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Editorial: Sticking to Their Guns

There’s almost nothing more important to modern political campaigns than identifying potential supporters and obtaining their contact information. This data is political gold that can be effectively mined for campaign cash as well as for get-out-the-vote efforts.

As The New York Times reported Friday, Republican candidates in primaries across the country have developed a useful new tool to accomplish this vital task: gun giveaways, in which those who are willing to hand over their personal information — first and last names, email addresses and phone numbers — are entered into a drawing with the chance to win a pistol or rifle.

These sweepstakes are proving popular indeed. In Tennessee, 45,000 people signed up for a contest sponsored by Joe Carr, who is challenging Sen. Lamar Alexander in the Republican primary. In Colorado, Greg Brophy, a state senator who was running for governor, sponsored an online contest called “Greg Brophy’s Gun Club Giveaway” in which a Smith & Wesson M&P15 rifle was the top prize. Thousands of people entered. “It was awesome,” said the candidate.

Although the device is novel, the theory is not. All campaigns try to motivate like-minded voters to get involved and that is most reliably accomplished by courting single-issue groups. Perhaps no such constituency is more important in Republican primaries than passionate supporters of Second Amendment rights, particularly because they often feel strongly enough to put their money where their heart is.

Of course, there are risks attached. Suppose one of the guns ended up in the wrong hands? “You definitely don’t want to do that,” said Lee Bight, who is challenging Sen. Lindsey Graham in South Carolina. “Not in the middle of a campaign.”

Certainly no one would like anything messy to happen, even if no campaign was underway. In any case, Bight was not sufficiently worried by the prospect to forgo an online drawing in which an AR-15 rifle was the prize.

In any case, since political campaigns are not federally licensed firearms dealers, they cannot actually give away guns. That has to be done through a licensed dealer who, before transferring the gun to the lucky winner, must conduct those required background checks so reviled by the Second Amendment crowd.

That complication aside, there is at least one irony worth noting here. Gun-rights organizations have fiercely resisted for many years creation of a central registry of firearms owners, on the theory that government would eventually use it to confiscate all privately held firearms from their lawful owners.

Sure, it’s a wacky conspiracy theory, but one that maintains a powerful grip on the psyches of gun owners. In this case, though, firearms enthusiasts are willingly providing personal identifying information to a third party, which is presumably assembling that data in a searchable form. If we were similarly conspiracy-minded and had been reading about the National Security Agency’s surveillance capabilities, we might be wondering just how securely that information can be held by political campaigns and whether the government was surreptitiously making a copy.

It is testimony to the power of free stuff that people are willing to yield personal information on the outside chance of getting some. But it is truly astonishing, given their abhorrence of registering firearms, that gun owners would do so.