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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. 

 
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