As a lifetime member of the National Rifle Association with an A+ rating for her voting record in the Tennessee House of Representatives, Debra Maggart never imagined that her political career would end this way.
Maggart, who chaired the Republican caucus, killed an NRA-backed bill that would have permitted Tennesseans to keep firearms in their parked vehicles wherever they went – work, school or the neighborhood bar.
Months later, Maggart was stunned to see NRA-sponsored ads on billboards in her district comparing her to President Obama on gun rights.
The NRA threw its support behind a newcomer in the Republican primary. By summer’s end, the woman who had been one of Tennessee’s most powerful Republicans and ardent supporters of gun rights was done in by hardball tactics.
As a pro-Second Amendment person and a life member of the NRA, I was just shocked they did this to me, Maggart said in an interview. They did this to send a message: If you don’t do what we want, we will annihilate you.’
The message has not been lost on lawmakers across the nation, including those in the U.S. Senate, where a proposal to expand background checks for gun purchases died last month in the face of the NRA’s staunch opposition.
For longtime NRA members, the Senate vote was not surprising. The group has turned the debate over gun control into a clarion call for constitutional rights. Any perceived assault on the Second Amendment is met with a withering counterattack. Even conservative lawmakers who cross the NRA are labeled as traitors.
The NRA has been so effective over the years that gun-control groups are now trying to adopt some of the same tactics.
Well-organized NRA members and affiliated groups of gun owners hold rallies and pour resources into political campaigns. They flood local and national legislative offices with emails and phone calls. They make unannounced visits to the offices of lawmakers. The NRA’s lobbying arm posts myriad Alerts, calling on millions of members across to the country to rise up at a moment’s notice.
It’s more about organizing muscle and less about political money.
A spokesman for the NRA did not return calls requesting comment.
The NRA knows how to play very effective hardball, said Richard Feldman, a former NRA lobbyist who wrote the book Ricochet, an inside account of gun politics and tactics. They have turned this into a symbolic issue. It’s no longer about guns. It’s about freedom and responsibility and liberty.
After the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Newtown, Conn., in December, Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, said he could sense a sea change in gun politics. He issued a public pledge: He would not shy away from challenging the NRA, which has great influence in his state.
That was before Begich was overwhelmed by phone calls and emails from NRA members and other gun rights activists. They warned him against voting for expanded background checks, to stop violating our gun rights, and to break with the Democratic Party or face the consequences in the next election.
Begich was one of four Democrats from states with strong NRA membership to turn his back on his party and the legislation.
Uprising of 1994
The NRA’s tough tactics have a long history. In 1994, after President Clinton pushed criminal background checks and a 10-year ban on assault-style weapons through Congress, the NRA organized a grass-roots uprising.
The midterm elections that year were a bloodbath for Democrats who opposed the NRA, and Republicans took control of the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years.
The NRA was an unforgiving master: one strike and you’re out, Clinton would write in his autobiography.
George Buddy Darden was one of the 54 House Democrats to lose his job that night. For nearly 10 years, he had represented a district that included suburban Atlanta and swaths of rural Georgia, an increasingly conservative district with an well-organized contingent of NRA members.
Darden opposed the ban on assault-style weapons, but he wound up voting for the bill that contained the 10-year prohibition. The NRA leadership was infuriated. They recruited conservative religious groups, along with like-minded city council members and county commissioners, to attack Darden and support Republican challenger Robert Barr Jr., who used a local gun shop as a campaign base.
Barr won with more than 52 percent of the vote.
The NRA is a take-no-prisoners organization. There is no margin of error with them, Darden said. I knew their position, and I can’t complain. I just felt that the Second Amendment, just like any other amendment, is not absolute.
Feldman, the former NRA lobbyist, remembers the race well. At the time, he was chief executive of the American Shooting Sports Council, a trade association for the firearms industry.
He voted for the final package that included the assault weapons ban, and the day after he did that, there were lines around the corner of the gun store of people supporting Bob Barr, Feldman recalled.
The NRA supported Barr. We supported Barr. You do what you do in a democracy. You support your friends, and you oppose your enemies.
Debra Maggart has been around firearms all her life. Her family owned the Carter Hardware Co. in Nashville, Tenn., that sold rifles, shotguns and handguns. She got her hunter’s license, joined a local gun club and went to the Tennessee House in 2004 as a pro-gun lawmaker.
You can’t get more pro-Second Amendment than me, she said.
Last year, Maggart said, the NRA drafted a bill to permit concealed weapons to be kept in locked vehicles no matter where they were parked. She said business and property owners objected, arguing that they could be liable for gunfire on their properties. Maggart tabled the bill in April 2012.
In early July, she started to receive frantic phone calls from her friends. Have you seen the billboards? they asked.
I went out and looked, and I couldn’t believe it, she said. The billboards said I was just like Obama, and where I’m from, that’s deadly.
Then came radio spots, newspaper ads and fliers mailed to homes in her district: Maggart and Obama: We Can’t Trust Either With Our Rights.
Maggart estimated that the NRA and other gun groups spent $155,000 on the race. She said all she could do was watch her polling numbers fall. She ended up losing the Republican primary by 16 percentage points to a candidate handpicked by the NRA, Courtney Rogers, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who had no political experience.
They will lie about you. They will use intimidation tactics. They will use bullying tactics, and because of that, people are afraid, Maggart said. Why wouldn’t you be afraid?
Foes copy methods
After watching the NRA’s successes on Capitol Hill and in statehouses across the nation, gun-control groups are starting to employ some of the same tactics.
Nowhere has that been more apparent than in New Hampshire, where Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte is caught between two powerful forces: the NRA and Mayors Against Illegal Guns.
Ayotte was the only senator from a northeastern state to side with the NRA. Since the vote, the NRA and the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a firearms industry trade group, have been running radio spots in New Hampshire that praise Ayotte for her stance.
Gun-control groups are hitting back. The mayors group, organized by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, has tapped a deep reservoir of phone and email lists to mobilize opposition to Ayotte. Protesters have trailed Ayotte to events in New Hampshire, demanding that she explain her vote.
On April 30, the daughter of the slain Sandy Hook principal confronted Ayotte at a crowded town hall meeting in Warren, N.H. The scene was reminiscent of the way the NRA had taken over town hall meetings.
A fair amount of what we’re doing in New Hampshire is right out of the NRA playbook, said Arkadi Gerney, who was a special adviser to the mayors group before joining the Center for American Progress.
We’re on the ground, moving people on our side, Gerney said. You have to have people show up at the events, send letters and make the phone calls.
It’s not enough to have 99 percent of the people agree with you.