Here's How Far the 2016 GOP Candidates Have Gone to Keep the NRA Happy

For Republicans, an "A" rating from the NRA is essential.

The NRA is looking at a 2016 dream team.

The lineup for the Republican primary is chock-full of candidates who love their firearms, an essential first step to winning a coveted and powerful NRA endorsement. For Republican candidates, winning the gun vote is key to proving conservative credentials, and there is no better way to do that than by getting the approval of the NRA, which is holding its annual convention this weekend.

Everywhere they turn, the NRA has a deep bench of Republican nominees eager to prove their allegiance to the powerful lobbying group that dished out roughly $35 million during the 2014 midterm elections.

Unlike in 2012, when Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney earned the endorsement of the NRA's political arm just a month before the presidential election, the NRA already has a broad crew of candidates it could back. Romney had far more work to do to shore up support from gun owners than many of the Republican 2016 candidates today. As governor of Massachusetts in 2004, Romney had signed a ban on semiautomatic weapons which he described at the time as "instruments of destruction with the sole purpose of hunting down and killing people."

Through a series of statements and speeches, Romney—in the long run—embraced NRA talking points as his own, but few of the 2016 candidates have that much work to do.

Jeb Bush

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (A+ rating) signed a slew of laws during his tenure as governor, including the state's "stand your ground" provision, which gave residents unprecedented legal cover to protect themselves when confronted with imminent danger. It was the same controversial law that erupted into a national discussion after Sanford, Fla., resident George Zimmerman killed unarmed, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.

Scott Walker

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (A+ rating), signed a similar "castle doctrine" bill in 2011 that gave individuals more leeway to shoot and kill those who threatened them on their property. He signed a concealed-carry law the same year.

Rick Perry

Texas Gov. Rick Perry (A+ from the 2010 campaign) not only advanced gun laws during his tenure as governor that allowed Texans to bring guns in their cars to work, he spent years showing off just how involved he was personally with firearms. Ahead of a speech at the NRA convention in 2013, Perry played a video that depicted him shooting up human-shaped targets with a semiautomatic weapon.

And in 2013, when states like New York and Connecticut began passing stricter gun-control laws after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, Perry made an effort to recruit gun manufacturers who felt "vilified" in those states to pack up and set up shop in Texas.

Ted Cruz

In the Senate, Ted Cruz of Texas (A+), Rand Paul of Kentucky, and Marco Rubio of Florida all stood against a comprehensive bill to expand background checks. Cruz called the package of gun reforms "unconstitutional."

Rand Paul

Paul, who had an "A" NRA rating as of 2012, won't be speaking at the NRA conference Friday because of his ties to another gun group, according to The Wall Street Journal. But he cannot be perceived as being unsympathetic on gun rights. The National Association for Gun Rights, which he has been aligned with in the past, is seen by many as even further to the right on gun issues than the NRA.

Marco Rubio

For Rubio, the convention is a chance to flash his new "A" rating before he formally announces a presidential bid next week. Rubio once had a B+ rating, but has been working to reaffirm his pro-gun bona fides. At the end of March, he introduced the "Second Amendment Rights in the District of Columbia" Act, which amends D.C. gun laws and makes it easier for individuals to obtain firearms. After he introduced that bill, his rating increased, The Hill reported. "Rubio has a perfect voting record in the Senate," NRA spokeswoman Jennifer Baker told The Hill, adding that the grade change "reflects five years worth of votes in defense of the Second Amendment."

Chris Christie

Perhaps New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is among the only candidates still searching for NRA support. The gun group gave him a "C" rating during his reelection bid in 2013. The governor vetoed an ammunition bill in July 2014 that would have banned magazine clips over 10 rounds. He was not invited to speak at the NRA convention.

But from Perry to Bush to Rubio to Walker, the gun convention is one place where the most talked-about 2016 candidates are all in agreement. Gun rights won't be the issue that splinters the Republican contenders. They are already locked and loaded for the NRA.