Gun Reform Needs Grassroots Activists Not Astroturf

Talk of gun reform after the Las Vegas country music massacre has faded within just weeks.

Representative Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of California, has made a plea to regulate “bump stocks,” a marginal step, and Senator Chris Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, has introduced gun legislation he predicts will fail. Conservative pundits are declaring gun reform will never happen. “Why do progressives and the media keep plowing this ocean?” wrote Wall Street Journal columnist Daniel Henninger. “The chance that the American people will ever disarm remains zero.”

Most gun owners want more regulation of firearms. Yet the gun lobby, led by the National Rifle Association, is arguably near their longtime goal of achieving expanded firearms nationwide.

There are several keys to the NRA’s success. Long before the term “fake news” became a common refrain, NRA officials already knew how to control their debate: Speak only when likely to win. Obfuscate as needed to impede dialogue. Deploy paid experts whose NRA funding is not disclosed. And skillfully attack elected officials who defy them one by one. They fund attack ads targeting candidates who favor gun reform, accusing them of being soft on crime without even mentioning guns.

The elusive and dirty messaging alone does not count for the NRA’s success. That hinges on the gun lobby’s army of grassroots activists.

But the combination of elusive and dirty messaging alone does not count for the NRA’s success. That hinges on the gun lobby’s army of grassroots activists. These are people who vote religiously and in blocks, supporting pro-gun candidates at every level. Much like NRA-leaning commentators on cable news who seem to follow a script, many gun rights activists can repeat pro-gun mantras by rote. And, unlike gun reformists, pro-gun activists speak up regularly at community and town-hall meetings and online.

Gun reform groups are more like “Astroturf,” as one pro-gun blogger has noted. No matter how much you spend on it, it never grows. After the shocking 2011 Tucson shooting involving Representative Gabby Giffords, and the unspeakable carnage of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, a handful of new organizations have emerged.

These include Americans for Responsible Solutions now renamed with its founder’s namesake Giffords. Former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Mayors against Illegal Guns, has now been rebranded as Everytown for Gun Safety. Another group, Moms Demand Action, was founded by a stay-at-home Mom and former public relations executive Shannon Watts, who has become a leader for gun reform on TwitterNewtown Action Alliance and Sandy Hook Promise are each quieter groups led by parents who lost children inside Newtown’s Sandy Hook school. An energetic news website has also appeared, The Trace, to help document gun violence.

They join other groups like the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, named after the late White House press secretary, Jim Brady, who was severely injured in the 1981 assassination attempt on President Reagan. The largest and most well-funded group is Everytown, which boasts 3 million members.

But how active are they when compared to NRA members?

What Bloomberg is likely defining as “supporters” are people who have gotten on his email list, noted the pro-gun blogger. That’s a vastly different animal than a dues-paying member. NRA actually has one of the strictest standards for membership of any interest group in Washington, D.C.

Where are the anti-gun blogs?, the same blogger went on. Where’s the anti-gun convention that turns out over 80,000 people, like NRA does annually? How does the NRA mobilize bigger protests ad-hoc than anti-gun activists can manage even with professional organizers and slick ad campaigns?

Two paid NRA experts, including a Golden, Colorado-based researcher and legal scholar, David Kopel, testified in Congress after the Sandy Hook tragedy without anyone mentioning their NRA funding. Kopel previously filed amicus briefs to the Supreme Court, including before the benchmark verdict in the District of Columbia vs. Heller case, without ever disclosing his NRA funding. He has also published newspaper op-eds against gun control—his funding from the NRA unmentioned.

Only after prodding by done by me in The Progressive, other publications, first The New York Times and then The Washington Post, began referencing his NRA funding next to his byline or name when quoting him in news stories. But Kopel managed to run another op-ed without disclosing his funding, this one in response to the Las Vegas shooting, in The Wall Street Journal, earlier this month.

Recently a Cub Scout, 11-year-old Ames Mayfield, was dismissed from his pack for asking a Colorado state senator, “Why on earth would you want somebody who beats their wife to have access to a gun?”

Enacting gun reform would require an infusion of informed activists at every level to finally challenge the NRA’s longstanding monopoly of the debate. Recently a Cub Scout, 11-year-old Ames Mayfield, was dismissed from his pack for asking a Colorado state senator, “Why on earth would you want somebody who beats their wife to have access to a gun?” I wonder if the pack leader, who has since declined to comment, took offense at the scout’s question because direct challenging of any almost pro-gun politician is so rare.

