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The Gunfighters

The NRA’s Straight-A Students

National polls show openness to tougher gun laws, but state lawmakers keep expanding gun rights and blocking reforms. One little letter explains why.

This story was published in partnership with the New York Daily News. It is part of an ongoing series, The Gunfighters, which examines the NRA's influence on state policy and politics.

John Becker already had an A rating from the National Rifle Association, but the 55-year-old Ohio state representative believed his work defending gun rights was deserving of an even higher grade.

On January 7, Becker sent an email to John Hohenwater, the NRA lobbyist who covers his state, with the subject line “A+ endorsement request.” In the message, Becker touted what he deemed a signature accomplishment: his sponsorship of a bill that repealed a cap on the allowable size of magazines — devices that feed bullets into guns.

Ohio, a swing state that routinely votes for Democratic governors, senators, and presidential nominees, already allowed gun owners to purchase magazines that held as many as 31 rounds. Law enforcement officials say that high-capacity magazines pose an extra threat in shootings, allowing more rounds to be fired without reloading.

Repealing the modest limit was one in a series of actions taken by Becker and allied Ohio legislators over the last few years to scrap or relax gun restrictions. Representing mostly (but not exclusively) conservative parts of the state, the lawmakers have been conditioned by the NRA to believe that if they want to earn and maintain a coveted top grade, they must wage constant war on the state’s gun regulations.

Across the country, there are thousands of officeholders like them.

“In my district, having a high grade is critical,” Becker said in an interview. “Large numbers of my constituents are veterans and military-minded people. They’re strong believers in the Second Amendment. An A+ just adds to bragging rights, but if I had one, I’d be a hero.”

The NRA, which declined to comment for this story, is often described as the most feared force in American politics, and its flush coffers cited as the key reason why. In the 2016 election cycle, the group has disbursed over $52 million on federal races, a record amount for the organization, and about $22 million more than the next highest-spending special interest group. Virtually all of that money has gone to support Republican candidates, including Donald Trump, who the NRA endorsed earlier than any presidential contender in U.S. history.

Investigation

The Gunfighters

An ongoing series investigating the National Rifle Association’s influence on state policy and politics.

The group’s big bets are at high risk of not paying off: Though the race has tightened, Trump trails in most national polls heading into election day on November 8. The NRA’s favored Senate candidates in North Carolina, Indiana, and Missouri are in danger of losing. By one measure — its win/loss record on federal races — 2016 could be a loss of historic proportions for the NRA.

But viewing the gun organization’s influence purely in terms of dollars spent and federal elections won obscures its tremendous clout in statehouses across the U.S. It’s in legislative chambers outside of Washington, D.C. where the most important fights over gun laws are now happening — and where the gun organization has rolled up victories without spending very much money at all.

Since 2009, according to an analysis by the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, twenty-six states have enacted laws that significantly expand the rights of gun owners, allowing them to carry weapons in bars, churches, government buildings, and college classrooms. In just the last year, Idaho, Mississippi, West Virginia, and Missouri established or strengthened laws that make it legal to carry concealed firearms in public without a permit or any training.

In the states where the NRA has achieved the most success — a gun belt that encompasses the Deep South and portions of the Midwest and West, along with Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, and Maine — the organization will almost certainly maintain its deep influence after the 2016 election. Even if Hillary Clinton is elected, and even if the Republican party loses control of a handful of state legislative chambers, as expected, the NRA will remain in a prime position to advance its agenda of promoting firearms as necessities for personal safety and normalizing the presence of guns in everyday public life.

To preserve its sway in statehouses, the NRA has its candidate grading system, the power of which is plain to anyone who has ever received a report card. Its lobbyists assign every would-be officeholder a simple letter grade, from A+ through F. Politicians angle for good marks, then must show unfailing loyalty to preserve those grades.

“The grade is really important,” said Harry Wilson, a political scientist and author of Guns, Gun Control, and Elections. “Most organizations spend money to get votes, but the NRA already has votes — its members. And they listen.”  

There are currently 35 states where more than half of all state legislators have a grade of A- or better, according to an analysis of data provided by Vote Smart, a non-partisan, non-profit research organization. In 14 states, including most of those in the gun belt, that majority exceeds two thirds, reaching or approaching veto-proof. In Kentucky and Oklahoma, the number extends beyond 80 percent.

Out of the more than 7,300 individual state lawmakers nationwide, there are 4,095 whom the NRA rates as A- or higher.

To secure top grades, legislators need to support bills rolling back existing firearms restrictions, or sponsor new ones that afford gun owners extra protections. The NRA often plays a key role in getting these bills passed, with lobbyists supplying language, testifying at hearings, and threatening to punish lawmakers who have high grades but dare to buck its wishes.

According to campaign finance data provided by the National Institute on Money in State Politics, the NRA rarely spends more than $2,000 on any given candidate during a state election, and often invests far less.

Since 2009, the NRA has spent just $18,000 on Ohio state legislative races, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics. That sum does not include the cost of paying a lobbyist to oversee the state, but it still represents a bargain, given the success the NRA has had at overhauling the state’s gun laws.

Both chambers in its state legislature are controlled by Republicans. Becker is one of 91 lawmakers, out of 132, with an A- grade or better.

These legislators have chiseled away at the state’s restrictions on who can carry guns, and where they can bring them. Along with the rollback of the magazine capacity restriction, the state has enacted laws that affirm the right to carry a concealed weapon and reduced training requirements to do so.

Becker is now a co-sponsor on a bill that removes the permitting requirement entirely.  

