On June 13, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott visited an indoor shooting range in the Austin suburb of Pflugerville. Abbott wasn’t there to chew up targets. Rather, with a wall of long guns as his backdrop, the governor signed into law a recently passed bill he ardently supported. The measure, called campus carry, permits handguns in dorms, cafeterias, and student unions at state universities and community colleges. Abbott’s bit of political stagecraft served as a victory lap for legislation that had nearly died in the Republican-dominated House. Sponsors gained the necessary support for the measure only after watering it down at the eleventh hour, limiting carry privileges on Texas campuses to holders of concealed-gun permits, and agreeing that it would take effect only at public schools and only in places not deemed off-limits by school administrations.

No wonder that some of the same activists who lobbied for campus carry in Texas renounced the bill that ultimately passed. “We got outplayed on every front,” one such group, Students for Concealed Carry, said in a statement published by the Houston Chronicle, adding that the organization would “appreciate it if the bill’s authors and sponsors would quit confusing the issue by claiming victory for our side.”

It was a remarkable statement. For one thing, it came from the group that — more so than the National Rifle Association — was largely responsible for generating media and legislative interest in campus carry. For another, the Texas bill was the closest thing campus-carry advocates have had to a success in years.

The movement to legalize campus carry was born in the wake of the deadliest mass shooting at a university in U.S. history. On April 17, 2007 — one day after Virginia Tech student Seung-Hui Cho systematically shot and killed 32 people and injured another 17 before turning one of his guns on himself — college pupils in several states formed Students for Concealed Carry on Campus, as the group was originally called. Before then, no one had seriously pressed for arming college students and professors. “These state laws and these school policies that prohibit concealed carry on college campuses stack the odds in favor of dangerous criminals who have no concern for following the rules,” one early SCC leader, Texas-based community-college student W. Scott Lewis, told Newsweek.

SCC’s message didn’t resonate with the majority of Americans after Virginia Tech. And it still doesn’t, despite how the issue flares up with each new school shooting. Over the past several years, the NRA and other gun-rights groups have scored a series of legislative victories in states across the country, including the passage of Stand Your Ground and concealed-carry laws. But campus carry is the rare steady loser. Of the roughly 70 bills introduced in the past five years to loosen university restrictions on firearms nationwide, barely any have passed. In the last year alone, 15 states considered campus-carry-related legislation. Only one of those bills became law: the diluted measure in Texas. Other states that proudly tout their Second Amendment bona fides, like Florida and Montana, have repeatedly killed campus-carry plans while rubber-stamping other gun-rights proposals.

If the political will for campus carry isn’t coming from legislators who generally favor gun rights, then where is it coming from? Much of it can be traced to a small, well-trained campus network working under the guidance of a longtime conservative organizer in Northern Virginia — who seems more concerned with whipping up a youth movement than with what happens on statehouse floors. These insurgents have turned campus carry into a visible issue, and now complicate the NRA’s agenda. They are fighting both the gun-safety left and the more moderate gun-rights establishment. And their losses in the campus-carry battles may be strategic choices, driven by a longer-term plan to win a bigger war.

Within a year of its founding, SCC’s network of college activists had sprung up on scores of campuses. This cadre of committed students, many of whom have gone on to careers as professional conservative political operatives, became a first line of offense for the shifting arguments in favor of campus carry: First, that armed students and instructors could stop active shooters, and more recently, that they could stem the problem of sexual assault against female students.

Today, SCC claims 43,000 members at some 350 schools. That’s remarkable growth for any student organization, and especially striking when you consider the national tenor on campus carry: Even in Texas, the single state that expanded college gun rights this year, polls suggest that support for campus carry is split evenly, and polling analysts say the stronger feelings tend to come from the anti-carry side. So how to account for SCC’s organizational success?

Enter the Beltway-based Leadership Institute. Started in 1979 by longtime Republican operative Morton C. Blackwell, the Leadership Institute (LI) operates like a military recruiter for college conservatives, promising them guidance in the “boot camp” of politics. LI is hardly a dark-money group; much of its work is banal, and you can’t board a Metro in Washington without running into its college network’s far-flung alumni, who include Mitch McConnell, Grover Norquist, Ralph Reed, and provocateur James O’Keefe. One of O’Keefe’s colleagues at LI assisted the theatrical sting aficionado in his 2010 plan to tamper with Sen. Mary Landrieu’s office phones.