Progressives have many reasons to prioritize gun reform. After suicides mostly by white men, much of America’s gun violence is concentrated among young urban minorities, as documented by the Violence Policy Centerwhose research has long been unassailable. The proliferation of firearms throughout our society contributes to police shootings of minorities and others. Many police in this nation are likely to encounter more armed suspects in the early years on the job than a comparable officer in the United Kingdom or Germany might encounter in their career.

Gun reform activists need to challenge common fallacies such as, “gun control leads to genocide like the Holocaust,” a claim belied by a body of scholarship. Or, “if guns are outlawed only criminals will have guns,” a myth belied by evidence at home and from the United KingdomGermany and Australia. Or, “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” a claim disproved by the Las Vegas shooting itself.

Gun reform activists need to challenge common fallacies such as, “if guns are outlawed only criminals will have guns.”

Many hardline gun advocates falsely claim any gun regulation is unconstitutional, even though the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia himself wrote, “the Second Amendment right is not unlimited.” Many also claim that the Second Amendment affords citizens the right to amass high-powered weapons in case they might need to use them some day either against or for the government.

This belief, not yet ruled upon by any court, is the reason Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock was able to legally acquire so many high-powered firearms. It helps explain the presence of armed militias at the fatal White Nationalist rally last year in Charlottesville, Virginia. And it is the ideology behind the so-called “Three Percenter” movement, based on another false claim, that just three percent of colonial American militiamen helped defeat the British in the American Revolution.

The moment seems urgent. The NRA has flip-flopped about whether it would support some regulation of “bump stocks,” the inexpensive, after-market mechanism that converts a semi-automatic rifle into a repeat-firing weapon.

The NRA said it might support regulating bump stocks under one condition—a monumental one that would, by any measure, alter the nation. The gun lobby is seeking either a new federal law or high court ruling that would make permits to carry concealed handguns in one state valid in every other, like a driver’s license.

Although now the push to limit bump-stocks already seems over, while the goal of carrying concealed handguns across states is only just beginning.

How weak is gun reform today? After our worst modern gun tragedy, no one is talking about regulating guns, only expanding their access across the country.

Frank Smyth is a freelance journalist who has covered the NRA for more than twenty years, writing for The Village VoiceThe Washington PostMSNBC.comand The Progressive. He won a Society of Professional Journalists national investigative award for his Mother Jones story, “Unmasking NRA’s Inner Circle,” after the Sandy Hook massacre.

Four Years after Sandy Hook, the NRA Continues the Arming of America

The weekend after the presidential election, I attended a gun show in Frederick County, one of the rural counties in the blue state of Maryland that voted for Donald Trump. One mother, with her infant resting quietly in a navy blue stroller, pulled back the black metal slide of a 9mm pistol. Not far away a man caressed the polymer handguard and stock of an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle.

The National Rifle Association manned a booth near the entrance. One of the men behind the green wooden counter, whose nametag read Bob, said he was a longtime NRA member. I asked him what he thought about NRA head Wayne LaPierre. “He’s well-spoken, and I trust him,” he answered.

Wayne LaPierre, in a video made by the NRA just days after the election, credited NRA members for Trump’s victory: “On November 8, you, the five million members of the National Rifle Association of America, along with the tens of millions of gun owners all over this country, who followed your lead, achieved a truly extraordinary, historic, even heroic accomplishment.”

The election of Donald J. Trump, combined with a Republican sweep of the Senate, has given today’s GOP an unprecendented monopoly of power. The NRA now finds itself within reach of goals that it has pursued for nearly forty years. The organization has arrived at this point via a combination of patience, self-control, and deceit.

“In the face of the bitter hatred and elitist condemnation, this is our historic moment to go on offense and defeat the forces that have allied against our freedom once and for all,” stated LaPierre in a recent video titled, “Our Time is Now.” With a patient, self-effacing demeanor, he’s the first executive director to not come from a military, hunting, or sports background.

