Following a spate of high-profile shooting deaths nationwide, a gun-rights group Tuesday endorsed a Republican congressional candidate in a conservative Northwest Florida district on the grounds that she would not compromise on any gun-control measure.
John Velleco, director of operations for the Virginia-based Gun Owners of America, said his group will support Mary Thomas in the GOP primary in Florida's Congressional District 2 due to her unwavering stance.
"What we need in the U.S. House are not people who will go along to get along," Velleco said. "We need people who are not afraid to rock the boat when our rights are in jeopardy. It doesn't matter which party they are from."
Standing beside Velleco at DSH Firearms, a Tallahassee gun shop, Thomas called herself "the only no-compromise gun candidate" in the hard-fought race. She said she opposes measures to expand background checks or to limit assault weapons and person-to-person gun sales.
"The problem is not guns," Thomas said. "The problem is violent criminals and people who are looking to terrorize our country. By restricting gun rights, all we are doing is restricting law-abiding citizens' ability to protect themselves."
She noted that Congressional District 2 --- which stretches from Jackson County on the Georgia border to Levy County on the Gulf Coast and includes Tallahassee and Panama City --- is largely rural and agricultural. U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, a Tallahassee Democrat who narrowly won the district in 2014, decided not to seek re-election this year after a redistricting plan made the district heavily Republican.
But Thomas' opponents in the Republican primary aren't ceding ground on Second Amendment issues.
"Americans have a fundamental right to bear arms, guaranteed by our Constitution," Ken Sukhia, a former U.S. attorney in North Florida, wrote in an email. "I have received the highest rating possible from the (National Rifle Association), because I staunchly defend the Second Amendment. I'm the only candidate in this race who has enforced our nation's gun laws against violent criminals and believe that Americans have the right to defend themselves against such violence."
Panama City surgeon Neal Dunn touted similar positions.
"The `Right to Bear Arms' is one of the most fundamental and important rights in the Constitution and needs to be protected," Dunn wrote in an email. "As a lifetime member of the NRA and a veteran, I cherish this right and will fight to protect and uphold the Second Amendment. I am proud to have received an `AQ' rating from the NRA, which is the highest rating someone can receive without a voting record on Second Amendment issues."
Thomas also has an "AQ" rating, which is based on responses to the NRA-Political Victory Fund candidate questionnaire.
Carol Weissert, a political science professor at Florida State University, said support for gun rights is good politics in the "very conservative" district --- especially after the recent series of terrorist acts in the U.S. and abroad.
“I don't know if it has changed anybody's mind, but maybe it has made people who are pro-gun more pro-gun and those who are anti-gun even more anti-gun,” she said.
Eric Friday, general counsel for the gun-rights group Florida Carry, said Americans who have never owned firearms are buying them now. He pointed to a surge in sales and background checks since the Pulse nightclub massacre on June 12 in Orlando was followed by a series of shooting deaths, including those of law enforcement officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, La.
"Gun owners will vote for a candidate they disagree with on 99 percent of the issues to protect their right to own a gun," Friday said.
But Graham pointed to a CNN/ORC poll released last month. It found that 85 percent of Americans support banning people on terrorist watch lists from buying guns, while 92 percent support expanded background checks.
"An overwhelming majority of Americans, including gun owners and Republicans, support common-sense protections, like background checks and preventing terrorists from purchasing weapons," Graham, who is expected to run for governor in 2018, wrote in an email. "Protecting the Second Amendment and making our country safer aren't mutually exclusive."
In explaining the decision to back Thomas in the Aug. 30 primary, Velleco pointed to a June sit-in by Democratic members of the U.S. House. Led by civil-rights leader John Lewis, Democrats sat in for 25 hours to protest the inaction of the GOP-led House on proposals to expand background checks and to ban gun sales to people on the no-fly list.
Velleco said House Republican leaders would have compromised with the Democrats on the gun bills had it not been for members of the House Freedom Caucus --- which has endorsed Thomas.