Wayne Shaw seemed to have all the conservative credentials needed to be re-elected to his seat in the Oklahoma State Senate two years ago. The mild-mannered pastor with deep community ties had a solidly conservative voting record during his eight years in office.
But when Shaw, as chairman of the Senate Public Safety Committee, refused to hear a bill allowing people to carry guns in bars, he drew the ire of an avid unemployed truck driver by gun rights.
Angry gun advocate Don Spencer belonged to a local pro-gun group. Before long, he and his friends recruited a Republican challenger for Shaw, held a fundraiser in his district, and helped defeat the incumbent in the primary.
“I’m not opposed to guns,” said Shaw, who was stunned by the development. “But this (guns in bars) is a good way to throw gasoline on a fire.”
Spencer’s feat is an example of a phenomenon in red states where the Republican Party is increasingly shifting to the right: the most powerful political forces are not always the long-established organizations that have formed candidates and advancing legislation for decades. In today’s climate, little-known outsiders, even without pedigree or money, can quickly become power brokers if they’re tied to incendiary issues like guns or abortion. And almost any public servant can become vulnerable.
Few people at the Oklahoma State Capitol had even heard of Spencer when he started advocating for pro-gun laws, but he is now a formidable presence in the building. The 62-year-old from Meridian, a small town about 40 miles from Oklahoma City, is warmly welcomed by senior Republicans, and he often sets up camp in lawmakers’ offices and helps draft legislation.
At bill signing ceremonies, Spencer can often be seen smiling among the lawmakers mentoring the governor. Political hopefuls seek him out, and he gives them a seven-page questionnaire to fill out to determine if they might receive an endorsement.
In the five years since Spencer took over the group, the Oklahoma 2nd Amendment Association grew from a handful of chapters to more than 50, created its own political action committee, and began branching out into other right-wing causes, such as stopping vaccination mandates. and limiting discussions of race in schools.
Spencer sees the opportunities as limitless. “People in this state are concerned about their rights, and they now realize that what’s happening in their backyard is more important than what those lunatics are doing in Washington, DC,” Spencer said in an interview.
The push to expand gun rights comes amid an upsurge in gun violence in communities across the country, including several mass shootings in recent weeks. Between 2019 and 2020, the last year for which federal data is available, firearm deaths increased by 35%. Yet calls for stricter gun limits have been blocked by GOP opposition, with leaders instead citing an even greater need for citizens to protect themselves.
Fear that the government threatens conservative values is currently high in red states, said Michael Crespin, a professor of political science at the University of Oklahoma who is familiar with the OK2A group.
“There’s this whole idea that the Democrats are going to come and take their guns,” Crespin said. “It’s not the case”, but “this fear is a good motivation for politics”.
OK2A achieved its greatest achievement in 2018 when lawmakers passed a constitutional carry law that allows adults to openly carry guns in public without a license or training. The bill had previously been vetoed by a Republican Governor, Mary Fallin, but it was the first signed into law by new Republican Governor Kevin Stitt.
This year, the group is pushing to allow people to carry guns on college campuses, at sporting events and at county and state fairs, despite opposition from pro-business groups like the Chambers of Commerce. .
While Republican politics had already shifted to the right, the COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced the role of conservative interest groups, bolstered by resistance to health restrictions. Even meetings in sparsely populated rural counties can attract more than 50 people, with hundreds more tuning in to live streams online.
Fundraising is increasing sharply. OK2A raised nearly $40,000 in 2019, $83,000 in 2020 and more than $122,000 last year, according to state campaign finance data. Much of the money is spent on online advertisements and on booths at gun shows. Records show Spencer began earning a salary, about $30,000 each for the past two years.
“They have influence there, especially in the Republican primaries,” said Gary Jones, former chairman of the Oklahoma Republican Party. supporters.”
Tensions sometimes erupt between OK2A and established party leaders. When the Senate leader expressed concerns last year about a bill to protect Oklahoma from “federal overreach,” Spencer called on him to resign and quickly summoned nearly 1,000 people at the Capitol to protest.
Earlier this year, a Senate Republican, Lonnie Paxton, complained that Spencer had gone too far when he told a rally: “We win at the polls, so we don’t have to go to the ammunition box”.
Noting that the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing was fueled by anti-government rhetoric, Paxton said the remark “crossed every line of decency imaginable”.
Spencer dismissed the complaint, saying it only helped her fundraising.
Republican candidates and office holders routinely ask to speak at group chapter meetings, with speeches typically including a healthy dose of fiery anti-government rhetoric.
In a recent meeting at an Oklahoma City gun store, a Republican candidate for the US Senate, Tulsa preacher Jackson Lahmeyer, derided Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s foremost expert on the matter. of infectious diseases, calling him a “mass murderer”. starting at $25 for four custom AR-15s and a .50 caliber rifle.
At the Capitol, the members ask Spencer about new bills to introduce.
“On a gun problem, he would be the first stop,” said Rep. Eric Roberts, a Republican from Oklahoma City.
A prominent Democrat, Representative Emily Virgin, said she fears the power of the group is becoming dangerous.
“It’s really just turned into a far-right organization, and the fact that so many Republicans in the House and Senate seem to be taking inspiration from this organization is what’s most concerning,” she said. .
But Winona Heltzel, a member of the group from the Oklahoma City suburb of Edmond, said she joined because she believed the group could help prevent gun confiscation.
“I know everyone is talking about the government, but I’m worried about the criminals,” Heltzel said.
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