In the video, LaPierre also mocks universal background checks, favored by 70 to 90 percent of Americans, and derides other “common sense” gun laws. He calls for the new Congress to pass a national concealed carry reciprocity law, which would require states to accept a concealed carry weapons permits issued by other states, much like the way states recognize each other’s driver licenses. Today, twenty-six states have at least some restrictions on who is eligible to carry a concealed weapon. Among them, nine states further limit such permits to people like security guards.

LaPierre also claims President Obama has “infected” federal courts with 300 constitutionally unsound judges and states that “Second Amendment freedoms” should trump state and municipal gun control laws. How is it that in Washington, D.C., one can now legally keep a gun in the home, asks LaPierre, but there is no place to buy a gun in the same city?

The NRA pumped a record $38 million into ads to help elect Donald Trump, and another $24 million to secure GOP control of the Senate. With the help of NRA campaign ads saturating the airwaves, six NRA-backed Senate candidates won key races, including Marco Rubio in Florida. Now the gun lobby is making an unprecedented push for federally mandated measures to expand the ability of state gun permit holders to carry firearms nationwide. The group is also seeking national legislation to legalize silencers. The NRA supports President-elect Trump promise to eliminate “gun-free zones” across the country, too.

“I don’t think it’s quite game over,” said Jonathan E. Lowy, legal director of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. “But there are reasons to be concerned.”

Trump will appoint at least one justice to replace the late Antonin Scalia, but the court’s liberal justices include Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who is eighty-three. If Trump gets to appoint a second Supreme Court justice, America’s entire political landscape could change. The NRA is looking for a Roberts court decision that would not only proscribe future attempts at gun control, but dramatically expand firearms access across the nation.

None of this was supposed to happen.

For years, many liberal pundits proclaimed the NRA was in decline. Gun ownership, they noted, has been decreasing across America. One report found that just three percent of Americans own most of the nation’s guns. The NRA, some said, is facing the same kind of challenges as the Republican Party in a nation that is increasingly diverse.

And then there was the gun tragedy that led gun reformists to believe their time had finally come. This Wednesday, December 14, marks the fourth anniversary of the slaughter of twenty small children and six of their educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. The Sandy Hook tragedy was preceded by many other mass shootings from Columbine to Aurora, from Tucson to Virginia Tech, to name just a few, not to mention the more mundane, daily toll of gun violence. But it was this unspeakable schoolhouse tragedy that finally seemed to signal a time for change.

“So our hearts are broken today—for the parents and grandparents, sisters and brothers of these little children, and for the families of the adults who were lost,” said a teary-eyed President Obama. Over the ensuing six months, there was a palpable hope that Congress would finally act. The Senate drafted bills to try and pass “universal” background checks, even though they still had large loopholes.

But even watered-down versions of the relatively token legislation failed due to the threat of a Republican filibuster over a Democratic-controlled Senate. None of the legislation introduced after Sandy Hook ever even made to the GOP-controlled House.

Understanding how the NRA survived Sandy Hook helps explain how the gun lobby has ended up on top today. It prevailed by downplaying its own extremism, and by presenting one alleged “independent” expert whose influence ran all the way to the Senate and Supreme Court.

LaPierre’s initial response to Sandy Hook shocked many people. “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun,” he said, adding that if any adults at Sandy Hook had been armed, the children and educators might still be alive. His comments were described as “tone-deaf.” During the subsequent Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearing on gun violence, Democratic Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois asked LaPierre if he thought the Second Amendment was meant to let citizens amass arms as a check on government, the driving mantra of gun rights absolutists. LaPierre said this was the Founding Fathers’ original intent, sidestepping the question of whether this is still the NRA’s view now.

Another witness at that Senate hearing, David Kopel, titled his testimony, “What Should America Do About Gun Violence?” He identified himself as the research director of the Independence Institute in Golden, Colorado, an associate policy analyst at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C., and an adjunct professor of advanced constitutional law at Denver University. He did not disclose that his Institute had received more than $1.4 million, including about $175,000 a year over the past eight years, from the NRA Civil Rights Defense Fund. For decades, until the funding was uncovered first by this reporter at and later by FOX31 in Denver, Kopel managed to write op-eds in leading newspapers including The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, without ever identifying his NRA funding.