“I’ve had people ask me, with all the gun bills I’ve written, what kind of contributions am I getting from the NRA?” Becker said. “The answer is zero.”

The NRA first started grading electoral candidates in the late 1970s as part of a profound transformation from a hunting and sports shooting group into a highly political gun rights organization.

Before each election, NRA lobbyists ask candidates to fill out a questionnaire designed to test their fealty to the group’s positions.

The surveys frame their questions around the NRA’s no-compromise interpretation of the Second Amendment. One 2016 questionnaire asks, for example, whether candidates support the repeal of “duty-to-retreat” laws requiring gun owners involved in an altercation or assault to flee if they can do so safely. The questionnaire describes such laws as placing undue burdens on the “innocent victim,” who should be free to open fire if they believe themselves to be at risk. 

The job of grading the results of the survey, and of subsequent votes, is up to the NRA’s state lobbying corps, whose members are mostly based out of the organization’s headquarters, in Fairfax, Virginia. No set formula determines a candidate’s ratings, which are selected at the lobbyists’ discretion, according to a former NRA employee who spoke on a condition of anonymity.  

Many elected officials in conservative and rural districts are already actively pro-gun — but they also say they believe a poor grade could harm their candidacy, while a high grade could prove decisive in their success.

Bob Godshall is an 83-year-old Republican who represents a state house district in southeastern Pennsylvania, and is one of his state’s most pro-gun lawmakers. “Down here, we have quite a few hunters,” he said. “There’s no question the grade counts for a lot. It tells people in my district who’s good on the issue, who will protect them from left-wing attacks on gun rights.”

The NRA’s assessments of candidates reach members through its magazines and website, along with emails and get-out-the-vote postcards. The group’s lobbyists remind lawmakers that their grade could be dropped and used to unseat them if they don’t do what the NRA wants. “If you reward good but don’t punish bad, you really don’t get very far,” said Marion Hammer, the NRA’s Florida lobbyist.

Earlier this year, the Tennessee legislature considered a bill that sought to require adult gun owners to store their weapons in such a way that they could not be accessed by children. In a House committee hearing, Representative Jim Coley, a four-term Republican, voted with two Democrats to move the bill forward.

Erin Luper, the young lobbyist who covers the state, informed Coley that he had voted the wrong way. A week later, when a new hearing was held on the legislation, the lawmaker joined his Republican colleagues and voted against the safe storage bill.

This election cycle, his grade was raised from an A- to an A.

Had Coley declined to comply, he might have suffered the same fate as his former House colleague Republican Debra Maggart, who once held an A+ rating from the NRA. In the spring of 2012, as chair of her party’s caucus, she tabled an NRA-backed bill that sought to allow people to leave guns in their vehicles, even if parked in private lots.

Months later, as Maggart, a popular lawmaker, was running for reelection, she was shocked when the NRA rented three billboards in her district, showcasing her face next to President Obama’s. “Rep. Deb Maggart says she supports your gun rights,” the signs read. “Of course, he says the same thing.”

Maggart went on to lose her primary to an opponent with no political experience.

“I felt betrayed,” Maggart said. “The NRA didn’t care that I’d always supported them. I probably had the best gun credentials of anyone in the legislature.”

The NRA’s grading system has incentivized lawmakers to continually push for looser gun restrictions.

Consider a core NRA issue: the right to carry a concealed handgun in public. In 1994, fewer than 20 states had enacted laws guaranteeing eligible residents the ability to obtain a conceal carry permit, according to David Yamane, a sociologist at Wake Forest University who studies gun culture. As recently as 2012, Illinois did not issue licenses to anyone.  

Now concealed carry is legal in every state, and there are 10 that no longer require citizens to obtain a license to carry a concealed firearm in public at all.

Missouri is the most recent state to enact major changes to its gun laws. In September, the state legislature, which is dominated by A-rated Republicans, voted to override a governor’s veto of a bill that removes the permitting requirement while also implementing “stand your ground” — the controversial self-defense law that gained national attention in the Florida shooting death of Trayvon Martin.

The NRA argues that laws like permitless carry and “stand your ground” affirm rights already established under the Second Amendment. Law enforcement officials say without licenses it becomes too easy for anyone to carry a concealed handgun in public, raising risks for police officers and civilians. Researchers have discovered a link between “stand your ground” laws and increased homicide rates in other states that have adopted it.

Read one lawmaker’s email to NRA, asking for A+ status.

In Missouri, 139 of the state’s 197 lawmakers, including two Democrats, have an A- rating or better, which nearly guarantees that the NRA will go into any fight over a gun bill with 71 percent of the legislators on its side. Of those, 22 have an A+, including Representative Eric Burlison, the sponsor of the recent pro-gun package.

Just one Republican, Representative Nick King, voted to uphold the veto. He had received a provisional A in 2014 but had lost his 2016 primary and was already on his way out of office when the override vote came to the floor.

“I think there were other Republicans who would have liked to vote no,” he said, “but were afraid to do so.”

Nationally, 587 state lawmakers have received the NRA’s highest mark. Becker, the Ohio legislator, is still not one of them. Though he feels he has done much to advance a pro-gun agenda, he remains an A.

“I mean, what else do they want from me for goodness sake?” he said.

Additional reporting by Anna Boiko-Weyrauch and Francesca Mirabile.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the number of states where more than half of all legislators have a grade of A- or better. There are 35 states in this category, not 36.

[Photo: Ewing Galloway/Alamy. Graphics: Francesca Mirabile]

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