On the same day as what could be a make-or-break GOP presidential debate, Sen. Rand Paul is also apparently planning to literally shoot the tax code for target practice after taking a chainsaw and a wood chipper to the code in an ad earlier this year.
Asked if he was planning to do any special preparation for the debate in California, the Kentucky Republican joked on CNN Tuesday that he typically will stand on his head for about two hours beforehand to get some blood rushing to his brain.
“That’s a joke. That’s a joke,” Mr. Paul said. “Actually, I will be out shooting target practice in the morning. I’ll be shooting the tax code with some friends tomorrow morning, and that will be my preparation.”
Indeed, Mr. Paul’s campaign confirmed they are having a private event Wednesday at a local gun range — the timing of which underscores just how important the gun issue is for GOP primary voters, who have an array of pro-Second Amendment candidates like Mr. Paul to choose from this cycle.
The 2016 GOP field is among the most staunchly pro-gun of any in recent political history, but there are still divisions among the hopefuls, analysts and gun rights advocates say.
The major candidates range from those who see firearms as fundamentally connected to freedom, to those who promote guns as critical for self-protection, to those who have only recently evolved into Second Amendment defenders, said John R. Lott Jr., president of the Crime Prevention Research Center.
PHOTOS: Best states for concealed carry — ranked worst to first
Gun Owners of America, a vocal group that sometimes treads where the National Rifle Association does not, has already picked its champion in the field, endorsing Sen. Ted Cruz last week.
“Our concern is that we get somebody that’s really going to stir up the base and avoid the huge mistakes that McCain and Romney made, which was to be boring and afraid of the very issues that the base was interested in hearing,” said Larry Pratt, executive director of the group.
Avoiding a repeat of 2008 and 2012 is high on the minds of gun rights supporters, who say they’re happy most of the candidates in this year’s GOP field proudly tout their pro-gun bona fides on the campaign trail.
“Romney had been in favor of — let’s use his word, ‘severe’ — gun control up in Massachusetts,” Mr. Pratt said. “McCain was a guy that wanted to keep us from being able to articulate our positions in a political campaign, particularly up close to the election.”
Mr. Lott said the lack of a forceful pro-gun candidate stretches back to President George W. Bush’s 2004 reelection, when he shied away from the issue.
Mr. Lott said this time around there are a host of gun champions who go beyond merely saying they favor the Second Amendment, and articulate expansively on why they believe their pro-gun policies are good for the country.
PHOTOS: 11 times a good guy with a gun stopped a bad guy, saving lives
He mentioned former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and Mr. Cruz as standouts.
“They’re all strong in terms of kind of the bottom line, but I think people like Fiorina, Rubio, Cruz [and] Carson seem to stand out in terms of them having a broader understanding of why it’s important for people to be able to defend themselves,” he said.
Mr. Lott mentioned Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Mr. Paul as examples of candidates who have actively worked to put pro-gun policies into place through their official positions, and said Ohio Gov. John Kasich and businessman Donald Trump are examples of candidates whose Second Amendment views have shifted over the years.
Earlier in the summer, Mr. Walker signed into law a measure legalizing concealed carry in his home state. Mr. Bush, for his part, signed into law a “stand your ground” bill on self-defense when he was governor of Florida, and Mr. Paul has pushed to allow firearms to be carried on Post Office grounds.
Mr. Kasich is back in good standing with the National Rifle Association, though his favor with the group plummeted after he voted for the 1994 assault weapons ban while in Congress.
“I’ve come to learn that you can pass all the laws you want, but if they don’t work, there’s no reason to pass them if it doesn’t have an impact, if it doesn’t have an effect,” Mr. Kasich said earlier this year, according to The Columbus Dispatch. “Over time you come to really begin to understand people’s deep, deep, deep commitment to the Second Amendment, and I share that.”
Mr. Trump, meanwhile, wrote in his 2000 book “The America We Deserve” that while he generally opposes gun control, he supported a ban on so-called assault weapons and a slightly longer waiting period for a gun.
But he said last month on MSNBC, in the wake of the Virginia shootings: “I don’t think you need further gun restrictions — they have restrictions.”
He pointed to crime rates in cities like Chicago and Baltimore, which have strict gun controls, as evidence the laws don’t work.
“You look at these places that are going wild with killings all over, and they have very, very powerful gun laws — laws that you would say, I mean, you should not have any killings whatsoever if they worked. The fact is it’s not the laws,” he said.
Mr. Lott said there’s nothing necessarily wrong with people changing their views, but “it raises the issue, are they just changing it because it’s politically expedient now for them to do so, or is it [a] fundamental understanding of the issues?”
For his part, Mr. Pratt said he views New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie as falling into the lower tier of pro-gun candidates.
Mr. Christie was given a “C” rating by the NRA in 2013.
During a recent appearance on Fox News, Mr. Christie blamed his Democratic predecessors and “liberal legislators” for New Jersey’s comparatively strict gun laws.
“I think reasonable background checks are fine, but the fact is we’re taking our eye off the ball,” Mr. Christie said. “The people who are committing crimes in this country and causing violence are criminals with guns, and that’s what we need to focus on.”
Gun rights have historically presented less political peril for Republicans than for Democrats, at least in national general elections. Many analysts attribute former Vice President Al Gore’s defeat in 2000, at least in part, to his support for gun control.
Gun control advocates, however, say they believe they can advance their issues in the 2016 election, saying a series of mass shootings has renewed interest.
Advocates and lawmakers held an event on Capitol Hill earlier this month after the recent shooting deaths of a reporter and videographer on live television in Virginia. And former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, a 2016 Democratic presidential candidate, announced a series of gun proposals this week that include expanding background checks to all sales and setting a federal minimum age of 21 for handgun ownership and possession.
“Gun violence isn’t a Republican or Democratic question; it is a uniquely American problem that affects all of us, regardless of party affiliation. That’s why it requires a national solution, and we will demand that all presidential candidates take a stand on this issue,” said Erika Soto Lamb, a spokeswoman for the group Everytown for Gun Safety.