Campaign 2016

By David A. Fahrenthold
March 28, 2015 at 9:37 PM

There are 15 noteworthy contenders for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination. Together, they own at least 40 guns.

Some of them have been building their collections since childhood. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) is up to 12 now, including an AR-15 assault weapon that he has talked about using if law and order ever breaks down in his neighborhood. Former Texas governor Rick Perry is so well-armed, he has a gun for jogging.

Others were city kids who didn’t own guns until later in life. Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) bought a .357 magnum revolver in 2010, the year he ran for Senate, saying the gun was for protection.

Two other city-bred presidential hopefuls — former Florida governor Jeb Bush and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — don’t own a gun at all.

The stories behind how the GOP presidential contenders got their guns — or, in some cases, why they didn’t — are as diverse as the field itself.

Nevertheless, their political views on guns are almost all the same.

Nearly every GOP contender is broadly opposed to new limits on the purchase or use of guns.

In fact, with the exception of Christie — the field’s one true outlier — those who have been rated by the National Rifle Association range from A-plus all the way down to . . . A-minus. Eleven of them are scheduled to appear next month at the NRA’s annual conference.

The near-unanimity on the issue, even from a group with such vastly different personal experiences, underscores the status of guns in modern-day conservatism. Even for those who don’t own them, they are a bellwether of individual liberty, a symbol of what big government wants and shouldn’t have.

“If a party’s a shopping mall,” Graham said in an interview, “one of the anchor tenants is the Second Amendment.”

As the 2016 campaign gets going, guns and hunting will inevitably be part of its political theater. That may offer a chance for longtime gun-owning candidates to stand out.

Or, at least, to stand by while other candidates shoot themselves in the foot. Recall Mitt Romney, who, eager to demonstrate his affection for hunting, once described his targets as “small, small, uh . . . varmints, if you will.”

For now, however, the Republicans who grew up in rural gun culture — Perry, Graham, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee — are mainly at the back of the pack.

To some gun-rights activists, what matters is not what the candidates shoot, but what they believe.

“I don’t care. I, personally, don’t care,” said Michael Hammond, legislative counsel for the Gun Owners of America, which styles itself as the only “no-compromise” gun lobby in Washington. “What I care about is where they stand on the Second Amendment, not how many guns they have.”

Already, on the campaign trail, several contenders have used their support for guns as a way to signal broader conservative bona fides. In a party full of internal arguments, this is one thing few will argue with.

“We need to defend the Second Amendment!” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) said at a recent “Lincoln-Reagan” dinner for Republicans in Lincoln, N.H.

That was intended to be an applause line. But Cruz got silence.

In the gun-loving land of Live Free or Die, the point may have seemed too obvious to cheer. “Nobody here likes the Second Amendment?” Cruz asked.

Finally, prompted, the crowd laughed and applauded. “I was gonna say, I don’t believe that for a minute,” Cruz said, back in his routine.

“I’m pretty sure New Hampshire’s definition of gun control is kind of what it is in Texas. Gun control means hittin’ what you aim [at].”

“That’s right,” a man in the audience said. “That’s exactly right.”

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