Ivy Skowronski was tired of living in fear, and decided to do something about it. The time was last year, the place South Australia, and what had Skowronski furiously indignant were the shortcomings of the law.
A number of citizens, most of them elderly, had experienced hours of terror in their own homes after burglars entered, tied and beat them; though the perps were caught and convicted, the sentences, as Skowronski and scores of others saw it, seemed woefully inadequate. So the 79-year-old pensioner undertook what became one of her country's most successful petition drives ever, getting 102,000 signatures in support of a new, tougher law meting out harsher sentences for violent "home invasion" burglaries. The campaign made Skowronski the star attraction at a 2,000-person rally in Adelaide last October.
Simon Royal, a TV reporter with Australian Broadcasting, was on hand to cover the event when he noticed another film crew, fronted by a woman. Curious, he approached and asked where they were from.
The United States, came the response.
Intrigued by the notion that anyone in America would care about Australian sentencing guidelines, Royal began filming an interview with the woman. "I asked what program this was for, and she said that actually, she didn't work for a specific program, but was working on a documentary about crime around the world, and that she was an independent TV producer," says Royal. "In hindsight, however, some of her answers kind of gave away her agenda."
The woman in question was Ginny Simone, an ex-local newscaster employed by the Mercury Group, the Washington affiliate of advertising giant Ackerman-McQueen, which has handled all the National Rifle Association's advertising and public relations since 1981. Simone is quite literally a public face of the NRA; visit the "live news" section of the NRA's Web site any day and you'll see her presenting "news" gun lovers can use.
Last week, courtesy of Australian Broadcast Corporation news reports, Skowronski and the rest of Australia saw, for the first time, an NRA fund-raising infomercial that is being broadcast in the United States. The infomercial claimed Australia is awash in criminal violence because of legislated gun buybacks passed in the wake of the devastating Port Arthur massacre, where 35 people were gunned down by Martin Bryant using an automatic weapon. Simone's "documentary" included footage of Skowronski's rally, as well as an interview with Skowronski herself, and came complete with a toll-free fund-raising number for the NRA at the bottom of the screen.
Just as the war of words between President Clinton and the NRA's Wayne LaPierre has increased fund-raising for the gun group, so too has the ginned-up threat of foreign subversion. The NRA uses hazy fears of a universal disarmament scheme masterminded by the United Nations as a fund-raising device.
And now Skowronski is more than a little angry with the NRA.
"My petition had nothing to do with guns or anything else at all. It was purely to get heavier sentences," she said. "Personally, I would like to see less guns in our society. I think there are too many, and would like to see them reduced."
Skowronski is hardly in a minority of Australians. After Port Arthur, public support was overwhelmingly in favor of a law mandating a 640,000-gun buy-back program. Nor is Skowronski the only Aussie who's angry with the NRA. Last week, Australian Attorney General Daryl Williams fired off a piqued letter to NRA president Charlton Heston, telling him that while "there are many things Australia can learn" from the United States, "how to manage firearm ownership is not one of them."
At issue: the statistics about Australian crime cited by the NRA in its infomercial. According to the NRA's video, since the change in gun laws, "armed robberies have skyrocketed, up 69 percent; assaults involving guns rose 28 percent [and] gun murders increased 19 percent."
In fact, Williams told Heston, the latest figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics "show that firearms are being used less often in murder, attempted murder, assault, sexual assault and armed robbery." Further noting that the figures show a decrease in firearm homicides from 99 in 1996 to 54 in 1998 and that "the number of murders involving a firearm is now lower than at any time since 1994," Williams ended his riposte with a demand for Heston to "withdraw immediately the misleading information from your latest campaign."
"This was a case of very selective reporting [on the NRA's part]," says Don Weatherburn, director of the New South Wales Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research. "It is true that armed robbery has gone up, but our robbery problem is largely a byproduct of the big growth of heroin use -- and 'armed robbery' covers every kind of weapon, not just guns." While Weatherburn says he himself is "agnostic" about whether or not Australia's new gun laws will produce sweeping changes, "The NRA was arguing that things have gotten a lot worse."
