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Election 2016

Would a President Cruz Get Rid of Background Checks?

Why Gun Owners of America is betting on it.

Were Senator Ted Cruz of Texas elected President of the United States, Tim Macy, chairman of Gun Owners of America (GOA), says he would have a few urgent matters to address. Chief among these would be to work with Cruz on abolishing the federal background check system, which prevents dangerous people from purchasing firearms. 

“I would hope we could do that together,” Macy tells The Trace. “We would like to get rid of the background check law” — known as the Brady Act — “because it clearly doesn’t work, and never has worked.”

Now Cruz has won the Republican caucuses in Iowa, making Macy’s vision more than a piece of wishful thinking.

GOA is a no-compromise gun lobbying group far to the right of the National Rifle Association (NRA). In early September, it endorsed Cruz for President. Shortly thereafter, the Republican frontrunner touted the backing of the obscure group during a nationally televised debate — a dog whistle to hardcore gun voters meant to signal his Second Amendment bona fides. The move was also unprecedented, according to Alan Schroeder, a debate historian who spoke with The Trace at the time. GOA is as an extremist organization: for decades it has been affiliated with white supremacists and the country’s anti-government militia movement. For most candidates, publicly associating oneself with such a group would be too politically risky.

“I honestly cannot think of a parallel example from previous presidential primary debates,” Schroeder said.

Yet the connection between GOA and Senator Cruz goes much deeper than a mere endorsement. It’s a collaborative effort, with both sides working together to shape pro-gun policy. “In a Republican primary, everybody is God’s gift to guns,” Macy says. “But when the rubber hits the road and they get elected, you find out what’s really going on. With Cruz, we got somebody who would work with us.”

On a GOA-sponsored town hall-style conference call with gun owners last year, Cruz credited GOA with playing “a critical part in helping get me elected” to the Senate. In that 2012 race, Cruz started out as a long-shot candidate running against then-Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, the deep-pocketed establishment favorite who had an A+ rating from the NRA. Cruz, meanwhile, was a latecomer to gun culture. Despite coming of age in Texas, he hadn’t purchased his first handgun until he was in his early thirties.

Gun Owners of America is most interested in eliminating “anti-gun laws that are already on the books,” says the group’s chairman. Near the top of that to-do list is the dismantling of the background check system.

But as he made a name for himself at Tea Party rallies, Cruz attracted the attention of Gun Owners of America, whose endorsement would lend him credibility in gun circles. Researching his legal background, they found what seemed to be a natural ally. In 2008, as Texas’s solicitor general, Cruz filed an amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court representing Texas and 30 other states in support of Dick Heller, who challenged Washington, D.C.’s gun ban. That year, the justices ruled in Heller’s favor, overturning the law in a decision that established an individual’s right to bear arms.

“We saw that he understood what the phrase ‘shall not be infringed’ means,” says Macy. “We actually endorsed him with very little conversation up front.”

Macy visited Cruz in Texas several times in 2012. As the two men became acquainted, Macy believed he had found a kind of ideological soul mate.

“The more I was around Cruz,” he says, “the more comfortable I was that he says what he means and does what he says.” Macy adds, “We have many thousands of members in Texas. We alerted them to go to work for Cruz, send him money, do whatever they could.” GOA, for its part, maxed out their direct contributions to the Senator’s campaign, giving just under $6,000.

Larry Pratt, GOA’s controversial executive director, recalls that period fondly. “We were all in,” he says. “We did mailings. We did a lot of phone banking, getting the word out that we were supporting him. We kept up the drum beat, and I think that’s part of what brought him over the finish line.”

Cruz ultimately won 56 percent of the vote in the general election. When he took office on January 3, 2013, the nation was still reeling from the mass shooting that had taken place a few weeks earlier at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. In the shooting’s aftermath, gun reform seemed to have its best prospect in years. The most notable bill introduced at the time was the Manchin-Toomey amendment, which would have expanded background checks. Even the NRA tentatively supported it, but GOA considered the measure unacceptable. In an effort to combat the bill, they reached out to their newest asset, Senator Cruz.

“There were lots of emails and phone calls,” Macy remembers. “Some of our input was very instrumental in killing that legislation, and Senator Cruz was crucial in making sure it didn’t pass.”

The group contended that Manchin-Toomey would lead to the creation of a federal gun registry. It wouldn’t have, but that argument, appropriated by Cruz to whip up hysteria among his colleagues, was a decisive factor in the death of the measure in April 2013. A month later, a reporter from Capital New York interviewed the Senator, who repeated the claim. The reporter then informed him that the bill specifically outlawed such a database.

“It purports to do so,” Cruz said. “But if it were passed, the next day the argument from the Justice Department, from the Obama administration would be, this legislation is utterly ineffective because we don’t have a registry, and I think a registry would be deeply inconsistent with the constitutional right to keep and bear arms.”

Since then, according to Macy, the two staffs have continued to share ideas. They discuss “a lot of potential legislation down the road,” he says. “One of our biggest issues is reciprocity nationwide,” a law that would allow gun owners with concealed carry permits to carry their weapons in any state. “I guarantee we’ll be working closely with his staff on legislation along those lines.”

But ultimately, Macy says, GOA is more interested in eliminating “anti-gun laws that are already on the books.” Near the top of that to-do list is the dismantling of the background check system. According to a 2015 poll taken by the Center for American Progress, 83 percent of gun owners support background checks for all firearms sales. But GOA has been vocally opposed to the Brady Act since its implementation in 1993. Background checks, Macy claims, only prevent law-abiding citizens from legally purchasing guns. 

GOA has not yet discussed ending the background check system with Cruz, but the group knows it has the Senator’s ear.

“We’ve been in the same foxhole,” says Larry Pratt, the executive director. “And that’s an important bond.”

[Photo: Ted Cruz YouTube]