helped the book sell out of its original run of 40,000 copies. Selling for a discounted $9.34 on Amazon.com, the book has gone back to press 22 times, with more than 1.5 million copies in print. Christensen says there's no way to dismiss what the now-11-year-old says he saw.
“For a 4-year-old to go to heaven and go back and tell his mommy and daddy that 'I met my other sister’ — it was a miscarriage at two months,” Christensen says. “A 4-year old making this stuff up? ... There's no way of knowing these things.” “That to me solidified my pro-life view in hearing that right there,” he says.
He says it's not imaginable that the father influenced the child's story in order to sell books. “This guy’s not a writer,” he says. “... He works on sermons all the time. He's just not the literary person — a person who's just gonna write a book. “I don't think there's any way you could excuse it,” he adds.
The book reaffirmed Christensen's belief that life is “sacred.” His bill, LB 232, made national headlines in its aim to protect the life of unborn children by allowing a woman to use deadly force to protect her fetus, without fear of prosecution. But the bill's wording would allow anyone to do so, prompting concerns from Planned Parenthood, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Omaha Police Department and others, that it could be used to justify violence against abortion providers. The bill didn’t make it out of committee. Christensen says the disagreement over the law's intent “comes down to the basic views on life. They believe in abortion,” he says. “... There was never any intent to harm. It would go against my principles.”
Water and Subsidies
After graduating from Arapahoe High School, Christensen earned his bachelor's in agricultural economics from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He farmed on his family's land until he moved to Imperial to start a commodity business in 2001. He and his wife Kathy have seven children. He serves on the board of Nebraskans First, a nonprofit committed to protecting irrigators' rights. As he became more active in water issues, people began asking him to run for the Legislature.
“I'd always say, 'Does it say idiot on my forehead?'” he says. “Evidently, it does.”
He was easily elected in 2006, and again in 2010. He says he knows what his constituents care about. “I can tell you where the large voting groups are: pro-life; pro-gun; then it's water issues,” he says.
There's no bigger water issue than Nebraska's fight with Kansas over the increasingly scarce natural resource in the Republican River basin. Kansas is suing to stop Nebraska from irrigating about half-a-million acres in response to Nebraska using more than its share of water in 2005 and 2006. It's an issue of importance to Christensen and his constituents.
“They would kill our economy. For one, you'd chase a bunch of small towns out. You'd cause school closures. You'd bankrupt schools and counties,” he says.
But he's confident Nebraska will win the suit. Christensen's strength on water issues led Julie Chandler, from Imperial, to vote for him in 2010. She feels differently these days.
“I have been so disappointed, because he's been so far over the hill on things,” she says. “... We don't have that much of a problem with gun violence in schools. And getting everybody in a circular firing squad at somebody that was shooting at them doesn't sound like a good idea. He needs to pay more attention to practical matters, like funding our roads, funding our hospitals, funding our schools.”
Chandler says she feels as though Christensen is auditioning for Fox News. “They’re just bizarre things, and they may be popular with the Tea Party people,” she says, “... I didn't send him down there to be silly, and a lot of this stuff is just silly and a waste of time. There's real problems, let's work on those.”
Christensen isn't a member of the Tea Party, but says “I probably line up with them pretty well.” The small-government movement works to limit government spending; but Christensen has directly benefited from government largesse. At first, he says he's “shocked” to learn he accepted more than $368,000 in farm subsidies from 1995-2009, including more than $345,000 from 1995-2005, according to the nonprofit Environmental Working Group. But after some consideration, “I don't know if that shocks me or not, the more I think about all the years …” he says. “I wish they'd get rid of all farm subsidies and the price of food would double. People will have a fit if food goes up. Mark my words: Price of food would go up drastically.”
But Christensen says he thinks future farmers shouldn't get the same deal from the government. He thinks farm subsidies should, in fact, be eliminated. “Farm groups ain't gonna like that comment if it's printed,” he says. “But let's face facts: We're all gonna face some tough decisions or this nation's done … We cannot continue to have the federal government spend more than they bring in. They need to get balanced.”
As far to the edge on issues as Christensen frequently leans, he's proud to have gone further than anyone in the country on the so-called “birther” issue. His bill, LB 654, died in committee. But it would have not only required presidential candidates to submit their birth certificates to the Secretary of State, but also those of their parents. Christensen is adamant that the bill wasn't about Obama, and stresses that he was willing to put a two-year delay on the bill if it were to pass. So why not introduce the bill during President George W. Bush's term?
“It was President Obama that give me the idea that this is gonna provide sounder policy and more integrity of the system,” he says. “So, yes, it was the result of President Obama.” Christensen refuses to answer, yes or no, to whether he believes the president is a citizen.
“I can't prove he is or isn't, so I'll assume he is,” he says, pointing to an August 2010 poll from CNN showing as many as 27 percent of Americans believe the opposite. “... Is that developing the trust of America, trust in politics and trust in the leaders that we need? If he's a man, he ought to step up and show that birth certificate.”
After Obama presented his long-form birth certificate in a highly publicized press conference last week, The Reader asked Christensen if he was satisfied that the issue was put to rest. “I'm thrilled that he stepped up with it. What I'm sad about is it took two years,” he says. “... I'm gonna take him at his word till proven wrong. If it comes up and it becomes fact that this is not a factual certificate, then at that point in time I'll say you can't believe a word the guy says.”
In Christensen's office, I ask if he's carrying a gun. He responds almost apologetically. “No. We're not supposed to in here,” he says. But he took a training class recently in order to get his concealed carry permit.
“I've got my shootin' deal right here,” he says, standing up and walking over to a bookshelf. He unrolls a paper target showing what appears to be a milk bottle riddled with bullet holes.
“You have to hit the white area to be 100 percent.” From the looks of it, Christensen's a dead-eye. I ask him if he carries a gun outside the Legislature.
“No. I never needed to,” he says.
“I've not had threats on my life.
“I've had people call me ‘idiot, dumbest legislation I've ever seen. Where'd you come from? Why don't you go back to the sticks where you get these ideas? Why are you trying to force this on Omaha?’”
He doesn't let criticism bother him.
“Most people talk out of ignorance,” he says. “They don't understand issues.”