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Authors: Tom Diaz

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McKelvey was reported to see “his group falling somewhere in between avid antigun supporters and the National Rifle Association.”
AGS offered a bounty of $60,000 a year to local gun violence prevention groups who signed up to become instant AGS chapters. Twenty-eight were reported to have taken the bait.
The president of one such local group enthused, “Together, we think we're going to dramatically change the debate on gun safety in this country”

AGS certainly did want to change the debate. There would be precious little fact-driven policy, but a surfeit of the kind of political “inoculations” favored by the “centrist” DLC. The golden triangle had come to gun control, carrying a briefcase full of
polls. The locals soon found out that they had been sold a pig in a poke. “Within a couple of days, as the state groups began to receive talking points and sample press releases from AGS, they found out what Cowan meant by ‘rights': Americans were guaranteed the right to own guns, a position long promulgated by the NRA and opposed by nearly every gun-violence organization in the country.”

Citing polling data, AGS's political technicians bulled ahead and began popping up in the news media, proclaiming that there was a “third way” to deal with gun violence “if gun-control proponents and gun-safety advocates would stop fighting long enough to look for common ground.”
Given the NRA's adamant stance, it may be impossible to overstate the naïveté, or perhaps the cynicism, of this illusory suggestion. “We must declare there are no shades of gray in American freedom,” Wayne LaPierre thundered at the NRA's 2002 annual convention. “It's black or white, all or nothing. You're with us or against us.”

The recipe for the third way's shade of gray—as attributed to AGS's Cowan and Kessler—was telling. The two urged gun control groups to:

(1) Adopt a new message: respect for gun rights coupled with an insistence on gun responsibility; (2) Back up their rhetoric by “toughening enforcement of current gun laws and passing new laws that crack down on gun crime”; (3) Distance themselves from “traditional strategies that demonize gun owners, call for gun control instead of gun safety, urge a ban on guns, and imply that legal gun ownership is the root cause of gun crime.”

Inventing their own revisionist history of the politics of guns, and ignoring or misunderstanding the effect of a greedy industry with a powerful lobby that batters fact-based public policy and shuts down information, the political operatives of AGS defined away the problem of gun violence. The problem was not a matter
of torn flesh, spurting blood, shattered bodies, and unconscionable marketing of military weapons by a ruthless industry. To speak of those facts was “demonizing.” The problem, in the view of AGS, was nothing but a schoolyard argument between unruly advocates. And that was easy enough to fix. Substance out. Triangulation in. Pabulum like “toughening enforcement” is a page right out of the gun industry and NRA playbook. It ignores the torrent of gun violence by “law-abiding” citizens. So is the blinkered pretense that “legal gun ownership”—in the form of proliferation and militarization—is not a “root cause” of anything more sinister than good times at the SHOT Show. Ditto the mantra of “gun safety” as opposed to “gun control.”

None of this reality mattered to third-way acolytes, who failed to get passed any of the federal legislation that they bulldozed into the forefront over the objections of more experienced and knowledgeable gun control groups. What mattered was giving all too many politicians a fig leaf, a plausible way to explain their political indifference to the fate of hundreds of thousands of victims. Within a few years, the vaunted AGS “grass roots” coalition had fallen apart, amid angry recriminations between the founders and their instant chapters. “The activists felt that they had been blindsided and that AGS in general, and Cowan in particular, were being ‘a little dictatorial,' as one participant put it,” in one contemporary account.

In spite of their dismal failures, the AGS political surgeons declared victory and transplanted their “gun safety” organization as an appendage of a new organization, Third Way. They moved on to other issues. Nominally a think tank but primarily a political workshop, Third Way bills itself as a place that “answers America's challenges with modern ideas aimed at the center.”
It was blessed at its creation by the third-way pioneer Al From.
Matt Bennett told
Roll Call
newspaper in 2005 that he, Cowan, and Kessler had discovered the model for Third Way at AGS while working on gun safety, “a real middle on an issue that had been polarized. We felt like we had a model that worked.”

If the third-way model has “worked,” it has not diminished the torrent of gun violence in America, caused any uncommonly courageous moderate politicians to shake off the NRA's paralyzing stranglehold, nor resulted in passage of a single important federal law. By obsessing on guns and microtargeting voters in search of a mythical middle ground, the hucksters of the third way have ignored the true significance of the NRA and the coalition to which it is attached—cultural war. As the author and commentator Paul Waldman observed in a fact-based 2012 analysis, gun control has had virtually no effect on the electoral cycles of this war: “The 1994 election was a Republican wave, and as 2006 and 2010 demonstrated, wave elections can happen in a variety of contexts. In 2010, for instance, Republicans won even more seats than they did in 1994—without any significant debate about guns. In fact, the only new laws about guns that took effect during Obama's first two years
gun rights, allowing people to bring guns to national parks and on Amtrak.”

The myth that the NRA is all-powerful and gun control is a “third rail” works in a perverse way—it benefits equally the NRA and the minions of the golden triangle who affect to combat it. The NRA's executives continue to raise huge amounts of cash, pay themselves exceedingly well, and stroll the halls of Congress as if they were ten feet tall. The triangle's pollsters and consultants continue to enjoy lucrative contracts that pay them well. The politicians get to express their sympathies without being expected to take effective action. The losers in this comfortable arrangement are the hundreds of thousands of innocent victims of gun violence who have died or been mutilated with painful injury since the technicians of the golden triangle decided to abandon them.

