Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan says if the National Rifle Association comes calling again, he’s not going to pick up the phone.
At a recent meeting with student activists from Great Mills High School, the site of a deadly shooting in March, the governor said he wouldn’t accept money or support from the NRA in this year’s governor’s race after winning their endorsement in 2014.
Jaxon O’Mara, a rising senior at Great Mills who pressed the Republican governor on the issue at the meeting, says it’s a step in the right direction.
“Giving a definitive no to the NRA I think shows that he does have a small amount of a backbone and that he is willing to stand in solidarity with students from my school and with staff from the Capital Gazette and understand that this is something that shouldn’t be happening,” she said.
Mr. Hogan’s break from the gun-rights group, coupled with his support for new gun controls during his governorship in office, could serve to defuse a major rallying cry for the left as he works to navigate a path to re-election in his deep-blue state.
Mr. Hogan also said in the meeting that he isn’t even sure if the NRA would want to support him again, given some of the gun laws he’s signed recently, Jaxon said.
Earlier this year, for example, he signed a “red flag” law that aims to let families petition a court to take guns from potentially dangerous people, along with measures to ban “bump stock” devices and bar convicted domestic abusers from possessing guns.
Richard Vatz, a professor of rhetoric and communication at Towson University in Baltimore, said the governor isn’t necessarily trying to win voters over with his gun stance, as much as he is trying to de-emphasize it.
“He doesn’t go crazy on opposing gun owners in Maryland,” Mr. Vatz said. “He also said by the way, these are positions that are reasonable, they’re practical, and they don’t mean that I want support from the NRA.”
Mr. Hogan’s campaign said he won’t be filling out the NRA’s candidate questionnaire this year after the group gave him an “A-” rating, along with their endorsement, in 2014.
For its part, the NRA said it hasn’t yet made concrete decisions on what they’ll do in the election.
Mr. Hogan’s drift from the gun-rights group predates his state’s two major gun-fueled tragedies this year: a shooting at Great Mills High School, which left one victim and the gunman dead, and the attack on the Capital Gazette newspaper office in Annapolis in June that claimed five lives.
Last week’s deadly shooting at a video game tournament in Jacksonville, Florida, that left two victims and the gunman dead also had a Maryland connection, as police have named David Katz, 24, of Baltimore as the gunman.
Authorities say Katz was able to legally buy handguns from a store in Baltimore recently despite prior hospitalizations for mental illness, because the stays didn’t meet the criteria where he would have been barred from buying guns under state or federal law.
Long before any of these incidents, gun rights activists reportedly said Mr. Hogan told them privately in his 2014 campaign that he would work to expand gun rights if elected, though Mr. Hogan has denied reports about such private pledges.
But after repeated attacks from Democrats during the campaign, Mr. Hogan ultimately pledged that if elected he would fully enforce newly passed restrictions on military-style semiautomatic rifles and handgun licenses.
“I would say that Hogan has been trying to navigate the gun issue since he ran in 2014,” said political scientist Mileah Kromer. “I think there’s been an awareness from Hogan that the state, by and large in Maryland, leans more pro-gun control.”
Mr. Hogan’s campaign recently released an ad that ties the gun issue to the governor’s anti-crime agenda, highlighting his push to double minimum sentences from five to 10 years for repeat offenders who use firearms to commit violent crimes.
Ms. Kromer, who oversees the Goucher College poll, said Maryland voters consistently say the economy and education are more important issues to them than guns even amid the spate of recent mass shootings.
“There’s no political upside for him to take the money,” Ms. Kromer said. “It’s not like he needs the money taking money from the NRA is just completely inconsistent with the bridges he’s been trying to build with Democratic voters.”
She also said her surveys have shown that Mr. Hogan’s base is very stable, so there’s not much risk of driving away gun-rights supporters by adopting more moderate positions.
“When you are about to be a two-term governor as a Republican in one of the most liberal states in the country, you sort of get to pick and choose how close to the party line you embrace core issues,” said GOP strategist Ford O’Connell.
Meanwhile Ben Jealous, Mr. Hogan’s Democratic opponent, actually did take the time to fill out the NRA’s 2018 questionnaire and released it publicly, saying he’d lobby for even more gun controls as he looks to drum up enthusiasm from the party’s left wing.
He also said Mr. Hogan only refused the NRA’s support and money when it was “politically convenient” to do so and predicted that guns will be a major factor in the governor’s race.
He said guns have played a role in rising state crime rates, and that without proper education funding there could be more violent incidents in schools.
“These issues really hit home for voters and they will want to know that the next governor will lead on these issues in a way that we have not seen with Larry Hogan,” Mr. Jealous said. “We believe in leading on gun safety issues and we expect the same from our governors because it’s the right thing to do, not because of political expediency.”
Mr. Jealous also has met with activists from the Parkland, Florida, school shooting and formally signed a pledge that he won’t take money from the NRA a social media movement that originated after Parkland.
Nadine Smith, one of the “No NRA Money” organizers, said there are some Republicans among the more than 600 politicians who have taken the pledge but she thinks Jaxon’s story about Mr. Hogan is worth highlighting.
“I think we tagged his campaign and said we’re eager for you to sign,” Ms. Smith said. “We didn’t get any pushback from his campaign.”
Ms. Smith also said she expects guns to be an issue for voters this year.
“Our message to voters is make it crystal clear that any candidate who actively seeks the NRA’s support or refuses to reject the NRA’s support won’t get your vote,” she said.
Jaxon, who will be old enough to vote in November, said that while it took months to get in front of Mr. Hogan, it took a single email to get a meeting with Mr. Jealous and she came away with a very positive impression of him as well.
“He did seem to want to support me and my classmates to make sure that this doesn’t happen again, and I didn’t have any doubt that he would do whatever it takes,” she said.
Jaxon said she and her classmates are focused on getting people registered to vote and to the polls, regardless of who they might end up supporting.
“But I am of course asking people to consider this when they do go to the polls, and to take a step back and say who is going to support these students and who is going to support everyone in the state of Maryland as we move towards a society that doesn’t have as much gun violence,” she said.