State Politics

NC legislators used campaign cash to buy guns and NRA memberships

In the wake of another school shooting, this time in Parkland, Florida, public attention has focused on money from the gun industry flowing into politicians’ pockets. But in North Carolina sometimes money also moves in the other direction.

At least two state legislators have recently used their campaign donors’ money to buy guns, and others have paid for memberships in the National Rifle Association using campaign funds instead of their personal money.

As the 2016 election season was winding down, Republican Rep. Larry Yarborough bought a pistol from a gun dealer in his hometown of Roxboro. He purchased it for himself but used his campaign donors’ money to pay the $447.25 bill.

State law says campaign funds can typically be used only for things related to seeking or holding office. Most politicians spend their campaign cash on things like ads, mailers and yard signs. Others report using it to buy themselves meals, hotel rooms and gas when they’re out on the campaign trail.

Firearms don’t typically show up in these reports.

In fact, it’s unclear if any North Carolina politician other than Yarborough has used campaign money to buy a weapon for personal use.

State campaign finance records aren’t always digital, and even the digital ones are difficult to search for specific keywords. In a database of those records, Yarborough’s purchase is the only one listed under the category of “personal protection expense.”

Yarborough can legally have the gun as long as he remains a politician, said Pat Gannon, spokesman for the North Carolina State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement. But since the weapon technically belongs to the campaign, he couldn’t legally keep it if he ever leaves political life. His options would include buying it from his campaign committee or donating it to another politician’s campaign committee.

“The committee also could sell the gun at fair market value, with the proceeds going to the committee, or could donate the gun to a charity organization or give it to another committee as an in-kind contribution,” Gannon said.

Personal protection

Yarborough defended the gun purchase, saying that although it was money spent for himself, he wouldn’t have done so if he weren’t a politician in these polarized times.

“Before I agreed to represent my community in Raleigh, I was unaware of anyone that didn’t like me,” Yarborough wrote in an email. “Now there are people that openly hate me. They don’t even know me. One evening while out in my district, I had a scary situation and decided that I needed to be safer.”

That situation luckily didn’t involve anyone pulling a gun on him or shooting at him, but he said he was shaken nonetheless.

“I was approached by someone bigger than me in their neighborhood at night,” Yarborough said. “He proceeded to tell me how little he thought of me personally. I was intimidated and left the scene promptly.”

Living in rural Person County, Yarborough said, his community is usually safe, and before that interaction he never felt the need to carry a weapon. And while no one is allowed to carry weapons in the General Assembly’s building in Raleigh, Yarborough said he otherwise is often armed while on official business.

“I only carry the weapon when I am ‘the representative.’ I do obey the law, while carrying,” he said.

Gun for a raffle

Also in 2017, campaign finance records show that Greensboro Republican Sen. Trudy Wade spent $2,200 from her campaign on a shotgun that she was planning to raffle off at a fundraiser.

Her campaign finance report says she bought it at “On The Mark, USA.” It appears she meant to report buying it from OnMark USA, which is located at the same Greensboro address as the store listed on her finance report.

Wade’s campaign report didn’t list the type of shotgun she bought, but she said in an email it was a 28-gauge Browning shotgun that was one of the prizes at a raffle her campaign hosted on Nov. 14, 2017.

There are no legal questions about buying raffle prizes with campaign money – a long-established practice.

NRA memberships

Other North Carolina politicians have spent hundreds of dollars in the last few years buying memberships in the National Rifle Association.

Rep. Sarah Stevens, a Republican from Surry County who is the second-highest ranking member of the state House of Representatives, spent $100 in 2017 from her campaign to buy an NRA membership. Stevens’ campaign also bought memberships with the NC Sheriff’s Association and Mt. Airy Chamber of Commerce.

A campaign can legally pay for memberships, but only under certain circumstances. For example, it would almost certainly be illegal to buy a country club membership with campaign donations. But if it’s a membership in a group that the candidate could reasonably claim he or she joined as a result of holding or campaigning for office, the law does allow that.

Rep. Julia Howard, a Forsyth County Republican, spent $60 from her campaign on an NRA membership last year and another $100 in 2014.

Also in 2014, Rep. Jonathan Jordan, a Republican from Ashe County, spent $125 from his campaign on an NRA membership. And in 2012, Mike Hager, who was then a Republican representing Rutherfordton and is now a lobbyist, spent $60 from his campaign on an NRA membership.

Several members of North Carolina’s delegation in the U.S. Congress have also spent campaign funds on NRA memberships, both while they were in Congress and also while they were in the state legislature.

Last week, McClatchy DC reported that 11 members of Congress spent campaign funds on buying NRA memberships in 2017, including Republican Rep. Mark Walker of Greensboro. He spent $200 in campaign funds on NRA membership dues last year.

Walker’s campaign told McClatchy DC that the spending was justified “to ensure the campaign is notified of and receives invitations to pro-Second Amendment events in North Carolina.”

U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, a Cornelius Republican, spent $70 from his campaign on an NRA membership in 2011 when he was the speaker of the state House.

And another current U.S. representative from North Carolina, Republican Virginia Foxx, used her campaign money in 2003 – when she was still in the state legislature – to buy a $25 NRA membership.

Campaign finance records indicate the only Democrat to have recently purchased an NRA membership with campaign funds is Carson Snyder, who in 2016 paid for a $25 membership with money from his ultimately unsuccessful campaign to unseat Republican Rep. Justin Burr.

Colin Campbell of the NC Insider contributed to this report.

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer