In every election season the gun-rights movement renews a running battle as various experts and activists argue over candidate grades and endorsements.

Since our movement is dominated by conservative Republicans, many of our people get upset when NRA or other groups give high grades or endorsements to liberal Democrats, regardless of voting records. This year Republican activists outside the rights movement have been exerting a lot of pressure trying to force gun groups to endorse only Republicans.

There are some very compelling arguments for weighting grades based on party affiliation, since most members of Congress try to be loyal to their party and will “bend” their principles when the party demands it. The fact that all but one of the Democrat members of the Senate, including several avowedly pro-Second Amendment senators, voted to confirm Sonya Sotomayor and Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court in spite of their demonstrated hostility toward the Second Amendment demonstrates how party politics can outweigh a politicians personal “convictions.”

But it is hardly a winning strategy to abandon an incumbent politician who has worked for the cause and reliably voted as asked 90 percent of the time in favor of a newcomer who hews a more conservative line, but who is statistically unlikely to unseat the friendly incumbent. Such is the conundrum of grading politicians.

The solution to the problem does not lie in modifying how groups score votes, but rather in changing what votes they score. The education establishment figured out long ago that the easiest way to improve students’ grades is to simply ask easier questions on tests. Politicians employ a similar strategy; they avoid any vote that might be used against them or their colleagues.

The House and Senate leadership work diligently to ensure that business is conducted in such a way as to always provide political cover to the members of their party. If that means they have to let their opponents off the hook as well, so be it. The incumbents see to it that the system favors incumbents.

Covering their collective tails is Priority 1 in Congress. If one party can devise a way to leave members of the opposing party hanging in the breeze, they will jump on it, but the preferred tactic is always the one that keeps incumbents in office by avoiding accountability.

By evading – or at the very least muddling – accountability, politicians are able to leave special interest groups with very little valid data upon which to base grades. Consequently, grades end up being based on meaningless show-votes such as votes passing measures in one house during the last days of a session when it is clear that there is no chance of the bill passing out of the other house. Another tactic is to attach a favorable amendment to a piece of “must-pass” legislation with the clear understanding that the conference committee will be stacked with a majority of “bullet-proof” “F” rated members who will rip the language out first thing. The ultimate ploy is to defeat a prominent piece of legislation and leave members of the opposing party holding the bag.

That was done last year with a bill which would have required states to recognize the concealed carry permits of all other states. There were a couple of Republican senators who were solidly opposed to the proposal, so when Democrat leaders allowed it to be brought to a vote, those two Republicans voted against it. Democrats then called in just enough votes to kill the measure, but allowed the rest of their caucus to vote “against the party” and get needed “brownie points” from the GunVoters back home.

In the end the measure failed by exactly two votes, and all of the blame for its defeat was laid on the doorstep of the two Republicans. And all of those Democrats who voted for the bill got an “atta boy” from the gun groups.

The only way to ever achieve fair and accurate grades for politicians is to force them into taking hard and revealing votes in every session. This is done by holding the feet of our “friends” to the fire and punishing them if they fail to deliver. That punishment needs to be delivered swiftly and unequivocally, whether that failure comes in the form of a procedural vote, a stubborn committee chairman or an opposition filibuster.

Pet legislation must be introduced and shepherded through the legislature in a carefully planned manner to force politicians to either support it or reject it – all clearly on the record. The strategy requires some arm-twisting and is guaranteed to incur the wrath of political leaders. But the “gun lobby” doesn’t exist to make friends on the Hill, it exists to expand and protect the right to arms. Only through votes and hard work toward votes can a politician’s true colors be seen.

It is the responsibility of pro-rights groups to push an agenda that forces politicians to take a clear stand. Once the stand has been taken, then they can be correctly graded and considered for endorsements. Grades based on the pabulum that has been coming out of Congress – and most state legislatures – over the past several years is of little use, since it gives no real indication of what the candidate would do in a critical situation.

If we want true grades for our politicians, we must start out with honest tests.

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