Santa Claus places a semiautomatic rifle under a Christmas tree. A message reads, “For Self Defense and the Battle Against Evil.” This was the Christmas card that gun-rights advocate John Snyder sent out in December.
For Snyder, it was a relatively tame seasonal message. Since the 1970s, he has sent lawmakers, the president, and the pope Christmas cards showing Kris Kringle, various saints, and other famous figures bearing — and sometimes using — firearms. In 1989, for instance, his holiday greeting depicted the Archangel Michael shooting a drug dealer in an alley lit by the Christmas star.
Snyder, 76, calls himself “the dean of Washington gun lobbyists” on his website, due to his 50 years of advocacy on the issue. But despite his own résumé, Snyder is not a stickler for experience: He is supporting the presidential campaign of Donald Trump, the only candidate without any legislative record on guns.
Snyder, who retired from lobbying in 2011, said he has backed Trump since the billionaire launched his presidential bid early last year. But he didn’t decide to speak up until Wednesday, when he posted a video and a statement online defending Trump against those who have attacked his gun-rights record. Texas Senator Ted Cruz has accused Trump of being untrustworthy on the issue, citing Trump’s past support for gun regulations like an assault weapons ban. Snyder is unbothered: “We accept converts,” he told The Trace, noting that America’s founding fathers were loyal British subjects before revolting, and that Ronald Reagan was once a Democrat. He says there’s nothing wrong with Trump changing his mind.
Trump claims that he holds a concealed carry permit issued by New York City, and sometimes arms himself. That more or less clinched it for Snyder. “As far as I know, he’s the only one that’s been carrying.” (In fact, Marco Rubio has also said that he has a concealed weapons license.)
Snyder is less active in gun advocacy circles than he once was, and he’s probably not well-known enough to make a major difference for Trump’s prospects in the Republican primaries. But fellow proponents of gun rights say his stance could help validate Trump with some of the community’s stalwarts.
“It’s not the same as some national leader in the movement endorsing Trump,” said Joseph Tartaro, editor of thegunmag.com. “But for people who have known John over the years, it may be an influence. I guess saying Trump is good on the issue is a way of reassuring voters who might be worried about his changing position.”
Snyder’s Washington career began in 1966, when he joined the staff of the National Rifle Association magazine, American Rifleman, while completing a Masters Degree at Georgetown. The magazine generally opposed the 1968 Gun Control Act, which became the primary federal law regulating guns, but Snyder says he left the NRA in part because the group was not aggressive enough in seeking the repeal of the law.
Snyder instead founded another group, Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, and became a registered lobbyist in 1975. He maintained a Capitol Hill office for more than 40 years, testifying before Congress against gun laws and amassing a mailing list that he claims reaches into the hundreds of thousands.
A staunch Catholic, Snyder is also known for founding a society in 1987 that has worked to convince the Vatican to officially recognize Saint Gabriel Possenti, who was canonized in 1920 as “the patron saint of handgunners.”
As a student at a Catholic seminary in the mid-1800s, Possenti is said to have shot a lizard in order to scare off a marauding group of soldiers that was terrorizing the Italian village of Isola. Possenti is already the patron saint of Catholic youth; the Church, partly due to doubts about the veracity of the lizard-shooting incident, has ignored Snyder’s bid. (In 1996, Snyder won a promise from Patrick Buchanan, who was running for president, that, when president, he would take up the cause.) Snyder, who once had a priest bless a Tennessee shooting range in Possenti’s name, takes solace that he popularized the idea of Possenti as a heavenly advocate for the right to bear arms.
On Thursday, Snyder’s two political causes clashed, when Pope Francis answered a question about Trump by saying, “A person who thinks only about building walls … and not building bridges is not Christian.” Trump, who is a Presbyterian, responded by saying that it is “disgraceful” for a “religious leader to question a person’s faith.”
But Snyder wasn’t concerned with the spat. The pope “didn’t really condemn Trump,” he said. “I respect the magisterium of the Church … The pope was voicing his opinion. He was not speaking on behalf of the Catholic Church.”
Correction: This piece originally stated that the Vatican has rejected Snyder’s request. It has actually simply ignored the request.
[Photo: by Richard Ellis/Getty Images]