Blackwell insists that kind of chicanery wasn’t part of LI’s portfolio, and O’Keefe ultimately parted ways with the institute over such activities. Similarly, Blackwell argues, LI doesn’t perform Second Amendment advocacy; it simply prepares eager conservative students to do that advocacy work on their own, offering training in grassroots lobbying, direct mail, and “earned/paid media.” “The Leadership Institute doesn’t lobby for or against proposed legislation,” Blackwell tells The Trace. “I aim to build a movement, not an empire.”

“It doesn’t matter how many battles we win today,” said Larry Pratt, the campus-carry movement’s youth pastor. “If we lose the hearts and minds of the next generation, we will never win the ultimate battle to regain our lost rights.”

But there could be no Students for Concealed Carry — and no broader campus-carry movement — without LI. Through its Campus Leadership Program, the institute enlists paid field representatives to identify and train students to form their own SCC chapters. Campus Reform, an LI-backed national news website formed by and for college students to counter “liberal” media bias, regularly highlights the work of SCC members. Of the 141 pro-gun campus groups supported by the Campus Leadership Program, “more than half of those groups are chapters of Students for Concealed Carry,” Blackwell acknowledges. “They’re the largest national group that we know about.”

The Leadership Institute provided SCC with more than just support like email accounts and salaries for national field staff. It also instilled in the group a hard-line gun-rights orientation shaped not by the NRA, but by a far more conservative group, Gun Owners of America.

Run since its 1975 founding by Larry Pratt, GOA has been a persistent thorn in the NRA’s side, chiding the larger, older lobby for being too slow and too much of a part of the Beltway establishment to truly defend the Second Amendment. The relationship between Pratt’s group and the Leadership Institute and SCC runs deep. In 2008, the conservative website Human Events spoke with various students and campus coordinators associated with LI and reported that “LI affiliates itself with conservative organizations like Gun Owners of America, and sends field representatives across the country to help students start independent conservative organizations.”

Blackwell has known Pratt since the 1960s, when the pair worked for conservative causes in Indianapolis. “We were plotting to see if we could nominate Ronald Reagan in 1968,” Blackwell recalls, laughing. The Leadership Institute was actually Pratt’s idea, inspired by the work of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, another college-conservative funding organization that Pratt had worked for in his Indiana days. “[He] said to me that I really should form an educational organization,” Blackwell says. “It was [Pratt] who persuaded me that I ought to do what I did.” The Leadership Institute’s board of directors currently boasts some gun-group heavyweights — recent additions to the board include longtime NRA legislative liaison Chuck Cunningham and Michael Rothfeld, a Rand Paul fundraiser and cofounder of the National Association for Gun Rights. But none exert as much influence within LI and SCC as Pratt does.

According to one former NRA lobbyist, the NRA does not have as much stomach for campus carry as Pratt and company do. The lobbyist believes that “the gundamentalists” are the lone group driving the issue. “They’re the purists, the ideologues,” the lobbyist tells The Trace. Although the NRA has issued cursory alerts to its members and press releases urging support for campus-carry bills, it hasn’t thrown its full weight behind the measures the way it does for policies higher on its priority list. Campus carry “is not their bill,” the lobbyist says, “and they also realize that pushing it with legislators who they can rely upon may not be prudent. This might be one step too far.”

That’s exactly the step that Pratt and Blackwell want to take. An archived online missive from GOA suggests that Pratt and Steve Stockman, a controversial former Texas congressman, began to lay the foundation for SCC in 2006, working from LI’s existing campus infrastructure.

“Do you know someone who is pro-gun, who likes working with college age kids, and who is in need of a full-time job in the fall?

Well if so, former Rep. Steve Stockman (R) has a deal for him.

Stockman is the Director of the Campus Leadership Program (CLP) in northern Virginia. The CLP is a project of the Leadership Institute, which trains conservative activists and places them in key level positions around the country — both in government and the media.

The CLP project focuses specifically on college campuses… But they have very few gun clubs, which is something they would like to change.

That’s why this is a unique opportunity for someone who likes working with college-aged kids. They can help the pro-gun cause in the fall by starting a GOA gun club on campus or by working as a field representative. Every field rep who starts a gun group will be paid between $400-500. Kids can make as much as $1,000 a week.”

