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The Big Shift in How 2016 Republican Candidates Talk About Their Personal Guns

What it means when would-be presidents tout their rights to shoot another American in self-defense.

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal is whatever gun-policy advocate you need him to be. On Sunday, in the aftermath of the Lafayette movie-theater shooting by John Houser, a 59-year-old man with a history of violence and instability, Jindal took to the talk shows to position himself as strict on gun access. “Here in Louisiana, we actually passed tougher laws a couple of years ago, so that, for example, if Houser had been involuntarily committed here in Louisiana, that information would automatically — we would have reported that to the national background check system,” Jindal said on Face the Nation, adding that “every state should strengthen their laws.” He didn’t mention that his administration had gutted Louisiana’s already abysmally low mental health funding, how the state continued to top most of the nation in gun deaths, or how Houser could have avoided a Louisiana background check altogether by buying his guns from a private seller or gun show.

Here’s a prediction: Calling for valuable but limited expansion of information that’s available for background checks on (some) gun purchases is likely the high watermark for action that Jindal and fellow conservatives will brook in the aftermath of the latest fatal shooting spree. The clues are in the way they talked about guns, and especially their personal firearms, leading up to this summer’s outbreak of high-profile shootings.

Like many of his competitors in the Republican presidential primary, Jindal came to gun ownership late in life and has embraced it with the zeal of a religious convert, posing assiduously (and, to most observers, awkwardly) with firearms on social media. He has proudly advertised his purchase of a laser-sighted, snub-nosed Smith & Wesson .38 for personal protection after Hurricane Katrina; he keeps the diminutive revolver at the amply fortified governor’s mansion. “The most basic reason for the Second Amendment is our own self-defense,” he’s said recently, adding that “the right to keep and bear arms is part of our greater liberty which demonstrates that the Founding Fathers trusted the American people, not the government.” It’s a peculiar position: a state governor running for an even higher government office doesn’t trust his own government for protection. But that effectively describes the newer strain of gun rights to which he’s trying to appeal — part of a shift from enjoyment of firearms as sporting tools to their elevation as mystical guarantors of freedom and safety. And it’s this ascendant rhetoric that makes it nearly impossible for any of the current presidential contenders to take more moderate positions on gun rights.

The Republican Party’s 2016 presidential contenders are trying really, really hard to sound like a particular kind of gun people: the kind who declaim their rights to personally mow down would-be robbers. Take South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, who regularly boasts about owning an AR-15. He believes that having such a high-powered rifle is necessary to ward off would-be attackers. “I think I would be better off protecting my business or my family if there was law-and-order breakdown in my community, people roaming around my neighborhood, to have the AR-15,” Graham told a Senate Judiciary Committee on gun violence in 2013, “and I don’t think that makes me an unreasonable person.”

Thanks to an exhaustive survey of the candidates’ gun collections by the Washington Post earlier this year, we know that Graham is among the almost-half of the 2016 Republican primary field who own a sidearm explicitly for self-defense. Marco Rubio has a .357 Taurus revolver that he bought for protection in 2010, when he was 39 and running for Senate. In a speech delivered at the NRA convention this April, he argued that having a gun is vital to preserving the American dream: “The safety of our families is not something people should hope government can provide.” Carly Fiorina has claimed both that she owns a Glock 17 and would be ready to use it if the need ever arose. “I know where it is; I know how to unlock it; I know how to load it; I know how to shoot it,” she said in a statement. Donald Trump says he has a Heckler & Koch .45 and a Smith and Wesson .38, and a license to carry them concealed in New York City.

Then there’s Rick Perry, who famously shot and killed a coyote while out on a jog. Maybe the Texas Rangers who guard him as governor had the day off. But feeling the need to tote a gun on a run (there are special holsters for it!) is also in keeping with the strain of Second Amendment maximalism that says one is only secure while armed.

