By Sean Murphy, AP
Wayne Shaw seemed to have all the conservative credentials needed to win reelection to his state Senate seat in Oklahoma two years ago. The mild-mannered pastor with deep ties to the community had a solidly conservative voting record during his eight years in office.
But when Shaw, as chair of the Senate Public Safety Committee, declined to hear a bill to allow people to carry guns into bars, he drew the ire of an unemployed truck driver who was passionate about gun rights.
The angry gun advocate, Don Spencer, belonged to a local pro-firearms group. In short order, 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 that (guns in bars) is a good way of throwing gasoline on a fire.”
Spencer’s feat is an example of a phenomenon in red states where the Republican Party is moving farther and farther to the right: The most potent political forces aren’t always the long-established organizations that have groomed candidates and advanced legislation for decades. In the current climate, little-known outsiders, even without pedigree or money, can become powerbrokers quickly if connected to incendiary issues like guns or abortion. And almost any officeholder can become vulnerable.
Few at the Oklahoma State Capitol had even heard of Spencer when he started advocating for pro-gun laws, but now he’s 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 legislators’ offices and helps draft legislation.
At bill signing ceremonies, Spencer can often be seen flashing a smile among the lawmakers flanking the governor. Political hopefuls seek him out, and he gives them a seven-page questionnaire to fill out to determine whether they might receive an endorsement.
In the five years since Spencer took over the group, the Oklahoma 2nd Amendment Association has grown from a handful of chapters to more than 50, set up its own political action committee and begun branching out into other right-wing causes, like stopping vaccine mandates and limiting discussions of race in schools.
Spencer sees the opportunities as boundless. “People in this state are concerned about their rights, and they realize now it’s more important what’s going on in their backyard than what those crazies are doing in Washington, D.C.,” Spencer said in an interview.
The push to expand gun rights comes amid a surge 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, shooting deaths increased 35%. Yet calls for tougher firearms limits have been blocked by GOP opposition, with leaders instead citing an even greater need for citizens to protect themselves.
Fear that government will threaten conservative values is running strong in red states right now, said Michael Crespin, a political science professor at the University of Oklahoma who is familiar with the OK2A group.
“There’s this whole idea that Democrats are going to come and take their guns away,” Crespin said. “That’s not happening,” but “that fear is a good motivator for politics.”
OK2A racked up its broadest achievement in 2018 when lawmakers passed constitutional carry legislation which allows adults to openly carry firearms in public without a license or training. The bill had previously been vetoed by a Republican governor, Mary Fallin, but it was the first one signed into law by new Republican Gov. 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 chambers of commerce.
While Republican politics had been moving rightward already, the COVID-19 pandemic has boosted the role of conservative interest groups, buoyed by resistance to health restrictions. Even meetings in thinly populated rural counties can draw more than 50 people, with hundreds more tuned into livestreams online.
Fundraising is rising 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 ads and for booths at gun shows. Records show Spencer has started drawing a salary, about $30,000 each of the last two years.
“They do have influence out there, especially in Republican primaries,” said Gary Jones, former chair of the Oklahoma Republican Party. “Where they have their greatest success is low-turnout races where they can mobilize and turn out a bigger percentage of their supporters.”
Tensions sometimes flare between OK2A and the party’s established leaders. When the leader of the Senate expressed concerns last year over a bill designed to protect Oklahoma from “federal overreach,” Spencer called for him to step down and quickly summoned almost 1,000 people to the Capitol to protest.
Earlier this year, a Senate Republican, Lonnie Paxton, complained that Spencer went too far when he declared at a rally, “We win at the ballot box so we don’t have to go to the ammo box.”
Noting the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing was fueled by anti-government rhetoric, Paxton said the remark “crossed every conceivable line of decency.”
Spencer brushed off the complaint, saying it only helped his fundraising.
Republican candidates and officeholders regularly ask to speak to the group’s chapter meetings, with speeches typically including a healthy dose of fiery anti-government rhetoric.
At a recent meeting at an Oklahoma City firearms store, a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, Tulsa preacher Jackson Lahmeyer, derided Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious-disease expert, as a “mass murderer.” Another Republican candidate offered raffle entries starting at $25 for four custom-built AR-15s and a .50-caliber rifle.
At the Capitol, members ask Spencer about new bills to introduce.
“On a firearms issue, he’d be the first stop to go to,” said Rep. Eric Roberts, a Republican from Oklahoma City.
A leading Democrat, Rep. Emily Virgin, said she’s concerned the group’s power is becoming dangerous.
“This really has just turned into a far-right extremist organization, and the fact that so many Republicans in the House and Senate seem to take their cues from that organization is what is most concerning,” she said.
But Winona Heltzel, a group member from the Oklahoma City suburb of Edmond, said she joined because she thinks the group can help prevent gun confiscation.
“I know everybody talks about the government, but I’m worried about criminals,” Heltzel said.