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The Secret Fears of the Gun Lobby and What They're Planning Next

An inside look at an influential meeting of leading pro-gun minds.
 
 
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"Take a look to your left," said the Hon. Philip Journey. "Now take a look to your right. What do you see?"

It was Saturday morning inside a hotel ballroom at Houston's George Bush Intercontinental Airport. We, the several hundred congregants of the twenty-eighth annual Guns Rights Policy Conference, did as instructed. Looking to my left, I saw the pundit and National Review columnist John Fund struggling to attach a new credit card reader to his smart phone. Looking to my right, I exchanged nods with an older gentleman wearing suspenders and a VFW hat. He looked like he could have served in the Navy with the airport's nearly nonagenarian namesake.

"You'll notice there's a lot of grey in this room," said Judge Journey, who when not sitting on a Kansas district court bench serves as an officer for the Kansas State Rifle Association. "That's the problem with our movement. We've got to get children into the shooting sports and develop an appreciation by them in the right to keep and bear arms. Because in 20 years, where will we be?" 

This question -- "In 20 years, where will we be?" -- is one of gnawing urgency for the gun-rights movement. At the National Rifle Association convention last summer, I heard gun industry veterans joke that NRA now stood for "Normal Retirement Age." At this smaller but no less influential meeting of leading pro-gun minds, most speakers circled back to their fear that those in the room represented the end of a proud line. Even as the movement's leading activists boasted of recent victories at the federal and state level -- and there are many, from successful recall elections in Colorado to a carry law in Illinois -- they warned of a deadly demographic drop-off, that the energy and the youth was all in the gun-reform corner. "The people on the other side, like [the Stimson Center's] Rachel Stohl, they are very young and they are motivated," said Julianne Versnel, of the International Association for the Protection of Civilian Arms Rights. "They know how to Tweet and Facebook, and they are doing a very good job."

If only winning the battle for young hearts and minds was as simple as opening a Twitter account. Like the GOP it overwhelming supports, the pro-gun movement does not sound like a modern army positioned to win a culture war for the allegiance of young Americans. Beverly Zaslow, a protégé of Andrew Breitbart who produces right-wing documentaries, used to the GRPC podium to slam the television program Glee for not having "normal kinds of relationships in it." Another speaker advised the pro-gun movement to "accept the gays, if they're with us." This kind of outreach is unlikely to draw the required levels of new blood needed to replace the men in suspenders and VFW hats. The severity of the crisis was put most bluntly by Andrew Sypien, content manager for the online retail gun giant CheaperThanDirt.com. "It's the 25 to 35 year-olds who are going to replace you in ten years," he said. "If you don't get them, it's going to die here with you."

The "it" here refers to a Second Amendment absolutism that rejects as unconstitutional restrictions on the right of Americans to buy, sell, transport, and carry firearms as they see fit. For the last 30 years, no single figure has done more to advance this vision of an Armed America than the diminutive, bow-tied organizer behind the Gun Rights Policy Conference. Though few Americans have ever heard of Alan Gottlieb, we live in a country he helped create. 

Gottlieb began his crusade in 1974, when he founded two non-profits dedicated to the defense and expansion of gun rights: the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, and the Second Amendment Foundation. Both pushed an agenda to the right of any gun group in the country. This included the NRA, which was then a more centrist organization focused on gun safety, hunting, and marksmanship. From this twin institutional base, Gottlieb crafted and executed public relations campaigns and lawsuits that anticipated Wayne LaPierre's NRA by decades. Central to his plan was developing a legal brain trust to advance the pro-gun agenda in the courts.

Today, the SAF's legal team is led by Alan Gura, the principal litigator in the landmark Supreme Court decisions D.C. v. Heller and McDonald v. Chicago, which declared the individual right to gun ownership for self-defense as a Constitutional right, and one applicable to the states. The state-level suits filed by SAF-affiliated lawyers are too numerous to list. Over the years they have significantly impacted gun law across the country. This success has engendered condescension among SAF strategists when it comes to their bigger, better-known, better-funded ally, the NRA. "The Second Amendment Foundation is the nation's leading gun rights litigation team," said Gura in Houston. "There's nothing wrong with lobbying and get-out-the-vote work. But this group is not just about filling your mailbox, or rabble rousing on the Internet, or sending you trinkets."

Gottlieb is no stranger to the art of filling mailboxes. In tandem with building up his gun-rights organizations, Gottlieb has grown a profitable direct-mail business called Merril Associates. Over the years, Gottlieb's direct-mail business has assisted him in growing his gun group membership rolls into the hundreds of thousands. These membership rolls have, in turn, been very good for his direct mail business. According to tax filings, the Bellevue, Washington-based SAF and CCRKBA have spent nearly $1.7 million since 2010 on contracts with Merril, which Gottlieb operates out of the same building as his gun groups. (Gottlieb has used these resources to push more conservative causes than just gun-rights. His outreach and fundraising know-how is credited with launching the Wise Use movement to weaken environmental regulations. He also serves on the board of directors of the American Conservative Union.)

