On September 8, Gun Owners of America (GOA), arguably the country’s most controversial and strident gun lobbying group, endorsed Texas Senator Ted Cruz for president. This might not seem like a prized blessing for a serious contender for the White House: thanks to GOA’s ties to some of the far right’s more unseemly elements, any overt association with the group might come off as odious in a general election. But a week later, during a Republican debate, Cruz took the unprecedented step of proudly touting the endorsement as proof of his gun bonafides on national television. In a race that was beginning to turn on which contender could veer furthest to the right, he used the group’s name as a way to alert the conservative faithful.
When GOA arrived in Washington, D.C., in 1975, it was the first organization to focus exclusively on the politics of guns. The group’s philosophy was markedly different from that of the National Rifle Association (NRA), which at the time was primarily concerned with sporting and hunting, not politics. GOA was the product of the anti-government sentiments dredged up by Barry Goldwater’s failed presidential campaign a decade earlier. It took an absolutist view of the Second Amendment, arguing that gun regulation of any kind was unconstitutional and a pathway to tyranny. Forty years later, the group’s ideals would dovetail neatly with those of the Tea Party and its firebrand leaders, like Ted Cruz.
Since GOA’s establishment, its public face has been Larry Pratt, now 73. An unimposing figure with a grandfatherly air, his policy beliefs and worldview are grounded in the laws and tenets of the Bible, which he believes should hold sway over the United States. “The right to keep and bear arms will be important until Christ comes again, because until then, people will be sinful,” he wrote in a 1983 essay called “Tools of Biblical Resistance.” “Crooks will steal, and murderers will kill, and government officials will tyrannize.”
GOA claims 300,000 members — making it a fraction of the size of the NRA — with an annual revenue stream of roughly $2 million. Still, over the years it has managed to influence policy. In the 1980s, it worked closely with lawmakers to pass the Firearm Owners Protection Act (FOPA), which outlawed the creation of a national gun registry. Over 20 years later, in the wake of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, it helped kill the Manchin-Toomey proposal to expand background checks. GOA spread literature that alleged, erroneously, that the act would revise FOPA and put in place a federal registry. The campaign proved successful. Previously, the NRA had offered “qualified support” for the Manchin-Toomey bill, but as fears of a federal registry gained ground, it withdrew its approval.
It was a huge victory for Pratt, who is an expert at fanning paranoia. For decades, he has found common cause with white supremacists and the Christian Identity movement, speaking at their events about the need to keep the evils of government at bay with firearms. In the early ’90s, he became a key figure in the country’s burgeoning militia movement, which was sparked after federal marshals got into a shootout with an alleged neo-Nazi in Idaho’s Ruby Ridge mountains. Pratt joined leaders of the Ku Klux Klan and Aryan Nations at an event in Colorado to discuss the standoff. According to a Rolling Stone article from the time, his appearance signaled that the “gun lobby would be at the center of a web of right-wing warriors.” The Southern Poverty Law Center considers him to be a dangerous “extremist.”
Most recently, Pratt has become the “youth pastor” of the campus-carry movement. He travels to universities around the country, calling on students to rise up and fight for the right to bring their firearms on to college grounds. The effort came to fruition in Texas this summer, when Governor Greg Abbott signed campus-carry into law, nine years after Pratt articulated the guiding philosophy of his cause. “If we lose the hearts and minds of the next generation,” he said, “we will never win the ultimate battle to regain our lost rights.”
[Photo: Flickr user Gage Skidmore]