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.”
Cruz himself is a good example of a politician who came late — but enthusiastically — to American gun culture.
He grew up in the suburbs of Houston and got his first exposure to guns at summer camp. But, as an adult, Cruz bought two guns: a .357 magnum revolver and a Beretta Silver Pigeon II shotgun, according to a spokeswoman. And already, the shotgun has become a key piece of his political image: In 2013, Cruz had it flown up to Iowa to go pheasant hunting with Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa).
Reporters and cameras were not far behind. The resulting image — Cruz in hunter orange, shotgun in hand — appeared widely in the news and has been immortalized on Page 13 of the “Ted Cruz to the Future” children’s coloring book.
In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker also didn’t grow up hunting. But he got his first guns in his mid-30s: a shotgun he won in a raffle and a rifle he got as a gift, said a spokeswoman for his political committee. Now he hunts deer, pheasants and ducks with his motorcycle-riding buddies.
And he makes sure people know about it.
“Wow is it cold out,” Walker wrote on Twitter in 2013, posting a selfie from his deer stand. “The deer must think the same thing as I haven’t seen a thing.”
Other GOP contenders bought guns as adults, but for a more private reason: self-protection.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal purchased a snubnosed, laser-sighted Smith & Wesson .38 revolver after Hurricane Katrina. He still keeps it for home defense, although his home is now the heavily guarded Governor’s Mansion.
Real estate tycoon Donald Trump owns two pistols, a Heckler & Koch .45 and a Smith & Wesson .38.
Even though he is Donald Trump, and he often travels with bodyguards.
“I’m licensed. I’m licensed in New York City,” Trump said in a phone interview, boasting that it’s “not an easy feat.”
Former tech chief executive Carly Fiorina, now considering a presidential run, owns five guns. Her self-defense plan revolves around a Glock 17 9mm pistol. “I know where it is, I know how to unlock it, I know how to load it, I know how to shoot it,” Fiorina said in a statement.
None of these would-be presidential candidates has released detailed policy papers on guns. But many of them have already compiled records that impress pro-gun groups: either working to oppose new limits on guns, or working to loosen the limits that were already there.
In Wisconsin, for instance, Walker signed a “Castle Doctrine” law, giving gun owners new leeway to use deadly force against threatening intruders without first trying to flee. In Florida, Bush signed a measure known as “Stand Your Ground,” which gave gun owners the same leeway to defend themselves in public, not just at home. As he signed it, an NRA lobbyist was literally looking over his shoulder.
“The sound of our guns,” the non-gun-owning Bush once said at an NRA convention, “is the sound of freedom.”
And in the Senate, Rubio, Graham, Cruz and Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) all helped torpedo Senate bills that would have expanded background checks on gun sales and limited the size of ammunition magazines. The measures had been proposed in the wake of the 2012 massacre in Newtown, Conn.
“The NRA is fortunate to have many friends” in the GOP field, an NRA official wrote to The Post, declining an interview about the GOP pool.
This year, the NRA made a special gesture of gratitude toward Rubio: it raised his
“rating” ahead of schedule.
Rubio was given a “B-plus” in 2010, when he was a candidate, and wasn’t supposed to be re-
rated until 2016. But this year the NRA raised him to an “A,” based on his record in the Senate.
The field is so alike on guns that even aggressively pro-gun groups — whose business is to be more hard-line than the NRA — appear to have trouble finding differences in their views.
Gun Owners of America, for instance, has decided that Bush is less friendly to guns than many other candidates. But not because of his views on guns. Because of his views on immigration.
“For us, the amnesty question is a Second Amendment issue. It’s a Second Amendment issue because it’s going to channel a net of 8 million anti-gun voters into the voter pool,” said Hammond, the group’s legislative counsel.
Hammond was referring to Bush’s support for allowing certain immigrants to become citizens, which — by his reckoning — means more voters who want gun control. “It creates a real, real problem for us and Jeb Bush.”
In this field, in fact, just one contender stands out from the rest.
“I do think Christie is the only one that we could assign a glimmer of hope to,” said Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, a leading supporter of gun control. “And even that is relative.”
Christie is a former federal prosecutor whose state has some of the nation’s toughest gun laws — including a ban on assault weapons and a limit on the size of magazines.
“Listen, I favor some of the gun-control measures we have in New Jersey,” Christie, then a candidate for governor, told Fox News’s Sean Hannity.
“Bad idea,” Hannity told him then.
As governor, Christie has said some things that anger pro-gun groups. For instance, he opposes allowing people with concealed-carry licenses from other states to carry in New Jersey. But he’s also angered the gun-control camp as well, such as vetoing new limits on magazines and a proposal to ban powerful .50-caliber rifles.
Lately, with his candidacy deflating, Christie has said that New Jersey’s gun laws really might be a bad idea, after all.
“In terms of what’s already on the books, believe me, there would be a whole list of things I would change,” Christie said at a town hall in New Jersey in the past week. “If you really want to change those laws in New Jersey, send me a Republican legislature.”
Whoever wins the Republican nomination will probably face a Democrat with her own complicated history on guns.
Former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton has, in the past, embraced far-reaching gun-control ideas. During her 2000 Senate campaign, she endorsed the idea of a national registry for all gun sales.
But during the 2008 Democratic primary, Clinton sought to cast herself as a Democrat who understood gun owners, talking about learning to shoot with her father, and about a cold morning spent duck-hunting while she was first lady of Arkansas.
“I shot,” she reportedly said, while campaigning in Wisconsin. “And I shot a banded duck.”
It’s unclear whether Clinton has become more acquainted with firearms since then. This month, a spokesman for Clinton declined to say whether she owns a gun.
Katie Zezima in Lincoln, N.H., contributed to this report.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of gun manufacturer Heckler & Koch. This version has been corrected.