It is no secret the NRA’s influence in government is robust. Many are quick to point out their campaign donations to candidates. Here is the thing, it isn’t just in the filling of campaign coffers that makes them impactful in our politics. The NRA strong arms candidates and then sends inaccurate and fear mongering warnings to their members. The essence of the debate starts with them. They’ve defined the rules that you’re either pro-gun or anti-gun with very little wiggle room.
Before I share the experience with the NRA as a candidate and legislator, let me get this disclaimer out of the way. I grew up with guns in our house. I own guns. I hunt. I target practice with all types of guns in the North Dakota prairie including the AR-15.
When a person announces their run for office, organizations will often send out questionnaires they wish for you to fill out. They then will take the results and let members know your stance. There is nothing wrong with that in general unless the organization is being disingenuous or peddling fear. That is what sets the NRA apart from most other politically active organizations I’ve been in contact with.
Candidates tend to take the NRA survey seriously because of the disclaimer right in their introductory letter. They give you an ultimatum, return their survey or else they will tell their members you are outright “hostile” towards guns and the Second Amendment. This pressure can be pretty intimidating for a first-time candidate.
Their survey is taken so seriously, that North Dakota Republican legislators have gone out of their way to make sure their candidates have a cheat sheet to get an “A Rating” from the NRA. I wrote in December of 2016 about how State Rep. Todd Porter of Mandan questionably used his state-owned email to share his NRA questionnaire answers with Republican legislators in the House and Senate. It was a “guide to an A rating.” He directed them to “Please get this to the candidates.” I’ll use this opportunity to remind you there is an initiated measure being circulated to establish an ethics commission in ND.
Fill out their survey not exactly to their liking or ignore their ultimatum? They’ll dump political hit pieces into your district. They will actively try and convince your neighbors that when you come to their door to ask for their vote you’ll also be leaving with their guns. It is amped up, impractical at times, and disingenuous in many cases. Yet, it can be effective and at often more influential than straight campaign contributions to candidates.
The candidate surveys aren’t limited to offices that may have input on gun-related issues. In 2014, I was a candidate for the Public Service Commission. The PSC has zero influence over gun laws. I still received a survey and they still sent out disingenuous information about me to North Dakota voters when I refused to return it. I know it impacted some voters because they reached out to me. Rather than focusing on rail safety and what the office should be doing, the NRA forced us to talk about guns for an office that had nothing to do with them.
Once elected, some politicians will try desperately to continue or gain the approval of this special interest group. Take for example changes in the concealed carry legislation in the 2017 ND Legislative session. Concealed carry with nothing more than a valid ID was passed against the concerns of law enforcement and gun owners who have gone through the permitting process under the previous law. Many thought Governor Doug Burgum would veto this bill. He didn’t. High ratings and, yes, campaign contributions are sure to flow into those who backed the measure.
I know a lot of people who are proud NRA members. I also know a low of people who have canceled their membership over the last couple of years. It has become a divisive special interest group. I think it is important to put into context how they operate from a candidate and former legislator’s perspective. It isn’t just about political donations, it is about spreading skewed perceptions of who candidates are as an elected official to their members. I share this in hopes it will give people pause this election when they receive candidate information from this group.
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