NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Almost every Republican presidential hopeful will pay tribute to gun rights at the National Rifle Association’s annual meeting on Friday, but one of the few missing candidates is taking shots at the organization instead.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), fresh off his presidential announcement on Monday, is complaining that he was left off the speakers’ list despite boasting an “A” rating from the group.
“The interesting thing is that there’s probably no greater advocate for the Second Amendment in Congress than myself,” Paul told Bloomberg’s Dave Weigel on Thursday. “To not be invited, probably, will serve more to cast aspersions on their group than it would on me. Because my record’s pretty clear.”
Members of Paul’s camp complained to reporters at The Daily Beast and Wall Street Journal that they were snubbed because of the candidate’s ties to a rival conservative Second Amendment group, the National Association for Gun Rights. It’s a theory that Paul himself seemed to endorse on Thursday.
“It probably looks a little bit petty for them not to invite a major candidate because I raised money for other Second Amendment groups,” Paul told Bloomberg.
The NRA sees things differently. According to the group’s spokeswoman, Jennifer Baker, Paul was not singled out for his NAGR ties but was one of several presidential hopefuls who didn’t receive invitations due to the event’s packed schedule. Unlike other scheduled speakers who didn’t receive an invite, including Sen. Lindsey Graham, Dr. Ben Carson, and former Gov. Mike Huckabee, Paul did not push for a speaking slot after the initial snub.
“It is true we did not issue them an invite initially, but we have worked with other people who did not initially receive an invite to include them in the program,” Baker told msnbc. “Rand Paul did not reach out to us. At some point we would have reached capacity – it’s almost a 5 hour program and unfortunately you can’t accommodate everyone – but he did not come to us and ask to be included.”
Asked about the NRA’s claims, a spokesman for Paul did not directly address the invite controversy but passed on a statement from Paul strategist Doug Stafford attesting to the candidate’s bonafides on gun rights.
“Sen. Paul is a champion of the Second Amendment and the strongest voice for freedom in the U.S. Senate,” Stafford said. “He has an unblemished record of support for gun rights. Sen. Paul is happy to work with pro-Second Amendment groups and will always make the issue a top priority.”
Scheduled speakers include former Florida governor Jeb Bush, former Texas governor Rick Perry, Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, former Senator Rick Santorum, and Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. Donald Trump is also set to speak. In addition to Paul, New Jersey governor Chris Christie will be absent on Friday. Christie has feuded with the NRA in the past and has a “C” rating from the group
The packed schedule reflects the strong influence the gun rights lobby wields over the Republican Party despite widespread criticism and calls for new regulations in the wake of mass shootings at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado and Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. A defiant NRA helped block a push by the White House to pass a law expanding background checks to gun shows. While Democratic governors in New York and Colorado managed to sign some new gun restrictions in light of the shootings, the main trend over the last few years has been Republican governors using their dominance in state legislatures around the country to loosen gun laws.
The fight’s not over, however: Gun safety activists have recently turned their attention to state ballot measures instead, successfully passing a referendum that expands background checks last year. They’re now pursuing similar measures in other states that allow voter referendums. The cause is buoyed by heavy investments from anti-gun crusaders like billionaire former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has made reducing gun violence a top cause.