Besides promising college kids involved in the SCC-to-be that they could earn more than $50,000 a year, the message established campus carry as a Pratt-and-Stockman operation. Stockman, a cantankerous conservative who recently failed in his bid to unseat Republican Sen. John Cornyn, raffled off AR-15s to his constituents after the Sandy Hook killings and joked about cleaning his assault weapons with “liberals’ tears.” He campaigned for reelection in 2013 on the position that “if babies had guns they wouldn’t be aborted.”

Stockman seemed a natural team-building partner for Pratt, a regular Leadership Institute speaker who has “educated LI interns about the history of the Second Amendment” and whose $5,000-a-pop speaking engagements are handled through LI. Those speeches include a few points you rarely hear from NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre. Pratt’s bedrock conviction is not simply a practical prescription for more guns to cure crime, nor is it ultimately to respect gun owner’s constitutional rights. Rather, he believes a righteous Christian citizenry needs its armaments to prevent a secular government from further alienating them from the kingdom of Christ. “God,” Pratt writes, “has revealed that weapons control is the practice of tyrants.” As one gun-control researcher told Rolling Stone last year, “The NRA describes itself as a religion, and Larry Pratt is the snake handler.” (Pratt declined to speak with The Trace for this article.)

The 71-year-old Pratt is quite comfortable in his role as the campus-carry movement’s youth pastor, trekking across the country to speak to college groups and train eager adolescent activists. “It doesn’t matter how many battles we win today,” he said in 2006. “If we lose the hearts and minds of the next generation, we will never win the ultimate battle to regain our lost rights.” He’s been joined by comrades in the far-right gun fringe like Alan Gottlieb, founder of the Second Amendment Foundation and the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms. Like Pratt, Gottlieb has partnered in recent years with LI to offer grassroots training to gun activists. (Gottlieb and LI’s Blackwell serve together on the board of the American Conservative Union, the group that stages Washington’s annual Conservative Political Action Conference, which Pratt once ran as executive director.)

The result is that campus carry, more than any other recent gun-policy initiative, has been an evangelical crusade, set on whizzing past staid mainliners in the pro-gun ranks. “Look for those candidates that deserve our support,” Pratt told an audience at LI last year. “The Rand Pauls. The Ted Cruzes. The Steve Stockmans of the House.

“Try to multiply their number,” Pratt said. “The RINOs [Republicans in Name Only] need to be humiliated. They need to be driven out of public life.”

For Pratt and his youth troops, campus carry is a potent RINO-hunting weapon. In solidly conservative South Dakota, Republican Rep. Jim Stalzer admits he introduced a campus-carry bill last spring at the urging not of the mainstream gun lobby, but thanks to the efforts of Joe Bliss, a college senior and lobbyist for Students for Concealed Carry. Far more students came out to demonstrate against the bill than SCC could muster to support it, and 36 Republicans voted to kill the legislation. Stalzer acknowledged that the plan lacked popular backing. “I have to give credit to the students at the colleges,” he said. “They did a really good job lobbying for the opposition.”

In bright-red Idaho, a 2014 campus-carry bill did become law, despite the disapproval of three high-profile Republican senators. The legislation forced colleges to allow guns onto their grounds through a complicated system wherein some buildings remain off-limits to concealed weapons based on which tier of permit their owner has. “I support the Second Amendment but this legislation — now law — just doesn’t make sense,” Sen. Shawn Keough said this spring in defense of her vote against the bill. She favored a 2008 version of the campus-carry bill, introduced by the NRA, that gave university and college presidents the power to decide whether or not guns should be welcome at their schools.

Keough was joined in her opposition by Sen. John Goedde, the powerful longtime chairman of Idaho’s Senate Education Committee, who said he favored “local control” for guns on campus. Goedde also cited the recent case of a troubled state college student arrested on campus with a gun and 70 rounds of hollow-point ammo, concluding: “We were just lucky that we didn’t have a problem.”

Several months after voting no on the campus carry bill, Goedde was upset in a primary election by a local conservative activist who said she would have supported the measure. It was precisely the scenario Pratt and his cohorts imagined: Smoke out the moderate Republicans and replace them with true believers.

