Shannon Robinson is an unlikely prototype of a twenty-first-century opinion shaper. With disheveled gray hair, a ruddy face, a voice gravelly from years of chain-smoking Marlboros and a habit of sipping translucent maté tea from a thermos through a silver straw, Robinson looks more like a down-and-out prizefighter than a cutting-edge politician. Yet this 57-year-old is a Democratic state senator in New Mexico, and he informally heads a group of state politicians who call themselves the Bull Moosers. When an issue that the members of this caucus care about comes up for a vote in the Santa Fe Capitol, they signal its importance by putting their fingers up to their ears and imitating the antlers on a male moose. Bills to do with hunting, fishing, guns, trucks, boats, ranching and such are routinely greeted by a raising of the antlers.
The Bull Moosers are a potent alliance of rural representatives, many of them Hispanic, and politicians, like Robinson, from poorer city districts (Robinson represents an impoverished, heavily immigrant and crime-ridden neighborhood in Albuquerque). “Not many people care much about my part of town,” says Robinson, in between maté sips. “But these folks have done that for me. So when we talk about issues important to ranchers and the guys with boots on, I pay a lot of attention to that. I’m the number-one Bull Moose. One of those old stags. Got some chipped-off antlers.”
One of the Bull Moosers’ signature issues is opposition to gun control. For close to a decade, Robinson pushed for a concealed-carry law in the state, allowing residents to apply for permits to carry hidden guns. This year, with support from Democratic Governor–and talked-about 2008 presidential candidate–Bill Richardson, the law finally passed. Sponsored by Robinson, concealed carry was defended on the floor of the Statehouse by Democratic caucus chair John Heaton, a retired pharmacist from rural Eddy County, as well as Judiciary Committee chairman Joseph Cervantes–a young and rising star within New Mexico Democratic politics.
It was in many ways symbolic; only about 2,500 concealed-carry permits have been issued, and most of those are for the ruggedly remote rural areas of the state where, in practice, police have long turned a blind eye to people carrying concealed weaponry illegally. Nonetheless, Heaton, a tall, tanned man with a shock of gray hair parted down the left side and a kindly, grandfatherly face–a Norman Rockwell image brought to life–believes the bill’s passage was important. Fear that Democrats will restrict gun rights “is a major background issue with voters in the West, particularly in New Mexico,” a state with the country’s largest shooting range (the Whittington Center, in the northern town of Raton) and about 40,000 National Rifle Association members, the representative states. “Guns reflect the independence, and the independent nature, of the people of the West, and restrictions on certain rights don’t play very well. Frankly, being able to take that issue off the table makes a huge difference. There are many, many of my constituents who vote that issue by itself. I know people who are registered Democrats who vote Republican because they don’t think there’s any consistency on guns. At a national level they simply won’t vote for a Democratic candidate. There has to be overt action by Democrats to demonstrate that they are not opposed to guns, in fact support them and the civil use of them.”