In September the National Rifle Association unveiled a $15 million advertising campaign urging voters in key states to “Defend Freedom” and “Defeat Obama.” It declared that the Illinois senator “would be the most anti-gun president in American history.” FactCheck.org, a nonpartisan project of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center, issued a scathing analysis of the NRA’s effort, saying it “distorts Obama’s position on gun control beyond recognition.” A co-author of the FactCheck critique went further, telling Fox News the ads were “one of the worst examples of lying” he had “ever seen.”
FactCheck made some legitimate points. An NRA flyer, for example, misleadingly presented inferences based on positions Obama has taken over the years as his “10 Point Plan to ‘Change’ the Second Amendment.” Yet all the verifiable claims in the NRA’s TV spots had a factual basis, a point FactCheck missed largely because the NRA refused to provide its sources and explain its reasoning. According to FactCheck, the NRA’s public affairs director “declined to speak to us except to say that the claims are based on Obama’s voting record and statements he has made in the media.”
The episode made me think of Richard Feldman, the former NRA and gun industry lobbyist who argues that such apparent errors in public relations are in fact calculated attempts to foster unfair treatment so the NRA can complain about it. The organization and its supporters portrayed FactCheck’s critique, which was parroted by The Washington Post, as yet more evidence of the mainstream media’s anti-gun bias. The NRA reinforced the impression of a conspiracy against gun rights by noting that “FactCheck’s primary funding source,” the Annenberg Foundation, had given $150,000 in grants to the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
As Feldman tells it in Ricochet: Confessions of a Gun Lobbyist, picking such fights is part of the NRA’s strategy to build membership and raise money. During nearly two decades as a lobbyist against gun control, he says, he discovered that the NRA was “a cynical, mercenary political cult” whose leaders “weren’t interested in actually solving problems, only in fueling perpetual crisis and controversy.” Since its financial health depends on keeping its constituents in a constant state of alarm and indignation, Feldman writes, the organization eschews compromise and “would rather fight than win.”
The NRA, which memorably alienated some of its supporters by calling agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms “jackbooted thugs” shortly before the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City, surely has been guilty of hyperbole and rhetorical excess over the years. (So, too, have countless organizations that rely on direct mail to raise money—including, as Feldman notes, the NRA’s opponents.) But it’s not true that the NRA never compromises. The organization seems to accept all the major features of the current federal gun control regime, including the prohibition of firearm ownership by certain categories of people, the background checks used to enforce those criteria, and the ban on civilian ownership of post-1986 machine guns. Feldman’s own narrative depicts an organization steering a middle course between an old guard that preferred to eschew politics and the activists he calls “Second Amendment fundamentalists,” zealots eager to defend their right to own automatic weapons. The existence of alternative gun rights groups such as Gun Owners of America (which advertises itself as “the only no-compromise gun lobby in Washington”) demonstrates that some people think the NRA concedes too much.
To the extent that the NRA doggedly pursues enemies of the Second Amendment, it has been remarkably successful in scaring politicians away from gun control, as Feldman himself emphasizes. By contrast, Feldman’s attempts to appease gun controllers, the “heresy of compromise” for which he was ostracized by the NRA’s leaders, met with mixed results at best. His account suggests that people with a visceral antipathy toward gun ownership may not be interested in understanding their opponents, except as a way of defeating them. Trying to placate such people may only embolden them. And even if some supporters of gun control are willing to negotiate in good faith, Feldman’s vague call for ending the “stalemate” that stands in the way of “a serious attempt at making public policy work in the best interests of the American people” is of little use in deciding which kinds of gun control are reasonable, effective, and constitutional—questions that are especially salient now that the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the individual right to keep and bear arms.
Feldman, a Long Island native who graduated from Boston University, began his political career as a liberal Republican, working for anti-gun politicians such as Massachusetts gubernatorial candidate John Buckley, co-founder of People vs. Handguns. He says his Second Amendment epiphany came when he was working as a deputy tax collector and auxiliary police officer in Cambridge in the late 1970s. There he encountered a grocer in a rough neighborhood who “had been robbed at gunpoint three times in a little over a month” but could not obtain a handgun permit because, as a police lieutenant put it, “he’s one of them Portugees, just off the fuckin’ boat” and “the chief doesn’t believe people like him should have guns.” Recognizing that “police could not and would not protect their fellow citizens,” Feldman concluded “that shopkeeper had the constitutional right to defend himself and his business.” That experience, along with three years at Vermont Law School, where he spent a lot of time plinking with gun-enthusiast friends, evidently changed Feldman’s outlook to the point where he considered working for the NRA his “dream job.”
Feldman is clearly still proud of his political work in the Northeast, where he helped defeat candidates who received bad grades from the NRA. In 1984, he reports, the organization “backed candidates in 1,128 federal and state races” nationwide, and 956 of them won, “an amazing 85 percent pro-gun victory.” Years later, working more surreptitiously, Feldman helped anti-tax activists defeat New Jersey Gov. Jim Florio, a Democrat who had championed that state’s “assault weapon” ban, along with several of the legislators who voted for it. At the national level, Feldman notes, President Bill Clinton himself attributed the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress to the NRA, which mobilized voters against Democrats who had voted for the federal “assault weapon” ban. The NRA, Feldman says, has earned its nickname: Never Re-elected Again. As for presidential races, he plausibly argues that the NRA played a crucial role not only in the defeat of Al Gore in 2000, which is widely attributed to anger at Clinton’s gun policies, but also in John Kerry’s loss four years later.