As Gottlieb grew his fortune and influence in the 1980s, the NRA appeared in his rearview driving a similar politics. But his two non-profits remain laboratories for the larger pro-gun movement, and Gottlieb's inner-circle still sets the pace. He once told a Seattle newspaper, "I'm kind of the gun lobby's lobby. I prod them a whole lot. What happens is that things get innovated here and the NRA is then forced to copy it. A good example is the whole woman [sic] and guns issue. Other examples could be making the gun movement more of a civil-rights type thing."

The notion that gun rights are basic civil and human rights is today at the very center of the movement's political and legal strategies. The idea literally hung over last weekend's GRPC proceedings in the form of a stage banner reading, "EQUAL GUN RIGHTS." Under it, speakers compared gun-policy reformers to segregationists and Nazis. Massad Ayoob, a Second Amendment Foundation board member, ended a defense of Stand Your Ground laws with Blackstone's statement that "self-defense is the highest of all human rights." John Lott, the pro-gun academic, spoke of gun taxes as modern day poll taxes. "We need a document on how high fees and licensing taxes reduce gun ownership and are discriminatory," he said. Alan Korwin, author of 13 books on guns, said reformers "want to treat [gun owners] like the Negroes at the lunch counter."

It's worth noting that Korwin is considered the Frank Luntz of the pro-gun movement. Lauded by multiple speakers, he is the author of a "politically corrected" gun glossary designed to focus the gun debate around a language of rights. This lexicon, he believes, is key in wooing America's growing Latino population, which he sees holding the line against the gun-reform youth edge. "Some form of amnesty is coming," said Korwin, "and when they become citizens, they get the Second Amendment. That's 20 million people able to buy a gun and go to a range. They're slaves in Mexico. They're gonna come here and find out what freedom is about and come over to our side."

First someone needs to "get them to the range." Undergirding the strategy expressed at GRPC is the belief that people can be recruited into the gun lobby by the simple act of placing some steel in their hands. Faith in the transformative power of shooting found its most enthusiastic promoter in Charles Heller of Jews for the Preservation of Firearm Ownership, a group that has been criticized by the Anti-Defamation League for linking stronger gun laws to anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. It all starts with the proper gateway gun. "If you can at least get them to own a .22," said Heller. "Going from zero to one gun is the biggest change. Going from one to 34 is not a big deal. If we could just get them to a Ruger Mark II, or a Browning Buck Mark, or a Smith & Wesson 422, it would be a tremendous leap forward. It would be the footprint on the moon. That's what it would be."

While driving new recruits to the munitions moon, Heller told the audience they should feel free to describe anti-gun Jews as "bagel brains," a phrase coined by his organization's rabbinic director. "When you quote Rabbi [Dovid] Bendory," said Heller, "you aren't being anti-Semitic, you are being a reporter, reporting it as fact."

Inside the pro-gun movement, there is no bigger "bagel brain" than Michael Bloomberg. Angst and anger over Bloomberg's financial commitments to gun reform causes bubbled up repeatedly, described as a threat on par with the natural aging process. The weekend featured a panel titled, "Bloomberg: The $500 Billion Anti-Gun Gorilla," but it could have been the name of the entire conference. Bloomberg's shadow darkened each speaker's outlook, beginning with Gottlieb, who described Bloomberg's support for state ballot-measures as "the biggest short-term threat to the movement." Several speakers expressed something close to terror over their belief that the mogul-mayor's most recent donation to the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health that bears his name was made to fund 40 full-time gun-policy researchers. While a $350 million dollar gift was announced in January, a spokesperson for the School says the money was not targeted to gun policy research, but rather to "cross-disciplinary work across the university to galvanize people and resources around a set of complex global challenges."

This is made clear by the press release announcing the donation, which also explains that $100 million of the funds will be used for need-based financial aid. These facts did nothing to temper the conspiracies. "Johns Hopkins has always been a center of anti-gun thinking, but this [development] is extraordinarily serious," said the gun lawyer Mark Barnes. "We're going to have to get behind young people who can counter this over time."

"What came out of Newtown was the threat represented by Michael Bloomberg," said Jeff Knox, a World Net Daily columnist who heads the hardline Firearms Coalition. "The conglomeration of groups and forces he funds is the greatest threat that we face right now. We must make the name Bloomberg a poison pill in the political community, so that anything remotely related to his money is Dead On Arrival. We slammed him in Colorado, next is Virginia, where he's backing [Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry] McAuliffe."

Virginia's gubernatorial race is high on the pro-gun agenda. But the SAF and its network of lawyers and activist groups are active in all 50 states. They consider every inch of legislative ground in every one of them sacred turf. This includes even "hard cases" like New York, where SAF lawyers have filed suit against the SAFE Act, the law passed earlier this year in response to the Sandy Hook school shooting, which tightens the state's ban on assault weapons, requires background checks for every gun sale, and strengthens penalties for selling guns illegally. "You don't win battles by playing defense," said Gottlieb in his opening remarks before a state legislative affairs briefing. "We have a record number of bills in statehouses in blue states."