Mitt Romney rightly caught grief when he insisted in 2007 that sure, he had guns, and used them to hunt for “small, uh, varmints, if you will.” The fact that Jindal has fitted his wee revolver with a gratuitous laser sight (the smaller the barrel, the less accurate and useful the pistol outside of close range, laser sight or not) shows that he’s no more comfortable with guns than Romney was. It’s not clear how much practice he and Rubio get with their entry-level, low-capacity, now-quaint revolvers; for his part, Rubio almost certainly regrets not buying an American model, or at least one less chintzy than a Taurus. But unlike Romney, they at least know the right cues to send. (If Romney had said he keeps a shotgun in each of his four — five? — houses in order to ward off intruders, people would have been more likely to believe him.)

It’s no coincidence that the Republican candidates who publicly buy into the personal security rationale that has been on the rise this past decade are also the candidates whose biographies diverge from the traditional “gun culture” blueprint: urban, educated minorities like Rubio or Jindal, blue-state business execs like Fiorina or Trump. Yankee blue-blood Jeb Bush — who owns more companies than personal firearms, of which he has none — follows the same playbook when he repeats the mantra, “The sound of our guns is the sound of our freedom.”

No one would believe that these candidates picked up their pro-gun convictions “across generations, with recreation-related gun owners being socialized by their parents into gun ownership and use from childhood,” as the pro-gun Florida State University criminologist Gary Kleck puts it. So they have to assert and articulate a fondness for firearms that borrows from what Kleck calls the “defensive ownership” rationale, which drives many other adult converts to gun ownership: the notion that America is a dangerous place, and neither the police nor the commander-in-chief can protect you, and the only true guarantor of your safety and your liberty is the firearm.

Here, Scott Walker becomes an interesting exception: He also didn’t get his first guns until he was well into adulthood. (He has a rifle that he received as a gift and a shotgun he won in a raffle, a spokesperson told the Washington Post.) But unlike some of his fellow candidates, he seems more interested in using guns to shoot deer and clay pigeons than in being prepared to shoot another person. Just by talking about his guns at all, however, he goes further than his hero, Ronald Reagan. In Reagan’s era, you could be a conservative icon and a fairly moderate voice on gun laws at the same time. You could own guns, while building a career as a Republican politician, and see no need — which was also true of Reagan – to talk up your private armaments.

In many parts of America, there are still gun owners who don’t say much about their firearms, for the same reason they don’t say much about their shovels and hammers — they’re tools, and tools are useful, but just not that interesting. Today, those gun owners are joined by the type embodied by Rand Paul, the preferred candidate of the group Gun Owners of America, which has been trying to outflank the NRA to the right. Paul, who has stumped for support at the Knob Creek Machine Gun Shoot, conspicuously declined to answer the Post’s question about the specific guns he owns. Jockeying for the role of libertarian standard-bearer — a role for which there’s a breathtaking amount of competition in this year’s field – he subscribes to the theory that you don’t tell anyone what guns you own, lest that make it easier for the government to come and take them away someday.

Add it all up, and the result is a vision for America where even physicians are barred from discussing guns with their patients (to better know their patients full health risks), as Florida’s 2011 “Docs vs. Glocks” law stipulates. Where moviegoers should be allowed, if not encouraged, to take their guns into darkened theaters — Perry’s policy prescription in the wake of the madness in Lafayette — and all other “gun-free zones” should be eradicated. Where both imagined security threats and proposed limits to gun use are countered with the open carry of rifles anywhere and any time, including Statehouses, restaurants and fast-food joints, and school classrooms. Where the political cost of being conflicted or sanguine about gun rights are too high for a Republican presidential contender to risk, and Chris Christie, who once supported limits on .50-caliber rifles before reversing course, feels the need to shout down an Iowa voter who dares to challenge his total commitment to the Second Amendment.

There was a time when conservatives never talked about rights without stressing the responsibilities that came with them. It was a time when Reagan, when asked by reporters, once replied that he could see “no reason why on the street today a citizen should be carrying loaded weapons.” But in today’s Republican politics, privately exercisable rights are little more than public branding exercises. As a result, our freedom from a particular kind of expanding, activist gun culture becomes ever harder to obtain.

[Photo: Flickr user Gage Skidmore]