The Democratic platform seems to reflect a gradual recognition that gun control is a risky issue for the party. The 1996 and 2000 platforms both contained several paragraphs on the subject, bragging about the Clinton administration’s achievements (passage of the “assault weapon” ban and the Brady Law, which created national waiting periods and background checks for gun purchases) and calling for more gun control, including “a ban on cop-killer bullets,” “a full background check,” and “a gun safety test to buy a new handgun.” In the 2004 platform, the gun discussion was reduced to one sentence that promised to “protect Americans’ Second Amendment right to own firearms” while “reauthorizing the assault weapons ban” and “closing the gun show loophole.” The 2008 platform had a paragraph on the subject, devoted to reconciling “commonsense laws and improvements” (such as “closing the gun show loophole, improving our background check system, and reinstating the assault weapons ban”) with “Americans’ Second Amendment right to own and use firearms.”
That latest platform included a line similar to one Barack Obama used repeatedly during his campaign: “We believe that the right to own firearms is subject to reasonable regulation, but we know that what works in Chicago may not work in Cheyenne.” What works in Chicago, according to the Democrats, is a handgun ban very similar to the Washington, D.C., law that the Supreme Court overturned last year. Obama, who repeatedly voiced support for both laws, nevertheless managed to praise the Court’s decision, which he said was consistent with his own longstanding view that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to arms, albeit one that is subject to “reasonable regulation” (the definition of which seems to vary from city to city). He countered the NRA’s anti-Obama ads with testimonials from gun owners who assured voters of the Democrat’s dedication to the Second Amendment. And to a large extent those reassurances worked. In its critique of the NRA’s ads, FactCheck repeatedly suggested that Obama’s general statements of support for the Second Amendment somehow canceled out his specific positions in favor of gun control. So even though the NRA may well be right that Obama is “the most anti-gun president in American history,” he feels obliged to pretend otherwise, which is in itself an accomplishment.
If Richard Feldman, advocate of the artful compromise, were to sit down with Barack Obama, would they be able to reach an agreement about what constitutes “reasonable regulation”? Probably not. For all his complaints about the NRA’s rigidity, Feldman agrees with almost all of the group’s positions, ranging from its opposition to waiting periods for gun purchases to its support for nondiscretionary carry permit laws of the sort that would have helped that Portuguese grocer in Cambridge. Like the NRA, he shakes his head over the misconceptions underlying outrage about “Saturday night specials,” “plastic” guns, “cop-killer bullets,” “fingerprint-resistant” guns, and “assault weapons” (although he faults the NRA for not doing enough to clear up those misconceptions, saying it prefers to preserve the ignorance of gun control supporters as a subject of derision and fund raising letters). There is not much room here for common ground between Feldman and our new president.
To get a sense of how far apart this pair’s definitions of reasonable would be, consider the “assault weapon” ban. Although many Americans were under the impression that the law banned machine guns (a misconception that gun control activists did their best to perpetuate), all of the weapons it covered were semiautomatic, firing once per trigger pull. Feldman notes that the guns were chosen based mainly on their scary, militaristic appearance, as opposed to capabilities that would make a difference in the hands of criminals. The law banned certain firearms by name, along with guns that accepted detachable magazines and had two or more of these features: a pistol grip, a folding or telescoping stock, a bayonet mount, a flash suppressor, or a grenade launcher. Before the law took effect, Feldman notes, the impending ban triggered a “buying frenzy” as people lined up for the targeted guns (along with magazines holding more than 10 rounds, also banned by the law). After the law took effect, manufacturers made trivial changes to popular models (for example, renaming them or removing a bayonet mount) so they could continue to make and sell them. Neither the ban nor its expiration in 2004 had any noticeable effect on crime, which is not surprising, since there was never any evidence that “assault weapons” played a significant role in crime to begin with.
Like most Democrats, Obama considers the “assault weapon” ban the epitome of reasonable gun control, although it’s not clear he understands what the law did. In a 2004 debate with Alan Keyes, his Republican opponent for the U.S. Senate, Obama explained the rationale for renewing the “assault weapon” ban this way: “Unless you’re seeing a lot of deer out there wearing bullet-proof vests, then there is no purpose for many of the guns.” He thereby conflated the “assault weapon” issue with the “armor-piercing bullet” issue, apparently not realizing that ordinary hunting ammunition fired by ordinary hunting rifles can penetrate “bullet-proof vests.” It’s unlikely that Feldman could educate President Obama out of his support for this silly law.
Feldman’s previous efforts at getting along with gun controllers—the ones that caused his erstwhile allies at the NRA to turn on him and thereby led to this score-settling memoir—do not inspire much confidence in conciliation. In 1997, when Feldman was executive director of the American Shooting Sports Council, an industry group, President Clinton was contemplating legislation that would have required gun manufacturers to include “child safety locks” with their firearms. Feldman headed off this mandate by getting manufacturers to voluntarily include “child safety locks” with their firearms. That did not stop the Democrats from continuing to demand “mandatory child safety locks” in their 2000 platform.