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Politics

The Time Marco Rubio Ran Afoul of the NRA

The gun lobby only dropped the Florida Senator from an A rating to a B+, but the 2007 episode reveals just how much fealty it demands from the politicians it supports.

For most of his political career, Republican presidential contender Marco Rubio earned top marks from the National Rifle Association. After he was elected to the Florida House of Representatives, where he served from 2000 to 2008, he received an A rating from the organization, which he maintained throughout his tenure there. The designation was a reminder that he was a staunch defender of the Second Amendment, and had the bona fides to prove it. Rubio’s record included votes in favor of controversial laws such as Stand Your Ground, which granted legal protections to Floridians who use deadly force to respond to a perceived threat. There was one blemish, however, on his NRA report card.

When Rubio held the House speakership, from November 2006 to November 2008, he found himself in a complicated situation. Not long after he secured the powerful state post, a nine-year-old girl was killed with a stray bullet in Miami’s Liberty Square, a poor and notably violent area in the city. Rubio made a statement after the killing, saying, “We sit on a crisis of epic proportions.” He admonished himself and others for growing complacent. “We need to do something different,” he said.

The following year, the NRA made a big push to pass a law that would allow Floridians who owned guns to leave them behind in their cars when they went into their workplaces. The legislation was at odds both with the state’s business community and its residents in general, 80 percent of whom, according to a poll conducted at the time, believed business owners retained the right to decide what was and wasn’t allowed on their property. During his first year as Speaker, Rubio avoided taking a public position on the issue, to the NRA’s displeasure. By the end of the legislative session, the bill had died on the vine.

In 2008, the guns-to-work bill came up again. The NRA was determined to get it passed. The scope of the legislation had been narrowed, and now only permitted those with concealed carry permits to keep their weapons in their vehicles. The business community again rallied against it, asking members of the state legislature to vote no.

This time, Rubio fell in line with the gun lobby’s agenda. “I think the issue has been refined, not to a level where you’re going to have the Retail Federation support it, but certainly it’s a much better piece of legislation than it was just a year ago,” he told reporters. “I think individuals who have concealed weapon permits are by and far very responsible gun owners.”

The bill passed, but the NRA did not forget Rubio’s earlier wavering. Soon after Rubio left the Florida House to begin his run for the U.S. Senate in late 2008 — a critical moment in his ambition-fueled political career — the NRA downgraded his rating to a B+. Rubio “was a big disappointment to us when he was the speaker,” Marion Hammer, an NRA lobbyist, later told the Tampa Bay Times. “He talked the talk, but he didn’t walk the walk.”

Rubio managed to win the Senate race anyway. One of his to-dos before running for president was getting back into the organization’s good graces. On Capitol Hill, he has become a passionate defender of the Second Amendment. After the mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, he voted against expanding background checks. In 2014, he gave a rousing speech at an NRA conference and said, “The safety of our families is not something people should hope government can provide.” And toward the end of March — shortly before he announced his White House candidacy — he introduced the “Second Amend­ment Rights in the Dis­trict of Columbia” act, which would make it easier for residents of Washington, D.C. to obtain firearms.

The NRA, taking note, was moved to raise Rubio’s grade back to an A. “Rubio has a perfect voting record in the Senate,” a spokesman told The Hill, adding that his new grade was a reflection of “five years worth of votes in de­fense of the Second Amendment.”

Rubio had come a long way from his days as Florida Speaker. Back then, he attended a memorial at a church for the girl who had been killed in Liberty Square. He sat next to her grieving parents, who, since their daughter’s death, had started to petition politicians for stricter gun laws. The Miami Herald  reported that the church’s ministers were impressed that Rubio had showed up to the service during a “non-election year.”

[Photo: Gage Skidmore]