Kopel also wrote law journal pieces at top schools, including Harvard, Yale, and the University of Michigan, without disclosing his NRA funding. And he appeared before the Supreme Court, as part of the team arguing in favor of gun rights in the District of Columbia vs. Heller. His amicus briefs on behalf of law enforcement groups, at least two of which have themselves received NRA funding, each failed to mention any NRA funding to either these groups or himself. Kopel’s briefs were cited four times in 2008 in Heller’s majority decision by the late Justice Antonin Scalia. They cropped up again in 2010 in another landmark Supreme Court gun case, McDonald v. Chicago.

Four years can seem like a long time. The gun reformists who were expecting victory after Sandy Hook now see their worst nightmares forming on the horizon.

It’s true that an NRA victory is hardly assured, especially at the state level. In November, gun restrictive referendums passed in three out of four states. In Washington, courts can now block access to people deemed dangerous. In California, background checks are now required to buy ammunition. Nevada voters passed one of the nation’s most restrictive laws, requiring background checks for almost any firearms transfers. A similar initiative failed in Maine.

“The [gun control] movement is in better shape than it’s ever been,” says Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the Violence Policy Center and longtime gun control expert, He points to relatively new organizations including one funded by parents who lost children at Sandy Hook, and another organized by former Arizona Rep. Gabby Giffords, who was injured in a racially motivated 2011 attack that killed six people, including a child. A third group organized by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has pumped millions to back gun reform candidates.

But nearly all of those candidates lost on November 8, one more sign that the view from Capitol Hill in every direction favors the NRA. Unless progressives and gun reform groups manage to muster enough strength and resources to oppose it, the gun lobby may well end up expanding arms access across America for some time to come.

Frank Smyth is a freelance journalist who has covered the NRA for more than twenty years, writing for The Village Voice, The Washington Post, and The Progressive. He won a Society of Professional Journalists national investigative award for his Mother Jones story, “Unmasking NRA’s Inner Circle,” after the Sandy Hook massacre.

Christie moves right on gun issues with veto

Last summer, after Hurricane Sandy, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie showed independence from his own party when he embraced President Barack Obama. The move made Christie a target among his GOP colleagues for appearing to betray then-presidential candidate Mitt Romney. But Friday night Christie,  a possible 2016 GOP presidential candidate, seemed to move back to the right on gun issues when he vetoed three key gun bills in New Jersey.

Christie has defied the gun lobby in the past by defending New Jersey’s gun control laws, which have long been among the strictest in the nation. The state requires a background check and lifetime firearms identification card for any firearms purchase, an additional permit for any handgun purchase, and a waiting period of 30 days before another handgun may be bought.

But the New Jersey governor’s Friday veto of new gun control legislation backtracked on his previous record.

One of the bills would have prohibited .50 caliber rifles in New Jersey. The weapon is described as a “long-range anti-material” and “anti-personnel” firearm that “provides an inexpensive means of neutralizing lightly armored targets,” according to the product description from one Phoenix, Arizona-based manufacturer. California is currently the only state to ban .50 caliber rifles.

The other two New Jersey measures would have required state agencies to report lost and stolen gun data to a federal database, embedded information about gun permits onto an individual permit holder’s New Jersey driver license, created instant background checks within the state, and required safety training for New Jersey gun owners.

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Sequester trumps Sandy Hook: Why gun-control measures may falter

Many Americans expected a real change in the nation’s gun laws after the killing of 20 first-graders in Newtown. But three months later, the outcome looks unclear. No fewer than four pieces of legislation have passed a Senate panel over the past two weeks to move to the Senate floor. “It’s a step forward,” Debra DeShong Reed, spokeswoman for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, told MSNBC.

At the same time, legislators in both the House and Senate have stuck provisions into spending bills that could undermine federal enforcement of both existing and proposed gun control efforts. “It’s gonna be a slog,” Ladd Everitt, spokesman for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, told MSNBC.

“The will is there,” Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the Violence Policy Center, told MSNBC. Sugarmann is a longtime gun control advocate who grew up in Newtown decades before this past December’s tragedy. “But the NRA is relentless,” he added. “They are out there in public. They are working behind the scenes, and that is what we are seeing right now.”

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[Correction: The story incorrectly refers to a pump-action, semi-automatic shotgun used in Aurora, Colorado. The weapon used was a pump action shotgun. As many readers pointed out in comments, a weapon could not be both. My apologies. FS]