How 2014 Became the Year of the Gun-Toting Candidate

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
May 9 2014 6:21 PM

From Their Cold, Dead Hands

How 2014 became the year of the gun-toting candidate.

Will Brooke, "Let's Do Some Damage"
Alabama congressional candidate Will Brooke readies his rifle in an ad called “Let's Do Some Damage.”

Video still via Will Brooke/YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0I2z9cCC9zs)

The killing of Diren Dide has made Missoula, Montana, famous for the worst possible reason. On April 27, the German exchange student snuck into the garage of a neighbor, Markus Kaarma. According to the New York Times, the homeowner had been rattled by a recent run of burglaries. That was why he fired four shotgun blasts into the night, killing Dide and sparking an international incident. “America cannot continue to play cowboy,” Dide’s father told a German news channel.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

Anyone watching TV in Missoula might also see the state’s next congressman shooting at a drone. In an immediately successful spot, state Sen. Matt Rosendale poses next to an ATV and stares up at a drone that’s filming him. “This is what I think about it,” says Rosendale, firing a shot that takes out the pesky robo-spy. He cradles the scoped rifle under his right arm as he promises he’s “ready to stand tall for freedom.”

An ad like that would be unthinkable in Dide’s Germany, not because nobody has rifles (they do) or candidates don’t go on TV (they get one party broadcast per campaign). It’s just a uniquely American spot, an immediate appeal to common culture and common fears, displaying a live firearm to tell the voter that this guy has all the right values.

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Uniquely American, but not unique—2014 is the year of the gun-toting candidate. There has been no safer (strictly speaking) way to bring attention to a campaign than to give a candidate a gun or auction one off.  So we’ve seen just-defeated North Carolina U.S. Senate candidate Greg Brannon empty a clip while wearing a Gadsden flag baseball cap:

We’ve seen Will Brooke, running for Congress in Alabama, switch among three guns to blow holes in a copy of the Affordable Care Act, before loading the law in a wood-chipper.

We’ve seen Joni Ernst, a U.S. Senate candidate in Iowa, head to a firing rage as a narrator promises that “once she sets her sights on Obamacare, Joni’s gonna unload.”

Todd Harris, an Ernst strategist who previously worked with Sen. Marco Rubio, explains that “some spots with guns are really well-done, and some feel contrived,” and this one fits into Column A. “I think this spot works for Joni because this is who she really is. She does ride a Harley. She does carry a 9 mm with a concealed carry permit. She is a good marksman.”

And we’ve seen Bob Quast, an extremely long-shot independent candidate for that same office, explain that “even a baby” knows the Second Amendment and pledge to blow the  “balls off” the man who murdered his sister. (Quast tells me that the ad was wildly misinterpreted, and directed at the man who actually murdered his sister.)

None of those ads is explicitly about threats to the Second Amendment. None of them were run in states where any new restrictions on guns have passed or could pass since the 2012 Newtown murders kicked awake the “gun safety” lobby. Quite the contrary, actually—Brannon lost his primary to North Carolina’s speaker of the House, who’d passed a law that allowed guns back onto playgrounds and college campuses.  The long tail of Newtown was a fitful U.S. Senate gun debate that ended in victory for the National Rifle Association, in a few dozen state bills that tightened gun laws, and in almost twice as many state laws that loosened them. The recall of two Colorado state senators who’d voted for a new gun bill effectively silenced the left for the rest of the cycle, but the fear of “gun-grabbers” has never abated.

“We saw with the Colorado state Senate elections and from what Mike Bloomberg is doing that the Second Amendment is under attack,” says Mark McNulty, spokesman for Will Brooke’s campaign. “People want to show they’re responsible gun owners, and this is a way to emphasize that.”

Another way to emphasize it is seen in the surge of gun raffles, each of them certain to raise money and—just as importantly—show the left that you won’t be cowed.  The raffles didn’t start this year. But as Mother Jones’ Tim Murphy found out, the win-an-AR-15 trend has exploded since the Newtown panic. At least 17 candidates in this cycle had raised money with gun auctions. Retired Rep. Ron Paul auctioned off an AR-15 with “Magpul MBUS front and rear sights and two Magpul mags” to benefit his Campaign for Liberty.

The trend is new enough, and newsy enough, that a local Fox news station could call a Tennessee candidate’s Beretta fundraiser “one of the more unique things you’ll find on a candidate’s website this year.” The story is basically the same in every race: A Republican raffles a gun, and Democrats ask whether these heartless people never think of the victims, of the Newtown kids, of Gabrielle Giffords.

“It’s such an easy two-sentence story to write,” scoffs John Curley, an auctioneer who helped Washington state Republicans auction off an AR-15 this year. “The story is, oh, they’re selling the same weapon used in a shooting. But I’ll probably end up raffling off two or three more this year, and you know what? They’re selling for sometimes twice the retail value.”

They’re selling for the reason the NRA evokes in its new, post-victory ad campaign. This is the gun Democrats don’t want you to have. They’re trying to take firearms away from the good guys.

“It can be, for some people, an ‘eff you’ item,” says Curley. “Right? We’re going to show you it’s not about the gun—it’s about whose hand the gun is in. The gun becomes destigmatized, because in the hands of a law-abiding citizen, it’s an item for self-defense. But it is a lightning rod item. It’s even weird to stand up onstage, to stand up and sell it. You feel like Charlton Heston up there. You know, ‘from my cold, dead hands.’ ”

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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