JOHNSTON, IA - DECEMBER 04:  Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) looks over a handgun handed to him by a supporter during a campaign event at CrossRoads Shooting Sports gun shop and range on December 4, 2015 in Johnston, Iowa. A recent poll had Cruz tied for third place with Ben Carson and behind Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and front runner Donald Trump in the race for the Republican presidential nomination.   (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
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JOHNSTON, IA - DECEMBER 04: Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) looks over a handgun handed to him by a supporter during a campaign event at CrossRoads Shooting Sports gun shop and range on December 4, 2015 in Johnston, Iowa. A recent poll had Cruz tied for third place with Ben Carson and behind Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and front runner Donald Trump in the race for the Republican presidential nomination. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
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Story highlights

Ted Cruz has sought to position himself as the true defender of gun-rights in the presidential race

A CNN review shows that Cruz has spent years forging ties with defenders of the Second Amendment

CNN —  

Three days after a young man named Dylann Roof fatally shot nine people in a historic church in South Carolina—the latest in a string of gun massacres across the U.S.— Ted Cruz campaigned at a shooting range in Iowa.

Bold move for a politician? Perhaps.

But the decision reflects Cruz’s deepening alliance with the powerful gun lobby and his effort to cast himself as an unapologetic warrior for the Second Amendment.

Trump or Cruz? GOP leaders shake their heads, prepare to choose

As Cruz presses forward with his argument that he is the only logical alternative to Donald Trump for the Republican nomination, he is also driving home his record on gun-rights — an issue fundamental to his political persona and to the traditional Republican base. On the campaign trail, Cruz has sought to position himself as the only candidate whose support for the Second Amendment is genuine and long-standing, dismissing Trump and others as late to the fight and looking to score political points.

A CNN review of speeches, interviews and court filings shows that Cruz has spent years forging ties with defenders of the Second Amendment — including a group to the right of the NRA. Some of those he’s allied himself with disdain all gun control, including gun-free zones at schools and other government buildings. Cruz has embraced those relationships as an aspect of his candidacy that sets himself apart from his rivals.

The Republican candidates will gather Thursday night at CNN’s debate in Miami. Last week during the Fox GOP debate in Detroit, Cruz blasted Trump for his earlier support of an assault weapons ban. Cruz told voters that the vacancy on the Supreme Court created by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia left gun rights advocates “one vote away” from the effective erasure of the Second Amendment from the Bill of Rights.

“If you care about the Second Amendment, then you need to ask who on this stage do you know will appoint principled constitutionalists to the court and not cut a deal with your Second Amendment rights?” Cruz said.

Ted Cruz: Donald Trump ‘taking advantage’ of uninformed voters

Throughout the primary process, Cruz has touted his endorsement by the Gun Owners of America, a gun-rights group that boasts a “no compromise” stance on gun control.

In an election season that has defied all odds, the gun-rights debate has not followed a predictable path in the primaries. And while Cruz has worked to establish his Second Amendment bona fides, some establishment figures in the Republican Party see this alliance as one of the most serious problems he would face in broadening his appeal if he reaches the general election.

“This is a group that could be portrayed as extreme, and off in a ditch,” said South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, a former 2016 presidential candidate who has tangled with Cruz in the Senate but now sees him as a preferable alternative to Trump. “Anybody they endorse will have to carry those bags.”

The Cruz campaign did not respond to repeated requests for comment on this story.

The group’s executive director, Larry Pratt, opposes all gun control and sees massacres like the one at Sandy Hook Elementary School as evidence of the need for more, not fewer weapons in America.

Pratt has little tolerance for those who oppose his views, including the President and members of Congress. He said “it’s kind of a good thing” that politicians who favor gun control are in fear of being assassinated or deposed.

“That’s what the Second Amendment is,” Pratt said, “It’s a warning.”

‘You’re one of us’

Cruz, an Ivy League-educated attorney who memorized the U.S. Constitution as a high school student, has long been a vocal defender of the Second Amendment and its guarantee of the right to bear arms.

But as his political star has risen, the candidate has cast himself not just a philosophical defender of the Second Amendment, but someone who actively exercises his right to bear arms. Cruz has fashioned himself as gun-toting Texan who keeps a .357 at his bedside for protection, hunts pheasant with a shotgun and gets a charge out of letting loose with a “full auto” machine gun every now and then – as he did on the campaign trail in New Hampshire last year.

He told voters in Iowa that one of the most amazing experiences on the trail was a duck hunting excursion with the gray-bearded patriarch of the A&E reality show “Duck Dynasty,” who later endorsed him.

Cruz and Phil Robertson, both dressed in camouflage and covered in face paint, filmed a campaign ad while huddled in a duck blind, shotguns in hand

“You’re one of us, my man,” Robertson told Cruz.

Pratt, the GOA executive director, shared that sentiment regarding Cruz’s support for his group’s agenda.

“We’ve got a real hero that’s ridden into town from Texas,” Pratt said shortly after Cruz’s election to the Senate in 2012.

“I’m so happy that we made a major effort to support his campaign,” Pratt continued. “I’m certain that he’s not going to disappoint us. This guy is the real deal.”

Pratt echoed that in a recent telephone interview with CNN. “What we saw is what we got,” Pratt said. “He keeps his word.”

Ted Cruz’s challenge: uniting Republicans against Trump

Cruz has repeatedly returned to the notion that he alone has the record to back up his primary rhetoric on the Second Amendment.

“Everyone is going to say they support the Second Amendment – unless you are clinically insane that’s what you say in a primary,” Cruz said during a January GOP Fox Business Network debate in South Carolina. “But the voters are savvier than that,” he said, touting his “proven record fighting to defend the Second Amendment.”

Cruz went on to tout his role in blocking President Obama’s effort to advance gun control legislation after 20 children and six adults were killed in the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre – a moment that a super PAC supporting his campaign highlighted in an ad.