Tim Donnelly, who has made gun rights a centerpiece of his campaign for governor, has a complicated history with firearms.
The Legislature’s most outspoken Second Amendment advocate, he pleaded no contest to two misdemeanors after carrying a loaded gun into Ontario International Airport in 2012, and he acknowledged recently that the gun was not registered in his name.
As he’s traveled the state in recent months, he has handled and fired guns at campaign events, raising questions about whether he was complying with the terms of his probation.
He has also experienced tragedy, the death of a family member following a gun-related arrest. His brother Paul E. Donnelly hanged himself in a Laurens County, S.C., jail in 2000 after he was arrested on charges that included assault with intent to kill, according to records reviewed by The Sacramento Bee.
In a lengthy interview with The Bee on Friday, Donnelly, a Twin Peaks assemblyman, talked about his brother’s death and his own struggles with suicidal thoughts. On the subject of gun ownership, he said “everything I have is legal” but wouldn’t say how many guns he owns or whether they are registered.
“I find gun registration to be offensive,” Donnelly said. “I think gun registration is simply so that someday the government can confiscate it.”
Last month, Donnelly’s main Republican opponent, Neel Kashkari, told an audience in Sacramento that he owns four guns and supports gun rights but is “not running on an agenda of the Second Amendment.”
“If you’re a single-issue voter, and you just want someone to give you a full-capacity assault rifle magazine, God bless you, you can go vote for somebody else,” Kashkari said. “I’m not your guy.”
Donnelly seized on the comment. In a fundraising email soliciting donations of $22, $222 or $2,222, Donnelly said, “If you support the Second Amendment and believe it’s your God-given right as an American, then my RINO opponent, Neel Kashkari has got a newsflash for you: ‘he’s not your guy.’ ” RINO is shorthand for “Republican in name only.”
Donnelly wrote, “Can you imagine a scenario in which you are forced to surrender your guns at the state line? We might, if Jerry Brown and Neel Kashkari have their way.”
Kashkari said after the event that he owns two 9mm Glock 17 pistols, one Weatherby rifle and one shotgun, a Remington 870 Express. His campaign subsequently provided receipts for those weapons to The Bee.
Last month, Donnelly said in a prepared statement to The Bee that he does not trust the government to protect his rights, saying government agencies “repeatedly abuse their power by spying on Americans and by trying to silence citizens through intimidation.”
Donnelly said, “These abuses are modern-day tyranny, and I will stand against tyranny at every turn. Like many Americans, I decline to say how many guns I have. It’s none of the government’s business!”
Earlier this year, the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office said it was “looking into” Donnelly’s handling of guns at a gun store and gun range at campaign appearances, after Donnelly pleaded no contest in 2012 to two misdemeanor charges related to the discovery of a firearm in his carry-on bag at the Ontario airport.
One of the terms of Donnelly’s probation was that he not “personally use, own or possess any firearm that is not registered to him,” but after reviewing the case, San Bernardino County District Attorney Michael Ramos said the terms of Donnelly’s probation were “never intended to apply to shooting at a gun range” and that “no further action will be taken.”
In an interview on the “John and Ken” show in Los Angeles last month, Donnelly acknowledged that the gun he had with him at the airport was not registered in his name.
He said he bought the gun from a private party before going to the U.S.-Mexico border in 2005 to participate in the anti-illegal-immigration Minuteman Project.
Asked why he did not register the gun in his own name, Donnelly told the radio hosts, “I just never got around to it.”
His brother Paul Donnelly, one of 14 Donnelly brothers and sisters, was arrested in South Carolina after his own gun-related incident.
The Laurens County Advertiser wrote in December 2000 that the then-23-year-old man was sleeping in a car one Sunday morning when police, responding to a call of a suspicious vehicle, approached and knocked on the window for several minutes before waking him.
After opening the car door and telling officers he was listening to music, “Donnelly then reportedly reached into his pocket, at which time one of the officers noticed a small pistol in the pocket and yelled for Donnelly to stop and that he, Donnelly, had a gun,” the newspaper reported.
The report said officers grabbed the pistol from Paul Donnelly’s hand, pulled him from the car and arrested him. In addition to the gun and assault charges, the newspaper and law enforcement officials said Paul Donnelly was charged with simple possession of marijuana and “public drunk.”
Days later, Paul Donnelly hanged himself with a bed sheet in a shower at a local jail, the same newspaper reported. He was found by another inmate, who took him down, and he was in a coma when emergency workers took him to a hospital, according to the report.
Paul Donnelly’s obituary appeared in the newspaper less than a week later. He was described as a talented musician “known for his help with the elderly, especially those suffering from Alzheimer’s.” His brother Tim was among the survivors listed.
Donnelly said his brother “was really struggling with drugs and alcohol” and that the incident was “about the drugs and mental illness,” not guns.
“I don’t want to equate those two issues because I believe that I can be the staunchest supporter of the Second Amendment and also believe in, and be a spokesperson for speaking out about mental illness, that it’s not something that people should be so ashamed of,” Donnelly said.
Following his brother’s death, Tim Donnelly said he spent time over the next eight years conducting a Bible study and life-skills class at a lockup near his home.
He said mental illness is “something that runs in every family.”
When asked if he had ever had suicidal thoughts himself, he suggested that at one point in his life he had.
“All of us have been on the edge at some point in our life, I think, and there’s nothing scarier than completely losing hope and thinking you are such a miserable failure of a human being that the only option is to take your own life. And I believe every human being has at some point had to stand and face that.”
Donnelly said he has talked to groups about “his own struggles in that regard,” but he declined to detail them Friday.
“The thing is I didn’t,” he said. “So here I am.”
As for his brother, Donnelly said the two men went golfing in South Carolina before his suicide and that, following his death, he came across a letter in his brother’s possessions – never mailed – about how much the outing meant to him.
“We did everything we could, and sometimes you fail and it wasn’t your fault, and it’s hard to believe that,” Donnelly said. “And I feel like we failed Paul in some way. But I don’t know when or where or how, and I’ll wonder my whole life.”