One gun lobbyist views the defeat of a campus carry measure in Montana this year as a positive, saying that the greater goal of the bill was to flush out vulnerable Republicans in Name Only.

The 2015 state legislative season has only added to Pratt’s list of targets, as campus-carry bills were either voted down or killed outright in committees, even in states where the gun lobby generally gets what it wants. Florida, with Republican supermajorities in both legislative houses, has long been a friendly legislative laboratory for the National Rifle Association, largely on the strength of its longtime lobbyist in Tallahassee, a tough former NRA president named Marion Hammer. By one count, Florida has passed 31 pro-gun bills since the beginning of former Gov. Jeb Bush’s tenure in 1999. Yet when the legislative session ended this spring, a bill to legalize the carrying of firearms on public university campuses died in committee, just as it had in 2011.

Florida’s bill was introduced in the Senate by Republican Greg Evers, a longtime gun-lobby ally who has openly claimed that Hammer gives him bill texts to submit in the statehouse. (Hammer, who declined repeated requests for comment, has denied that claim.) But when it came before the Republican-led Senate Judiciary Committee, the chairman claimed he couldn’t find the votes for it. The Florida chapter of Students for Concealed Carry fought in futility to save the bill, threatening to call the committee chairman’s Republican donors and earning chuckles with its argument that “you are almost twice as likely to be attacked by an alligator than by someone who happens to carry a conceal-and-carry permit.” (PolitiFact found that claim to be mostly false.)

The situation was similar in Montana, a solidly conservative state where, as the former NRA lobbyist puts it, “the only real gun issue is, how many do you own?” The 2015 spring session produced a bumper crop of victories for gun advocates, according to Montana Shooting Sports Association president Gary Marbut, a gun lobbyist and former GOA board member who claims to have gotten 67 bills enacted into law since 1998. “We don’t wait for the NRA or any of its functionaries to bless our ideas for good gun policy before launching them,” Marbut tells The Trace. Yet campus carry died by a single vote in the state House, with all Democrats and 10 Republicans voting against the bill. Brian Judy, the NRA’s liaison in Montana, seemed more concerned about fighting a proposal for campaign-finance reform in the state. (Judy could not be reached for comment.)

Marbut says Judy didn’t spend much time whipping votes for the campus-carry bill. “I do wish we could have gotten more active support from him, but I totally understand how thin he was spread,” he says. Marbut preferred to look at campus carry’s defeat as a positive, saying the greater goal of the bill was to flush out vulnerable RINOs in time for the next election cycle — “to develop a killer voting record, especially to expose those legislators who get elected based on sworn promises to voters that they are pro-gun,” he explains. “We got that done.”

The test now for Pratt and his allies is what they do with those “killer” voting records – whether they are able to make examples of more incumbents like Idaho’s Goedde, or whether mounting legislative and campaign whiffs will signal to Republican office-holders that they can safely ignore SCC’s crusade. So far, results have been mixed. When House majority leader Eric Cantor, a Virginia Republican was upended in his 2014 GOP primary by his Tea Party–endorsed challenger David Brat, GOA, eager to show how it can punish those who fail its purity tests, took credit for the upset. “Gun Owners of America blanketed the district with phone calls to registered voters, hitting Cantor for his recent vote to expand gun control and noting that Brat stands 100 percent for the right to keep and bear arms,” GOA’s Chairman of the Board Tim Macy boasted. But GOA subsequently squandered any fearsomeness it gained from that outcome when it contributed heavily to the “quixotic” Virginia candidacy of Shak Hill, who challenged ex–Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie for the party’s U.S. Senate nomination. Hill was smashed in the party convention by Gillespie, who ultimately lost to incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Warner.

Pratt remains unbowed in defeat. Sitting Republicans “are the most spineless group of urchins that ever could have been imagined as our representatives,” Pratt said in a Daily Caller interview in March. “We need to have, oh, at least a hundred more David Brats. And then maybe the House of Representatives would be finally representative.”

In Texas, meanwhile, SCC is vowing a push to get Republican legislators to expand the campus-carry bill they just passed. “We don’t have to hide behind a gutted bill to save face,” the group said in June. “We’ll try again in 2017.”

[Photo: AP Photo/The Tulsa World, James Gibbard]