At the state level, the movement is on a roll. Speakers from a dozen states rattled off impressive records -- defeating proposed gun reforms and weakening those already on the books. Sean Caranna, of FloridaCarry.org, waxed confident about the chances for relaxing his state's carry laws so that revealing a gun during an argument is less likely to be prosecuted as aggravated assault or improper escalation of force. Jim Irvine, of Ohio's Buckeye Firearms Association, explained how Republican legislators are playing defense, allowing them to play offense on issues like open carry, Stand Your Ground, and gun training for teachers. Irvine told the crowd to act locally but think and link nationally, that a victory or defeat for one is a victory or defeat for all. "Like Hitler and the Nazis," said Irvine, "Bloomberg looks for targets he can pick off. The idea is to take those one at a time, until there's nobody left except you." 

The pro-gun movement's leading lawyer described 2014 as a potential watershed year for gun politics at the federal level. Alan Gura ran down three cases related to concealed carry that he believes have a chance of making it to the Supreme Court. Which one the Court decides to take up doesn't matter; the particular decision is less important than the court agreeing that the Second Amendment protects carrying guns outside the home. Also consequential for a range of gun law fights is the legal language of the decision. Specifically, Gura will argue against the legal standard by which most courts decide Second Amendment law.

Some courts have decided that the permissibility of gun regulations is determined based on the principle of "intermediate scrutiny," meaning that gun regulations must be proved to be "substantially related to an important governmental interest," such as public health, safety, and order. Gura seeks to replace the "intermediate scrutiny" standard with the much higher test of "strict scrutiny." The "strict scrutiny" standard requires laws to be "narrowly tailored to achieve [a compelling government] interest and it must be the least restrictive means of doing so," said Kelly Ward, a lawyer who works on gun-policy issues. Because of this language and the standard it sets, it is considered a graveyard for regulatory laws. Legal experts say success by Gura would endanger state and municipal-level permitting systems and other laws across the country.

"We have three petitions before the Court, but we need only argue one of these to correct 'intermediate scrutiny' approach," Gura said in Houston. "Heller and McDonald suggest they will take future petitions, but should they refuse all of them, then Heller and McDonald don't matter a lot. They are important only if shown to change the way Supreme Court deals with Second Amendment. Next year may be the most consequential since 2008."

At the street level, Gottlieb's groups are busy planning a nationwide action on the anniversary of the Newtown massacre. Emboldened by polls suggesting a sagging in public support for gun reform, Gottlieb is confident he can win the battle for hearts and minds by planting a flag in the memory of Sandy Hook. The SAF is organizing a "Guns Save Lives" day that they hope will include protests and meet-ups in 50 states. "We are not going to let the gun prohibition lobby own December 14," said Gottlieb. "We will out-organize the other side and show America that there is a good side to guns."

Their plan for December 14 shows that Gottlieb's groups can be as delusional and tone-deaf when it comes to public opinion as the NRA. But the yearly GRPC is also home to admissions you would never hear at the NRA's main-event annual gun-show and GOP primary pre-run. This begins with the simple admission that Barack Obama has failed to advance the gun-reform agenda. SAF president Joseph Tartaro gloated over the nonexistence of the gun-grabbing Satan that stars in so many NRA fundraising letters. "He's more of a talker than a doer," Tartaro said.

The weekend's discussion of the global Arms Trade Treaty likewise began with a rare gun-culture admission of reality. Allen Youngman, of the Defense Small Arms Advisory Council, criticized unnamed pro-gun groups who fundraised off a false caricature of the ATT. "The ATT is not a direct assault on the Second Amendment in its present text," said Youngman. "The U.S. delegation did a superb job in keeping the bad stuff out. There's no gun registration. It's just not in there."

But these moments of reasoned clarity tended to be short-lived, giving way to NRA-style hyperbole. Obama has proven a paper tiger, but just wait 'til Andrew Cuomo is in the White House. The ATT is not a threat as written, but the Senate must never sign it and we must always remain ever vigilant. And just like inside the NRA, the ahistorical superlatives rain down like water. One speaker called New York's SAFE Act "the most unworkable law since Prohibition." Gottlieb could have been reading from a Wayne LaPierre speech when he said, "The most important midterm election in our lifetime is just a year away. Losing our freedoms is always just one election away."

Another similarity is the presence of the pro-gun movement's silent partner: the gun-and-ammo industry. At last year's NRA convention, CheaperThanDirt.com donated $500,000 to the group's lobbying arm. At the GRPC, the company was a diamond level sponsor at $100,000. This put the company's name on a banner alongside the logo of handgun maker Glock. It also shielded the company from public criticism. During a panel on "Advancing Gun Rights in the New Media," an attendee asked a CheaperThanDirt executive about the company's decision to treble prices on certain items on the night of president Obama's Newtown speech. The moderator quickly jumped in and ended the line of questioning. Sly digs at the NRA are one thing. Getting into the economic interests and incentives of the gun industry, that remains a collapsible stock too far. 

Alexander Zaitchik is a journalist living in New Orleans.

 
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