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.

“There’s a reason when Barack Obama and Chuck Schumer came after our right to keep and bear arms, that I led the opposition,” Cruz said in the debate. “Along with millions of Americans, we defeated that gun control legislation. I would note that the other individuals on this stage were nowhere to be found in that fight.”

Most candidates would shy away from citing a massacre involving first-graders, but that has never been Cruz’s style regarding Second Amendment matters.

Tim Macy, Chairman of the Board of Gun Owners of America who has campaigned for Cruz this year, credited Cruz with stopping that legislation, along with Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul.

“They devised a plan to slow things down over that three-day holiday to allow us, the NRA, other gun organizations to alert their members to call in and absolutely bury the United States Senate phone lines, email access and everything else with the threat of ‘You’re going to lose all your races if you do this,’” Macy said.

“At the end of the three-day weekend, even the Republicans in the U.S. Senate who were saying ‘We’ve got to cave on something’ – all of a sudden their backbones turned into titanium,” Macy said. “They all said ‘No,’ and we killed that bill.”

A pattern of public events

Cruz has highlighted his work on Second Amendment issues immediately following mass shootings that gained national attention.

Days after the Charleston shooting last year, Cruz joked about gun control while holding a town hall event in Red Oak: “The great thing about the state of Iowa is (that) I’m pretty sure you all define gun control the same way we do in Texas: hitting what you aim at,” Cruz said.

He went on to tell the crowd about his earlier visit to an outdoor gun range in New Hampshire where he fired automatic machine guns with his wife.

Describing his wife Heidi as a petite, 5’2” California blonde, he recalled that “she was standing at the tripod unloading the full machine gun with a pink baseball cap that said ‘armed and fabulous.’”

Two days after the massacre in San Bernardino, Cruz advocated self-defense as a response to homegrown terrorism. “You don’t stop bad guys by taking away our guns, you stop bad guys by using our guns,” Cruz said during a rally where he announced the formation of his national Second Amendment Coalition.

With his preacher’s intonation, Cruz told the room of gun activists to cheers that “What keeps us safe is that we are free people who have the God-given right to protect our homes and our families and our lives.”

Pratt, the GOA executive director, has become known as a force to be reckoned with in Washington, a figure who was profiled in Rolling Stone in 2014 as “the gun lobby’s secret weapon.”

Like Cruz, he sees gun rights as God-given.

“We should be praying that we’ll all be able to go around armed because that will be an outward indicator that we have God’s blessing,” Pratt said at a Tulsa gathering in 2013. “If we have gun control in this country, then we will know we are under God’s judgment.”

Following the South Carolina church killings, Pratt cited the Bible in arguing that the slain parishioners would have been better-off armed.

“Christian doctrine teaches that man is fallen. He’s sinful and our natural tendency is to do bad things,” Pratt said. “So, especially in a church, we ought to be alert to the fact that there might be a dirt bag on the loose. …To try to assume that no defense is a good defense is a lousy theology.”

To that end, Pratt has taken an absolutist stance on access to firearms. He opposes background checks for gun purchases of any kind, and favors repealing a decades-old ban on machine guns.

“We are saying no gun control at all – nothing,” Pratt told British television interviewer Matt Frei during a February 2013 interview on UK Channel 4.

Pratt and the GOA do much more than merely talk about gun rights. They’ve gone to court time and again in recent years seeking to overturn laws that are on the books and lobbying against proposed new ones from being enacted.

Much of the legal work is done by the Virginia-based law firm of William J. Olson. Olson and co-counsel Herbert W. Titus have filed dozens of briefs on behalf of the GOA, arguing against gun restrictions from California to Washington, D.C.

The firm has argued that machine guns should not be considered dangerous and unusual weapons under the law and has likened AK-47s to Honda Accords.

“Rifles such as the AR-15 and AK-47 are not horrible and terrifying instruments, except perhaps to one suffering from hoplophobia (the fear of firearms),” lawyers for Gun Owners of America said in an amicus brief in a case challenging the Maryland Firearms Safety Act of 2013. “If anything, the majority of (such weapons) are the Honda Accord of firearms – of intermediate size, weight and power, resulting in a tool that is exceedingly useful for both the young and old, the small and large.”

The two lawyers seem to see the gun debate through the same theological lens as Pratt. Their court filings sometimes quote Scripture in support of legal arguments in gun cases.

Titus, a born again Christian, has written extensively on the Biblical principles of law. He ran for Vice President in 1996 on a platform that included repealing all gun laws and has proposed legislation that would ban judges from hearing cases in which public officials acknowledged God as the ultimate authority above civil government.

While the lawyers have fought the GOA’s battles in court, Pratt has done so in the media.

In recent years, he appeared on mainstream programs—often following a mass shooting—and has been a regular guest on conservative radio, TV and the Internet.