The NRA often highlights international gun issues to raise money from its 3 million-plus members in the United States. Past fund-raising mail by the NRA have focused on gun buybacks in Australia as well as gun-control efforts in South Africa, Canada and the United Kingdom. The organization characterizes these efforts as part of a campaign of "third world dictatorships plotting through the United Nations to eliminate your Second Amendment rights." Their objective, says LaPierre in the "Global Gun Grabbers" infomercial, is "international gun registration and global gun confiscation," and the U.S. is squarely in the crosshairs.
As the NRA chases dollars by stoking its members' fears of one-world government, it continues to actively engage with the United Nations. In fact, its status as a nongovernmental organization is higher than most arms-trafficking watchdog groups. More often than not, it gets its way. Over the past several years, NRA lobbyists have been an effective, and sometimes rabble-rousing, presence at U.N. meetings focused on reining in the international arms trade. Apparently believing that the best defense against the global anti-gun menace is a good offense, the NRA has tried to foist the uniquely American Second Amendment on countries and cultures that find it as alien as Heston found the Planet of the Apes.
"There are some countries who are pushing for very stringent controls, and there are people who want gun-free societies who call for that in international meetings, but I have to be very clear: There is no chance the United Nations will adopt any measure along those lines," says Michael Klare, professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College. "In practice, nothing the U.N. does is of consequence to the NRA, because the U.S. has said that it will not accept an international agreement that would infringe on domestic law. I think this is about creating the mythology that the U.N. is in a position to endanger gun ownership in the U.S., which has no reality whatsoever. That's why I think this is much more valuable as a fund-raising matter."
Domestically, money has always been very, very important to the NRA. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, between 1991 and 1996, the U.S. gun lobby gave over $6.1 million to national parties and candidates. In the 1997-98 electoral cycle, it dropped almost $2.3 million in PAC, soft money and individual campaign contributions, predominantly to Republicans. Ninety percent of those contributions came from the NRA. And in 1997 and 1998, the gun-rights lobby -- again, primarily the NRA -- spent a whopping $8.2 million lobbying legislators and administration officials. Between 1991 and 1998, the NRA spent an additional $12 million on independent expenditures -- money that can be spent, with no limit, advocating the election of candidates the NRA likes, or the defeat of contenders the NRA finds problematic.
So in the early '90s, when Australian gun advocates came asking for help, the NRA willingly lent a hand. Gun money had been kicked around Australia before, but mainly from manufacturers; in 1988, Tasco, an arms importer, gave over 1 percent of sales to the NRA in the service of opposing anti-gun candidates, while the Australian subsidiary of venerable arms-maker Winchester kicked in $100,000. By 1990, the NRA's Australian equivalent, the neophyte Sports Shooters Association of Australia (SSAA), was journeying to Washington to learn at the feet of the master; while the NRA dispensed advice, no funds were forthcoming.
But after a rousing appearance by then-SSAA chief Ted Drane at the NRA's 1992 convention, the NRA threw a little seed money Drane's way, which was used to start up SSAA's Institute for Legislative Action, a mirror image of the NRA's ILA, which runs a formidable grass-roots lobbying operation and solicits political capital (money) from its members. Adopting the NRA's approach to furthering its cause with money in politics, the SSAA was, by 1996, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to back pro-gun candidates. The NRA also sent money the way of the Sports Shooters Association of New Zealand, which, seven years back, set up a stealth front-group aimed at ousting two prominent anti-gun legislators.
Still, as evidenced by Skowronski's success, not everyone is buying the NRA line.
"Don't let me get on my high kangaroo, but they're doing us wrong two ways -- painting this picture of Australian citizens as cowering in fear and that we're all named Paul Hogan and have all hunted crocks with guns for years," fumed one Australian diplomat. "The fact is, we're not a gun culture like yours."