Recent mass shootings — including an elementary school massacre in Texas this week – have put the gun control debate at the forefront of many Americans’ minds. That’s perhaps not something Oregon gubernatorial candidate Betsy Johnson was expecting when she agreed weeks ago to appear on a Portland stage Saturday morning.

The former Democratic senator — an unabashed defender of gun rights who often voted differently than other members of her party on the issue — appeared as a surprise guest at an event put on by TEDxPortland on Saturday morning. Video posted on Twitter by KGW reporter Evan Watson shows Johnson’s sit-down with an interviewer was derailed when members of the audience demanded Johnson, who is running for governor as an unaffiliated candidate, address gun control.

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Former Oregon state Sen. Betsy Johnson at the capitol in Salem.

Former Oregon state Sen. Betsy Johnson at the capitol in Salem.

Kaylee Domzalski / OPB

“That’s not going to be solved in four minutes on this stage,” host David Rae said, before relenting to shouts from the audience. “Help me manage this room, Betsy. You brought up leadership. What is your thinking with this?”

Johnson took the reins from there. “We all have opinions. I have mine, you all have yours,” she began, saying she’d long represented a rural northwest Oregon district and is a gun owner and collector. Johnson then suggested that the gun debate had taken attention away from a more important issue: Oregon’s “shitty” mental health system.

The observation drew applause, but did not dissuade some in the crowd. Johnson got boos when she said “the style of the gun doesn’t dictate the lethality” — a comment which Democratic candidate for Oregon governor Tina Kotek tweeted “What?!” in response.

Johnson said that American society needs to be “continuously more vigilant” about detecting signals someone might carry out a mass shooting.

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At least one person reported being escorted out of the event for yelling questions at Johnson.

Rae, the host, attempted to calm tensions. He said mass shootings were an American problem that, as someone who grew up in Canada, he does not understand. He also applauded Johnson’s bravery and candor. “We’re not going to solve it in this room,” he said. “We decided to do this two weeks ago.”

Johnson, meanwhile, played down the incident in an emailed statement to news outlets.

“While the vast majority of people were supportive, a few folks tried to shut down productive dialogue,” Johnson wrote. “That’s unfortunate, but I remain undaunted.”

The decision to invite Johnson drew criticism of the TEDxPortland conference from some who felt the event was offering free publicity to a candidate whose politics they do not agree with. Johnson has not yet made the November ballot, but soon will begin collecting signatures for a nonaffiliated campaign widely expected to qualify for the election.

TEDxPortland issued an apology to its audience that evening.

“Having a potential political candidate for public office on our stage this morning was not the right decision,” the organization wrote.

Assuming Johnson, who has millions of dollars on hand, can collect 23,744 signatures, she’ll face former House Speaker Kotek and former House Minority Leader Christine Drazan, a Republican. Kotek has been a supporter of gun control laws, while Drazan and Johnson last year voted against a bill mandating safe storage of guns when not in use. Johnson has also opposed bills allowing courts to confiscate the guns of someone deemed high risk, and requiring background checks for private gun sales.

Johnson has received favorable ratings from the National Rifle Association. And the Oregon Firearms Federation, the state’s most hardline gun rights group, wrote in a recent post that “one thing Johnson most certainly has been, is strongly and unapologetically pro-gun.”

New polling from Morning Consult suggests a broad majority of Americans support steps such as mandatory background checks for all gun sales and banning people reported as dangerous from purchasing guns.

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