As a lifetime member of the National Rifle Association with an "A " rating for her voting record in the Tennessee House of Representatives, Debra Maggart never imagined that her political career would end this way.
Maggart, who chaired the Republican caucus, killed an NRA-backed bill that would have permitted Tennesseans to keep firearms in their parked vehicles wherever they went - work, school or the neighborhood bar.
Months later, Maggart was stunned to see NRA-sponsored ads on billboards in her district. Her face was next to a picture of President Obama. The ads proclaimed: "Sure, Rep. Debra Maggart Says She Supports Your Gun Rights. Of Course, He Says the Same Thing."
The NRA threw its support behind a newcomer in the Republican primary. By summer's end, the woman who had been one of Tennessee's most powerful Republicans and ardent supporters of gun rights was done in by hardball tactics.
"As a pro-Second Amendment person and a life member of the NRA, I was just shocked they did this to me," Maggart said in an interview. "They did this to send a message: 'If you don't do what we want, we will annihilate you.' "
The message has not been lost on lawmakers across the nation, including those in the U.S. Senate, where a proposal to expand background checks for gun purchases died April 17 in the face of the NRA's staunch opposition.
For longtime NRA members, the Senate vote was not surprising. The group has turned the debate over gun control into a clarion call for constitutional rights. Any perceived assault on the Second Amendment is met with a withering counterattack. Even conservative lawmakers who cross the NRA are labeled as traitors. The NRA has been so effective over the years that gun-control groups are now trying to adopt some of the same tactics.
Well-organized NRA members and affiliated groups of gun owners hold rallies and pour resources into political campaigns. They flood local and national legislative offices with emails and phone calls. They make unannounced visits to the offices of lawmakers. The NRA's lobbying arm posts myriad "Alerts," calling on millions of members across to the country to rise up at a moment's notice.
It's more about organizing muscle and less about political money.
A spokesman for the NRA did not return calls requesting comment.
"The NRA knows how to play very effective hardball," said Richard Feldman, a former NRA lobbyist who wrote the book "Ricochet," an inside account of gun politics and tactics. "They have turned this into a symbolic issue. It's no longer about guns. It's about freedom and responsibility and liberty."
After the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Newtown, Conn., in December, Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, said he could sense a "sea change" in gun politics. He issued a public pledge: He would not "shy away" from challenging the NRA, which has great influence in his state.
That was before Begich was overwhelmed by phone calls and emails from NRA members and other gun rights activists. They warned him against voting for expanded background checks, to stop violating "our gun rights," and to break with the Democratic Party or face the consequences in the next election.
Begich was one of four Democrats from states with strong NRA membership to turn his back on his party and the legislation.
The NRA's tough tactics have a long history. In 1994, after President Clinton pushed criminal background checks and a 10-year ban on assault-style weapons through Congress, the NRA organized a grassroots uprising.
The midterm elections that year were a bloodbath for Democrats who opposed the NRA, and Republicans took control of the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years.
Some of the most influential members of the Democratic Party lost their seats that night, including House Speaker Thomas Foley, D-Wash., and House Judiciary Chairman Jack Brooks, D-Texas.
"The NRA had a great night," Clinton would write in his autobiography. "They beat both Speaker Tom Foley and Jack Brooks, two of the ablest members of Congress, who had warned me this would happen. . . . The NRA was an unforgiving master: one strike and you're out."
George "Buddy" Darden was one of the 54 House Democrats to lose his job that night. For nearly 10 years, he had represented a district that included suburban Atlanta and swaths of rural Georgia, an increasingly conservative district with a well-organized contingent of NRA members.
Darden opposed the ban on assault-style weapons, but he wound up voting for the bill that contained the 10-year prohibition. The NRA leadership was infuriated. They recruited conservative religious groups, along with like-minded city council members and county commissioners, to attack Darden and support Republican challenger Robert Barr Jr., who used a local gun shop as a campaign base.
Barr won with more than 52 percent of the vote.
Looking back, Darden said numerous factors played into his loss. Although he refused to give the NRA full credit, he acknowledged that the group influenced the outcome of that race.
"The NRA is a take-no-prisoners organization. There is no margin of error with them," Darden said in an interview. "I knew their position, and I can't complain. I just felt that the Second Amendment, just like any other amendment, is not absolute."
Feldman, the former NRA lobbyist, remembers the Darden-Barr race well. At the time, he was chief executive of the American Shooting Sports Council, a trade association for the firearms industry.
"He voted for the final package that included the assault weapons ban, and the day after he did that, there were lines around the corner of the gun store of people supporting Bob Barr," Feldman recalled. "The NRA supported Barr. We supported Barr. You do what you do in a democracy.
"You support your friends, and you oppose your enemies."
Debra Maggart has been around firearms all her life. Her family owned the Carter Hardware Co. in Nashville, Tenn., which sold rifles, shotguns and handguns. She got her hunter's license, joined a local gun club and went to the Tennessee House in 2004 as a pro-gun lawmaker.
"You can't get more pro-Second Amendment than me," she said.
Last year, Maggart said, the NRA drafted a bill to permit concealed weapons to be kept in locked vehicles no matter where they were parked. She said business and property owners objected, arguing that they could be liable for gunfire on their properties. Maggart tabled the bill in April 2012.
In early July, she started to receive frantic phone calls from her friends.
"Have you seen the billboards?" they asked.