One of his primary talking points is that gun-free zones, such as those at schools and other government buildings, are “murder magnets” where criminals can kill at will without fear of retaliation.

In the hours after Sandy Hook, he accused gun-control advocates of having “the blood of little children on their hands” because gun laws prevented teachers from being armed.

He also talks frequently about the GOA’s opposition to background checks. He says they don’t work— criminals will get guns anyway—and that registering guns is the first step to seizing them.

When appearing on conservative talk shows, Pratt engages in anti-government rhetoric and gives credence to conspiracy theories supporting the notion that Obama is bent on disarming the populace.

Speaking to Stan Solomon on his “Talk to Solomon” show in January of 2013, Pratt said he didn’t consider it a stretch that there was going to be an all out race war in 2013 for which all “white, heterosexual, Christian, working, married” people had better be armed.

In a July 2012 interview on The Alex Jones Channel, Pratt allowed that it was possible that the government had been behind the 2012 mass killing at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado.

What’s at stake with the Second Amendment, Pratt likes to say, is much more than hunting or self-defense.

“It’s for restraining tyrannical tendencies in government,” he said in a Leadership Institute speech several years ago. “If need be, by active measures.”

When Pratt told Frei, the Channel 4 British television interviewer, that Obama should learn from the lessons of King George III, the reporter pointed out that Obama was not a tyrant, but a Democratically elected President.

“Sometimes the President seems to forget that he was democratically elected,” Pratt said.

Asked if his talk of armed resistance was a warning, Pratt replied: “Of course it is.”

Congressman Steve King, another fierce Second Amendment advocate who hosted Cruz on a pheasant hunt last year and campaigned with him in Iowa, said Cruz won GOA’s endorsement because he shares their understanding of the Second Amendment as a guard against tyranny.

“People don’t think that much about that anymore, because how could a tyrant take over America,” said King, adding that he didn’t want to inject that into the presidential race. “But I can see how a tyrant could take over America, and let’s hope we don’t ever get tested and have to have our guns ready.”

King said he has a starkly different view of Cruz and Trump when it comes to the Second Amendment.

“Donald Trump has his golf clubs and Ted Cruz has his shotgun,” King said.

Macy, the chairman of the board of GOA, said the group is “very uncomfortable” with Trump’s positions historically on the Second Amendment, including his one-time support for an assault weapons ban.

The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment. Trump reaffirmed his support for the Second Amendment during the Fox debate and disavowed his 2000 statement in support of the ban on assault weapons.

“I don’t support it any more,” Trump said.

An unlikely crusader

On the face of it, Cruz’s upbringing and academic background made him an unlikely crusader for gun rights. Even as a teenager in the Houston suburbs, he was a policy wonk drawn to other extracurricular activities like membership in the “Constitutional Corroborators,” the group that memorized a shortened mnemonic version of the Constitution. In a brief flirtation with theater, he played a mime in his high school play, according to a picture in his yearbook. One friend remembered him as the guy who beat everyone else in Monopoly because he committed the directions to memory and formulated a strategy for winning.

His interest in guns appears to have developed later. In his book, he said decided to buy a .357 Magnum revolver after second-guessing a decision to place a hatchet under his bed to protect his wife.

“I started to tell her to grab the hatchet if anything happened,” Cruz wrote in his memoir “My Life.” “As I was saying this, it struck me… this was stupid… the last thing I wanted was for my beautiful, petite wife to be trying to swing a hatchet at a large, menacing robber coming through the window.”

Cruz dealt directly with Second Amendment issues as a young lawyer working for the small Washington firm Carvin & Cooper. Chuck Cooper was the outside counsel to the National Rifle Association, and he told The New Yorker that Cruz “was basically my lieutenant on all N.R.A. matters.” (In the Senate, Cruz has an A+ rating from the NRA).

As Solicitor General of Texas, Cruz and the GOA intersected on at least one case, the landmark Heller decision. In that case, Cruz wrote a friend of the court brief on behalf of 31 states.

GOA also weighed in with a brief filed by the Olson firm.

In 2012, the gun group backed Cruz’s bid for the Senate. This year the group endorsed him for President.

A GOA press release said they backed Cruz because they wanted “a stalwart defender of the Second Amendment in the White House.”

“Ted Cruz will help shoulder the burden of fighting against the gun grabbers dedicated to eviscerating the Second Amendment,” Macy, the Chairman of GOA said in a statement.

The group said he was the only candidate who agreed to complete and return a GOA questionnaire.

Following the endorsement, Cruz sent out a fundraising email on behalf of the group. In it, he charged that Obama’s work on gun control has “nothing to do with keeping Americans safe, and everything to do with his left-wing hatred of your liberty and your rights under the Constitution.”