Thus, even as the political establishment has sidetracked any effective gun control legislation, the gun industry, the NRA, and other elements of the gun lobby continue to barrel through Congress like a midnight express. A vignette from the National Shooting Sports Foundation's website casts light on the gun industry's influence machine. The NSSF sponsors an annual “Fly-In,”
during which manufacturers and others in the industry descend on Washington to lobby members of Congress. The industry group posted a video on its website encouraging its members to come to its 2012 event and explaining lobbying procedures. “And don't be offended if the person you meet with is a young staffer,” Max Sandlin, a retired Texas congressman and NSSF consultant, says in the video. He explains that because the Congress members themselves are quite busy, their staffs often take the actual lobbying meetings. “After the meeting, they are the ones who will carry our water.”

These anonymous staff water carriers and their principals continue to do a good, if not widely reported, job for the gun industry. In its report on the 2012 Fly-In, NSSF boasted that “the week began on a high note with the House passage of the Sportsmen's Heritage Act (H.R. 4089), a bill that contains the industry's top priority—the Hunting, Fishing and Recreational Shooting Protection Act (H.R. 1558). Overall, the Fly-In was a great success, and NSSF looks forward to building upon its momentum through the rest of the year.”
Not everyone in America agreed that passage of the bill was a “high note.” Professor Char Miller, an expert in environmental administration,
denounced the legislation as “cynically titled,” and reported that “it has kicked up a storm of protest with the broad environmental movement, who see it as an ill-disguised assault on the wildlands and the Wilderness Act that. . . early generations fought so hard to protect and secure.”
Among other things, the bill would boost shooting “sports” into a commanding position in decisions about public land use and prevent regulation of lead shot on public lands, “even though scientists have demonstrated time and again the deleterious impact it has on public health.”

For its part, the NRA claims to represent gun owners and frames its ambitious congressional lobbying efforts in terms of defending “gun rights.” In fact, the NRA's legislative program is largely driven by the gun industry's business interests. Less regulation, more profits. The Violence Policy Center examined and
exposed the financial relationships between the NRA and the gun industry in its 2011 study
Blood Money: How the Gun Industry Bankrolls the NRA
The report detailed tens of millions of dollars in gun industry support for the NRA and summarized the intimate ties thus:

The depth and breadth of gun industry financial support for the National Rifle Association makes clear that the self-proclaimed “America's oldest civil rights organization” is, in fact, the gun industry's most high-profile trade association. While the NRA works to portray itself as protecting the “freedoms” of its membership, it is, in fact protecting the gun industry's freedom to manufacture virtually any gun or accessory it sees fit to produce. As NRA Board Member Pete Brownell, owner of Brownells, “the world's largest supplier of firearms accessories and gunsmithing tools,” wrote on his website in his successful campaign to join the NRA's board, “Having [NRA] directors who intimately understand and work in leadership positions within the firearms industry ensures the NRA's focus is honed on the overall mission of the organization. These individuals bring a keen sense of the industry and of the bigger fight to the table.”

This is a 180-degree turn from the NRA described in
Americans and Their Guns
, an official history of the organization published in 1967 which stated that the NRA “is not affiliated with any manufacturer of arms or ammunition or with any jobber or dealer who sells firearms and ammunition.” And today, while in one section of its website the NRA actively courts the financial support of its gun industry “corporate partners,” in another—where its industry financial links would heighten valid suspicions, such as in relation to the objectivity and effectiveness of its Eddie Eagle “gun safety” program—the NRA falsely claims that it “is not affiliated with any firearm or
ammunition manufacturers or with any businesses that deal in guns and ammunition.”

The saga of Larry Potterfield and the company he founded, Mid-wayUSA, is an apt parable. The company claims on its website to stock “just about everything for shooting, reloading, gunsmithing and hunting.” Potterfield created the “NRA Round-Up” program, which allows buyers to “round up” their purchase to the nearest dollar, with the difference going to the NRA. He has good reason to be grateful to the NRA. Potterfield credits part of his company's success to NRA-backed federal legislation, the Firearms Owners' Protection Act, commonly known as McClure-Volkmer (but called Volkmer-McClure by Potterfield). “By 1987, we were doing about $5 million in business, selling mostly to dealers. The product lines were bulk components and cartridge boxes. The Volkmer-McClure law was enacted in October 1987, which removed the restriction of shipping brass and bullets to FFL holders only. Midway immediately began selling directly to consumers, in addition to selling to dealers.” In January 2011 the company announced that for “a second consecutive year” it was serving as “the Official Sponsor of the NRA Annual Meeting and Exhibits” being held in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in spring 2011.

There is no “third way” for the gun industry juggernaut.

The gun lobby's ambitions for the future include enactment of a national law to allow the carrying of concealed handguns anywhere in America (overriding state and local controls); repeal or effective disembowelment of existing federal law severely limiting the ownership of fully automatic machine guns, silencers, and other weapons of war by private persons; and severe dilution of restraints on the export of military-style weapons abroad. The only way for the gun industry is the way of self-enrichment. Like a medieval battering ram, the gun industry continues to hammer at laws and government programs that restrict the sale and possession of guns of any kind in any way.

Brick by brick the walls are coming down. The self-proclaimed best political minds in America have failed to stop or even slow down the gun violence, death, and injury that inevitably stem from the industry's unrestrained marketing binges. If government leaders cower before the altar of the NRA's “great religion,” what might work against these evils? That question is addressed in the next chapter.


Following a series of shootings, the Seattle City Council discussed the city's response at a public meeting on May 29, 2012, with police officials. At the meeting, Seattle City Council member Tom Rasmussen found nothing new in the police department's proposals to address the violence, observing, “I have some skepticism about whether this will have any effect. We have seen many community vigils, community mobilizations. We've heard about these strategies before. What's going to change?”

BOOK: The Last Gun
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