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Larry Pratt, the executive director of Gun Owners of America.

Politics

A Historian on Why Ted Cruz’s Debate Shoutouts to Gun Owners of America Marks an ‘Unprecedented’ Turn for Presidential Campaigns

Even in an election cycle marked by hot-button antics, the group's positions and rhetoric are notably high-proof.

When it comes to statements on gun rights, there’s little daylight between the Republican candidates for their party’s presidential nomination. But Ted Cruz wants primary voters to know that while his rivals may claim to defend gun rights with as much red-blooded vigor as the next guy, they can’t compare to him when it comes to Second Amendment credentials: as he put it in last night’s debate, “There’s a reason why Gun Owners of America has endorsed me in this race.”

It’s not the first time Cruz has used a primetime television platform to tout his connection to the group, little known in the mainstream in comparison to the NRA. At a debate in September, Cruz spoke over the moderator as he looked directly into the CNN camera, boasting about his long history standing up for the “right to keep and bear arms.” He used the phrase three times in under a minute as he ticked off his gun-rights bonafides, claiming key roles in both the Supreme Court lawsuit that overturned Washington D.C.’s handgun ban (Cruz, then serving as Texas Solicitor General, wrote an amicus brief signed by 31 states’ attorneys general) and the defeat of new gun safety legislation in the Senate in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. Finally, he worked up to his clincher: “I was honored to be endorsed by Gun Owners of America as the strongest supporter of the Second Amendment on this stage today.”

Watchers unfamiliar with the the intricacies of current gun politics may have been perplexed: Isn’t the National Rifle Association’s (NRA) endorsement the gold standard for politicians who want to prove they’re the real, gun-loving deal? For decades, that was indeed true. But increasingly, smaller organizations like GOA — which claims 300,000 members to the NRA’s millions — have been coming for the NRA’s right flank, pulling the strings on high-profile gun measures like campus carry and permitless concealed carry. Now Cruz’s primetime plug on a presidential campaign stage has provided a watershed moment not just for GOA’s mainstream visibility, but also the ongoing era of unrestrained conservatism.

Alan Schroeder, a Northeastern University journalism professor and author of Presidential Debates: 50 Years of High Risk TV, tells The Trace, “I honestly cannot think of a parallel example from previous presidential primary debates” of a candidate on national television aligning themselves with a group so extreme.

Even in an election cycle marked by the antics of Donald Trump and serious consideration by Republicans of repealing the Constitution’s provisions for birthright citizenship, GOA’s positions and rhetoric are notably high-proof. The group was founded in 1975, shortly before the infamous “Cincinnati revolt” that turned the NRA into an almost explicitly political organization. Larry Pratt was soon hired as GOA’s lobbyist and has been its face ever since. He became a gun owner after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., drove fear into the hearts of many whites that they would be the victim of vengeful rioting by African Americans. He’s since cultivated his reputation by associating with those on the furthest fringes of the conservative landscape. He spoke at a conference organized in the wake of the infamous Ruby Ridge standoff, where his fellow speakers included Klansmen and members of the Aryan Nations. After signing on as co-chairman of Pat Buchanan’s 1996 Presidential campaign, he was forced to leave that post when his frequent proximity to white supremacists was uncovered.

Pratt grounds his fundamentalist philosophy of gun rights not in the needs of sportsmen or those who might fear for their security, but rather the need for “restraining tyrannical tendencies in the government,” as he put it in a 2012 speech. Considering the rhetorical similarity, it is not surprising he slips into an InfoWars-style conspiracy theorist mode. Following the Aurora, Colorado, movie theater shooting, Pratt indulged the notion that the massacre was connected with a U.N. arms treaty that some of his peers thought would result in gun confiscation within the United States.

Despite these statements and associations, Pratt and GOA have been able to influence national gun policy. A Rolling Stone profile credited his fearful, often counterfactual mailings, along with other far-right grass roots opposition, with the scuttling of the Manchin-Toomey proposals to expand background checks to private sales in 2013, despite some indication that the NRA would compromise following the Sandy Hook shooting. The literature alleged the act would create a national registry of all firearms and their owners, despite the fact that the bill specifically banned the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives from doing so.

Cruz has been associated with GOA for his entire national political career. He won their endorsement in the 2012 Texas Senate primary election that catapulted him past the state’s well-resourced Lieutenant Governor and into the forward guard of national conservatives, and this past May, he participated in a GOA event where he said the group played a “critical part” in that success. Now running in a very crowded 2016 Republican primary field, Cruz sits in the middle of the pack as the party’s candidates hurtle toward early primaries and caucuses where ardent gun rights sentiment could play a significant factor: In New Hampshire, a push for permitless concealed carry just came within three votes of overriding the governor’s veto. Meanwhile, in Iowa, Chris Christie recently found himself stuck in an uncomfortable exchange with a member of Iowa Gun Owners, a group whose motto — “Iowa’s Only No Compromise Gun Rights Organization” — bears a striking similarity to that of GOA.

Cruz is considered a longshot for the nomination. But currying the favor of gun rights extremists could keep his prospects alive as the field is winnowed by voters in those small states, where the difference between remaining relevant in fourth place or on the sidelines in fifth place could be fewer than a hundred votes. Which may be why, despite the radioactivity of GOA and Pratt outside the molon labe crowd, Cruz was the only of the 17 declared Republican presidential candidates to complete the group’s presidential survey on the Second Amendment, and was so eager to repay GOA’s ensuing endorsement at the Reagan Library debate on Wednesday night.

[Photo: Flickr user Gage Skidmore]