NRA president energizes downstate conservatives

NRA president energizes downstate conservatives

For the first time in almost 40 years, the president of the National Rifle Association came to the Land of Lincoln to speak to voters.

Roughly 1,000 people packed Effingham's Thelma Keller Convention Center to hear from former National Security Council Deputy Director Oliver North. North testified before Congress and was implicated in the Iran-Contra affair during the Reagan era.

He touched down in Illinois to back four conservatives running for state office, but did not say if he supports the incumbent Republican governor at the fundraiser event.

"I'm asking you to go out there and find one more voter to go with you to the polls," North told the audience at the end of his nearly 40-minute long speech. "It matters not just in Illinois, but across the nation."

Perhaps surprisingly, North steered away from gun talk. He revealed at the start of the address he was booked for the event before the NRA named him as its president in May. His message focused on pillars of conservative beliefs and emphasized the importance of voters staying true to those values, being leaders in their communities and holding elected officials accountable.

The standing ovation, followed by a long line of eager members waiting for an autograph or a photo, indicated the message was well-received. Many in attendance said it was long overdue.

"There's so many anti-gun people out there that think they know what they're talking about and they keep telling lies," says Bill Harrison, the regional director for Guns Save Lives.

It's an interesting time for Illinois gun owners who feel their Second Amendment rights are under attack on the federal and state level. Recent national movements to tighten gun laws in the wake of several mass shootings prompted nearly 30 counties to declare themselves gun sanctuaries.

Effingham, the location for Thursday's event, was the birthplace of the movement.

"I don't think you want to do what we're doing. I don't think you want to start breaking off pieces of the Second Amendment and saying, 'Now okay, you deal with it,'" says Dwight Kay, a Republican candidate running for the House's 112th district. "My sense is [that] a hunter and sportsman and somebody who enjoys skeet shooting, I think they are concerned and I think it'll come out sooner than later."

Kay, like many in attendance Thursday, was reluctant to call out the governor, but did criticize his latest action on gun safety.

Monday, Governor Bruce Rauner signed the Red Flag bill into law. Starting January 2019, family members or law enforcement can file a petition with a judge to have someone's guns temporarily seized if they appear to pose a clear and present threat.

Though the Illinois Rifle Association approved, the NRA vocally opposed it.

"I don't believe the Red Flag has enough protections or due process," says Seth McMilllan, a Republican candidate for the Senate's 48th district. "I'm not worried. The governor has to do what he has to do. I'm running in a district that doesn't support the legislation. It's just one of the differences I have with the governor."

It's also a difference he has with his opponent, State Senator Andy Manar (D-Bunker Hill) who supported the measure. McMillan says he is a big proponent of gun sanctuaries and he hopes to help pass similar declarations in even more areas.

"I think there'll be an overwhelming amount of people that'll say, 'Let's stop passing gun control legislation on law abiding citizens, let's deal with criminals, let's deal with the root of the problem,'" McMillan said.

Voters like Harrison agree. Though he's unhappy with Rauner's decision to sign a new gun control law, he believes the other option, J.B. Pritzker, would be a nightmare.

"We know he's going to be against the NRA, against the Second Amendment, he's a self-made (sic) billionaire has no appreciation for the everyday person."

A spokesperson from the Prtizker campaign responded saying, "J.B. will protect the rights of responsible gun owners while signing common sense legislation like the Gun Dealer Licensing Act that will help keep families safe."

Rauner vetoed the bill this Spring. Monday he announced he'll also veto its rewrite.

Voters unhappy with Pritzker or Rauner do have another option: Conservative Party candidate State Senator Sam McCann. He made sure to show up to the fundraiser to try to sway voters away from Rauner.

"I do not agree with the governor," McCann said. "I think he's misled the people of Illinois when it comes to his stance on the Second Amendment. I think he sold the Second Amendment voters out with his signature this week and I hope the people of Illinois show him the door on November the sixth."

Rauner wasn't at the event but a spokesperson issued this statement:

Governor Rauner is an avid sportsman and gun owner who's committed to protecting the Second Amendment and increasing public safety with plans for more school resource offices and keeping firearms out of the hands of dangerous criminals.

Rauner's former rival and fierce primary contender, Rep. Jeanne Ives (R-Wheaton), was the keynote speaker at the event and received a standing ovation from the crowd. She is voting for Rauner in November and, while she said she disagrees with Rauner's actions, she would not criticize him further.

The race for governor appeared a mere backdrop of the forum. The bigger focus was the battle for seats in the state legislature.

At a press conference before the event, Ives and several conservatives running for seats in the General Assembly emphasized a need to have their voices heard on a political stage they feel is drowned out by Chicago Democrats and wealthy special interest groups.

They're calling for reforms identical to those of the governor's. Phrases like, "Drain the swap," or "Fire Mike Madigan" received roaring applause from Thursday's crowd.

It's unclear if fundraising efforts were successful, but with political powerhouses like Oliver North lending support, downstate conservatives hope the rest of the state will recognize the power of their vote.

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