I began lobbying for the National Rifle Association’s Institute for Legislative Action (NRA-ILA) in late 1999. I was inspired to get directly into the fight for freedom after the tragic events of Columbine led to widespread calls to disarm citizens like me who had nothing whatsoever to do with that dark day. The emotional nuts were not going to take my freedom without a fight.
In those early days for me at ILA, it was not uncommon for our leading legislative advocates to be Democrats. A few that readily come to mind in some of the states assigned to me are Rep. Bob Damron in Kentucky, Sen. Doug Jackson in Tennessee, Sen. Herb Guenther in Arizona and Rep. Marlin Schneider in Wisconsin. In Congress, some of the most important leaders in our cause were Democrats, including John Dingell of Michigan and Harold Volkmer of Missouri. Unfortunately, since those days things have changed so dramatically that, to those of us engaged back then, today’s process is almost unrecognizable. The pro-gun rights Democrat is unfortunately a vanishing political species.
When it comes to the partisan nature of the gun rights issue, one day was particularly memorable to me. Before the state legislative elections in Tennessee in 2000, I went to a scheduled meeting with the speaker of the House, Jimmy Naifeh, who was a Democrat. He was a very partisan guy to say the least, and immediately greeted me for the first time by asking, “So, you’re that boy with the National Republican Association, eh?” His bluster took me aback for a moment, but I responded with a smile and told him that I was actually with the National Rifle Association.
I asked him why he’d say something like that, and he responded by claiming that the NRA only supports Republicans in the state elections that mean so much to him. I went out on a limb to some extent, but I had just completed the NRA-PVF Political Preference Chart announcing all of the candidates supported by NRA-PVF and was reasonably certain of the bold claim I was about to make. I told him it would surprise him to know that we had endorsed more of his Democrat assembly members in contested general election races than we had Republicans. He laughed and proceeded to use some colorful language to suggest that I had to be full of it. I told him I’d bring him the evidence.
That night in my hotel room, I nervously tallied the endorsed Democrats and Republicans. To my relief, I was right—and the margin was not razor thin. I wrote the speaker a memo detailing the endorsement numbers and submitted it to his office. To his credit, he apologized to me a few days later and said he was pleasantly surprised by NRA’s clearly non-partisan actions in the elections, at least in his state. What I had told him during our earlier discussion was true—we supported candidates solely based upon their track record with regard to support for our God-given right to arms.
Like many others at that time, he later took the discussion to NRA’s action in national elections. He said that NRA predominantly supported Republicans. This was during the epic presidential battle between Al Gore (a Tennessean) and George W. Bush, and many policy makers in Tennessee, including the speaker, were hot about NRA’s support of Bush.
Of course, in reality it wasn’t even a close call. Bush talked about preserving and strengthening gun rights, while Gore regularly yelled from the campaign stump about the need to ban affordable handguns that helped to protect the less affluent urban dwellers most likely to be targeted by violent criminals. He pejoratively called them “Saturday night specials” and “junk” guns. Most of his fellow democrats in Tennessee thought that he had lost his mind. Since when did any political party in America think it was acceptable to have its figureheads talk about outright gun confiscation (Australia-style) and government-sponsored bankruptcy of every gun retailer, distributor and manufacturer on the planet (repeal of PLCAA)?
At the time, any honest person would understand why the national candidate endorsement numbers looked the way they did. The official policy platform of the National Democratic Party talked about “common sense” and “reasonable” gun regulations that needed to be implemented. That they were anything but “common sense” and “reasonable,” and would affect only the law-abiding, was of no consequence to them. The platform of the National Republican Party was 180 degrees opposite. It took a stand in support of our freedoms.
Unfortunately, the pro-gun rights Democrat seems to be a vanishing political species. I’m not sure what happened or where they have gone, but it can’t be because there’s more violence in the country. Despite what we might believe based upon today’s media coverage, there is not. The United States has not experienced lower homicide and general violent crime rates since the 1960s, when pro-gun Democrats were common. The trends since the crime highs of 1991 have been truly astounding. This is all reported by the FBI.
Today I’m left watching Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders try to out-extreme one another on the campaign trail. I can’t help but be utterly dumbfounded. Since when did any political party in America think it was acceptable to have its figureheads talk about outright gun confiscation (Australia-style) and government-sponsored bankruptcy of every gun retailer, distributor and manufacturer on the planet (repeal of PLCAA)? The only way they could get a little more honest about their agenda is to state in simple terms that there will be no more guns for Americans—none—if they have something to say about the matter. Sounds extreme? Sure it does, but it’s true.
I miss the days when there were many Democratic candidates for the NRA to actively support. As lobbyists, we knew our jobs were always easier in the places where we could count on bipartisan support. Those days might still exist in a few states and congressional offices, but they are apparently numbered even there, and it’s truly unfortunate.
There should be some things that rise above partisan politics, and fundamental, individual, constitutionally protected rights should be at the top of the list. Based upon what I’m hearing from today’s presidential candidates on the Democratic side, I think I can officially give up hope that things will ever change.