Gunning for Office

For candidates, posing with weapons has become an arms race.

Montana Rep. Steve Daines.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Douglas Graham.

The favorite prop in this year’s political campaigns isn’t an iPhone, a motorcycle, or even a flag. It’s a gun. Despite mass shootings in every part of the country—Tucson, Aurora, Fort Hood, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook—firearms seem more popular than ever. The contest among candidates to prove which of them is more gun-friendly has literally become an arms race. Here’s how they’re using their weapons.

1. I’m my own rifle association. In West Virginia’s Senate race, Republican Shelley Moore Capito has the endorsement of the National Rifle Association. Democrat Natalie Tennant says that doesn’t matter. “I grew up on a farm surrounded by guns, with my brothers, going hunting and shooting,” Tennant bragged in their Oct. 7 debate. “Having a muzzle loader myself that I use quite frequently,” said Tennant, “I don’t need the NRA” to tell West Virginians which candidate loves guns.

2. I own guns, so I know background checks aren’t a hassle.I have two guns,” independent Senate candidate Greg Orman claimed in an Oct. 15 debate in Kansas. “When I bought those guns, I had to go through a background check. And I don’t believe it was intrusive.” So it’s no big deal, Orman concluded, to apply the same rule to sales at gun shows.

3. I’m an environmentalist because I love guns. In an Oct. 13 Senate debate, Montana Democrat Amanda Curtis was pressed to explain her F rating from the NRA. She turned the question toward her opponent’s weak environmental record. “My husband and I, just in the week before the nominating convention, were out shooting the Browning 12-gauge light that his grandfather, who recently passed away, left to us,” said Curtis. “Montanans should be much more worried about … accessing our public lands so that we can use our firearms.”

4. I don’t own a gun, but my spouse does. Aimee Belgard, the Democratic nominee for Congress in New Jersey’s 3rd District, favors gun restrictions. But she claims a family connection to the other side. “I fully understand and appreciate the Second Amendment,” she assured gun owners in an Oct. 2 debate. “My husband actually owns guns.”

5. I don’t own a gun, but my neighbors do. I’m from York County, where the first day of deer season is a holiday,” Democratic candidate Tom Wolf pointed out in an Oct. 8 gubernatorial debate in Pennsylvania. Those roots, he argued, made him the best person to lead a statewide conversation about legitimate and illegitimate uses of firearms.

6. I don’t own a gun, but my mom used to shoot one. Democratic Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado doesn’t claim to own a gun. Instead, he reminisces about his mom. “I strongly support the Second Amendment,” Udall declared in an Oct. 7 debate. “My mother was the person who taught me how to handle a gun. She was a Coloradan. She was a member of the NRA.”

7. I don’t just own a gun. I have a concealed weapons permit. “I have always believed in the Second Amendment,” Nikki Haley, the Republican governor of South Carolina, pledged in an Oct. 21 debate. “And I believe in it because I’m a certified weapons permit holder myself.” Moments later, one of Haley’s challengers announced that he, too, had a concealed weapons permit.

8. I don’t just own guns. I teach my kids to use them. Dennis Richardson, the Republican nominee for governor of Oregon, sounds a bit wimpy. But then he starts talking about his family. “I’ve got one son and eight daughters. I’ve trained them in the use of handguns. We’ve done target practice,” says Richardson. “I’ve got one daughter who is a dead-eye.”

9. I don’t just own guns. I’m pals with gun manufacturers. Asa Hutchinson, the Republican nominee for governor of Arkansas, says he’s been courting companies whose firearms violate other states’ laws:

I was at the NRA convention, and I was visiting with some gun manufacturers. And they’re leaving some northeastern states because their product is illegal under the new gun laws. And so I said, “Make me a promise that when you leave, you’ll consider Arkansas before you make a decision.” And they made that commitment to me. … I will follow up personally with them.

10. I shoot better than you do. Eight months ago, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell posed for pictures at a conference of conservative activists while holding a rifle. His challenger, Kentucky Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, responded by cutting an ad in which she flaunted her skeet shooting. Grimes ended the commercial with a dig at McConnell: “Mitch, that’s not how you hold a gun.”

11. I don’t just have the gun. I have the gear. Joe Dorman, the Democratic nominee for governor of Oklahoma, brags about his A-plus rating from the NRA and calls his Republican opponent soft on the Second Amendment. “I’ll be a fiscally responsible, pro-gun, pro-education governor,” Dorman says in campaign ads. To prove it, he poses in front of a pickup truck, wearing hunting gear and holding a rifle.

12. I don’t just have a gun. I use it to express my anger. Four years ago, Democrat Joe Manchin won a Senate seat in West Virginia by sending a bullet through a bill that would have restricted carbon emissions. Now Manchin has copycats. In Iowa, Republican Joni Ernst fired a handgun at a target representing the Affordable Care Act. In Alabama, Republican Will Brooke shot up the actual bill. In Alaska, Republican Dan Sullivan blew holes in a TV set. In Washington state, Democrat Estakio Beltran shot a fake elephant. In Montana, Republican Matt Rosendale fired a real bullet at an imaginary “government drone.”

13. I don’t just shoot objects. I shoot animals. Rep. Steve Daines, the Republican senatorial nominee in Montana, says he’s a lifelong NRA member and a shooting sports enthusiast. But real gun lovers don’t just dabble at target ranges. “I killed my first antelope with my grandfather,” says Daines.

14. I’ve shot more animals than you have. At a Sept. 14 debate, Nebraska Republican Senate candidate Ben Sasse bragged about having the NRA’s endorsement. Democrat Dave Domina dismissed Sasse as an ignorant newbie. “Nobody on this panel, I’ll bet, has enjoyed shooting more pheasants than I have,” said Domina. “I love owning a gun.”

15. My gun is bigger than your gun. Pat Roberts, a Republican senator from Kansas, doesn’t own a gun. But don’t mess with him: “The last gun I had was an M-1 in the United States Marine Corps.” Martha McSally, the Republican nominee for Congress in Arizona’s 2nd District, says she’s a big supporter of the Second Amendment: “I’ve shot the 33 mm in combat.” But Republican Rep. Mike Coffman of Colorado wins this year’s award for flashing metal. During an Oct. 6 debate, Coffman and his Democratic opponent, Andrew Romanoff, were asked when they had last fired a gun and what type it was. Romanoff went first: “Gosh, I think in high school we had rifle practice.” Coffman followed: “Expert with the M-16, sharpshooter with the 45 and 9 mm.” I cringed and looked away. I can’t stand seeing death.