NRA goes after TN lawmaker

When is the National Rifle Association going after a politician news?

When that politician is an incumbent Republican in a red state.

The NRA has launched a full-scale assault on Tennessee state Rep. Debra Maggart, R-Gallatin, in an  effort to have her unseated this fall.

Maggart is more than just a state representative for the 45th District, which includes part of Sumner County. She is also the Republican caucus chairman, which gives her considerable clout in the General Assembly.

Though the NRA routinely endorses Republicans, the gun rights organization doesn’t regularly endorse challengers to incumbent Republicans, even when the challenger campaigns as being more of a staunch defender of gun rights than the incumbent.

But in the race for the 45th District, the NRA has endorsed Courtney Rogers, a military veteran, in the Republican primary, which is slated for Aug. 2.

And the NRA didn’t stop there.

Today, Chris Cox — executive director of the NRA’s lobbying arm — mass-emailed reporters across the state, beginning what he termed “an independent expenditure campaign to defeat” Maggart.

Cox, who says that he is a Tennessee native himself, wrote that Maggart “claims to support our gun rights publicly, but behind closed doors she cuts backroom political deals to ensure vital self-defense legislation allowing hard-working Tennesseans to protect themselves was never allowed to come to the floor for a debate or vote.”

The NRA has also launched a billboard advertising campaign comparing Maggart to President Barack Obama. The billboard (pictured below) features a picture of each politician, and adds: “Rep. Debra Maggart says she supports your gun rights . . . of course, he says the same thing.”

The NRA’s full-scale assault on Maggart is a sign of the nation’s largest gun rights group’s growing rift with Republicans in Tennessee.

The very idea of a rift between the TN GOP and the NRA reeks of irony, considering that Tennessee made national headlines by passing a number of gun-rights bills after wresting control of the General Assembly from Democrats for the first time since Reconstruction. Lawmakers passed bills allowing guns in restaurants that serve alcohol, allowing guns in parks, and strengthening a number of other gun laws.

But this year, lawmakers didn’t pass a bill that was near-and-dear to the NRA’s heart: the so-called “guns in parking lots” bill, which would have allowed guns to be kept in locked cars in parking lots, whether the lots are privately-owned or owned by a government entity. The legislation was aimed at prohibiting employers from discriminating against employees who carry guns in their vehicles.

And, at its heart, such legislation is needed. If gunowners with carry permits cannot leave their guns locked in their car at work, they’re essentially barred from leaving home with the firearms, which effectively strikes a huge blow to the entire notion of the right to carry.

But the bill, as worded, also carried potential legal ramifications. It would have allowed guns even in the parking lots of state and federal government entities that prohibit firearms on their premises.

Nevertheless, the bill cleared committee but was never allowed to come to the floor for a vote before the full legislature. Maggart was the one who effectively kept the bill bottled up, although both Gov. Bill Haslam and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, both Republicans, opposed the bill as it was written.

The NRA saw it as Tennessee’s Republican leaders caving to big business; the state’s business interests staunchly opposed the bill.

Ironically, Tennessee Republicans complained for years — with a great degree of validity — about the tactics of former Lt. Gov. Jimmy Naifeh. Naifeh, a Democrat, served as House speaker for 18 years before the Republicans took control in 2009, and managed to keep a number of pro-gun bills from reaching the House floor for votes during his tenure. Finally clearing that obstacle with Naifeh’s ouster as speaker in ’09 led to the onslaught of gun bills passed by the GOP-led House in 2010. Now, the Republican caucus leader is being accused of the exact same tactics that had long drawn the GOP’s ire.

Second Amendment advocates had plenty of praise for the GOP-led state legislature after that onslaught of pro-gun bills two years ago. But the honeymoon between the NRA and the new Republican majority in Tennessee was short-lived.

The Chattanooga Times Free Press revealed this week that the NRA has already spent $75,000 in its efforts to unseat Maggart — an extravagant amount of money for a state primary race.

And that’s the NRA’s biggest message yet that it is going after Tennessee Republicans. The NRA had already sent Tennessee Republican candidates a questionnaire that pointedly asked whether candidates would support the NRA or Tennessee’s GOP leadership — clearly pitting the gun-rights lobby against Tennessee Republicans.

The problem is that Rogers looks like a long shot to unseat Maggart, even with the NRA’s money and the support of the tea party. Maggart has gloated that the NRA’s money isn’t likely to make a difference in her re-election bid. Ordinarily, that would be bold statement, coming from a somewhat obscure state lawmaker who is at odds against the powerful gun-rights group. But, in this case, Maggart might be right. In an email from her campaign email to fellow caucus members on Sunday, Maggart wrote, “It is our duty to protect ALL the rights of Tennesseans, not just a select few deemed higher by one organization or another. We must not allow political groups to bully us into making bad public policy. We must be courageous enough to make the right decisions. The people of our districts deserve nothing less.”

In light of all this, the question that must be asked is whether the NRA is ultimately doing a disservice to the gunowners and Second Amendment supporters of Tennessee. In the aftermath of the NRA’s war on Republicans in Nashville, will those same Republicans be less likely to support legislation authored and pushed by the NRA? Would the so-called guns in bars bill or the guns in parks bill have passed in 2013, given what is happening now?

If — when, likely — the NRA loses its quest to unseat Maggart, the organization may lose considerable clout in Nashville, says Statehouse writer David Oatney:

One legislator who has long been a supporter of expanded gun rights in Tennessee told The Examiner that “the NRA has forgotten what we did not have in the way of gun rights in Tennessee when the Republicans came into control and what we have now as a result.” The legislator wondered if the gun lobby would like to return to the bad old days of more restrictive gun laws in the Volunteer State. “There was a day not long ago when we didn’t have concealed-carry at all, but we not only have it now, thanks to Republican efforts a permit holder can carry in a State Park, they can carry in many restaurants where they could not carry before. Our gun laws are the least restrictive that they have ever been, and that is supposed to be a bad thing because of what happened with one single bill?”

The “guns in parking lots” bill is needed to embolden Tennessee’s right-to-carry laws, and it’s unfortunate that the bill wasn’t allowed to come to the floor for an honest vote. But the NRA’s overzealous reaction to the bill’s failure is interesting, to say the least.