CHICAGO -- The national gun lobby in Washington, D.C., is a big machine, motored by a multibillion-dollar industry. The sprawling network of hardcore activists remaking the political gunscape in statehouses and the courts, on the other hand, is small. How small? It's so small that when Jeff Knox stepped up to a microphone at the premiere gun-activist conclave and referred to "Dad," no explanation was needed. Everyone at the Gun Rights Policy Conference last weekend knew who "Dad" was. Dad was Neal Knox, the hardline National Rifle Association board member who until his death in 2005 used his newsletter, "The Hard Corps Report," as a machine gun nest aimed at his NRA colleagues, ready to fire at the first sign of weakness or perfidy in defense of the Second Amendment. For holding the gun lobby to his iron standard without mercy, "Dad" became a godfather to the activists who gather every September at an airport hotel under the banner of the Second Amendment Foundation.
Knox had the full power of the family name behind him on Sunday afternoon when he stepped up to a microphone, invoked his father, and accused another gun-rights legend, GRPC organizer Alan Gottlieb, of betraying the movement. The alleged betrayal concerned Gottlieb's writing and backing of an initiative on the Washington State ballot in November. Few Americans have heard of Bill 591, but the controversy it has stoked within the gun-rights world tells us much about fissures within its ranks.
Gottlieb's controversial bill is a direct response to another initiative on the ballot, 594, which expands background checks to include sales at gun shows and over the Internet. It is polling high and expected to pass. If Washington votes "yes," it will join the growing list of states that have taken gun policy into their own hands in the wake of Newtown. Both the NRA and Gottlieb's organization oppose 594. But Gottlieb has done more than just denounce it. He has raised more than a million dollars to promote an alternative bill, 591, which would prohibit the state from ever "requir[ing] background checks on the receipt of a firearm unless a uniform national standard is required."
Can you spot the offending language? It's this: "unless a uniform national standard is required."
For Jeff Knox and much of the gun-rights movement, to even accept the future possibility of federal background check legislation constitutes apostasy. Some of the groups represented at the GRPC are the ones that, along with stalwarts like the NRA and Larry Pratt's Gun Owners of America, mobilized in April 2013 to torpedo the Manchin-Toomey Senate bill, which would have closed background check loopholes across the country. After looking at the polling data, Gottlieb initially supported Manchin-Toomey as a way for the movement to get some "goodies" (such as relaxing laws on interstate gun sales) while supporting something that he thought was going to pass anyway. (Gottlieb later dropped his support when Chuck Schumer stripped the bill of Gottlieb's prized "goodie.")
Gottlieb's early support for the Senate bill earned him names like "sellout" and "traitor." But it's now looking like he understood something his critics did not. Steadfast opposition to a federal background-check bill would give rise to a growing and well-funded movement for background-check referenda in the states. In Washington, the coalition behind 594 is supported by a group of wealthy donors, including Bill Gates and Michael Bloomberg, the head of the gun violence prevention group Everytown for Gun Safety. In his newsletter, Gottlieb describes their efforts as the "Billionaire's Club war against freedom."
So when Knox asked Gottlieb to defend the language of 591 at this year's GRPC, attendees sat up in their seats. After a weekend filled with enough policy weeds to replant the Everglades, the confrontation amounted to high drama.
With his comb-over, pencil mustache, and brightly colored bowties, Alan Gottlieb has the presence of a harried, slightly eccentric accountant. But the Queens native is no dutiful CPA; he's a convicted tax felon who does not flinch easily on questions of strategy, let alone challenges to his commitment to the Second Amendment. In the 1970s, while still in his twenties, Gottlieb began organizing the legal workshops that grew into the brain trust that won the landmark Supreme Court rulings of Heller and McDonald, which enshrined gun ownership in the home as an individual right guaranteed by the Second Amendment. At the podium in Chicago, Gottlieb welcomed the chance to deliver a blunt message to the background-check dead-enders who had been calling him a traitor since Manchin-Toomey.
"The bottom line is that" the background check issue "is different" from other gun gun policy debates, Gottlieb explained, pointing to public opinion. "What issues do you find that get 70 to 90 percent of the people to agree on anything?"
After Knox asserted that he doesn't believe polls showing support for background checks, Gottlieb responded, "You may not believe the number, but I've seen well over 500 polls all across the country over the last six years on background checks. They all say the same damn thing. They're not wrong, believe me."
Knox countered with another reality: Many gun groups, especially those in the referendum states of the Southwest, are never going to sign off on background checks, ever, at any level. In Arizona, "I wouldn't be able to get our members to proactively concede anything," said Knox. His hardline solution is to "let them go ahead and deal with the consequences."
By "them," Knox means the feds. In the purist view, the best way to deal with any gun law is to dig in, take the hits, and ignore the law, forcing the government to "deal with the consequences." Knox said he wished the NRA had taken that approach with the 1934 National Firearms Act, which regulated machine guns and banned short-barrel rifles.
To Gottlieb, that's a doomed strategy. In any case, he stressed, "the Bloomberg people" know gun groups will never support background-check legislation, so they can "knock our teeth out and there's nothing we can do about it." He later added, "They've got us hogtied because they know we're not going to change. I'm being honest with you. I'm not expecting you to change, but that's why we're going to lose."
When subsequent questioners echoed Knox, Gottlieb reminded his audience that even without a background-check system in place, there are good reasons not to sell guns to strangers. "If you're stupid enough to sell a gun to someone you don't know, forget the criminal liability -- what about the civil liability?" he asked. "What about you getting sued" if the buyer kills someone?
Earlier that morning, a speaker had flattered the GRPC crowd by calling them "the most sophisticated gun-rights gathering in the country." This is probably true. It's also telling. All of the room's combined political experience, intelligence and savvy still does not add up to the ability to grasp how America's largely unregulated gun trade has become a public health crisis, or why background checks and other common-sense measures poll so well. The gun-rights movement continues to see background checks through the same paranoid prism it sees everything else: the threat of door-to-door gun confiscation.
This is the shared nightmare lurking beneath all the policy weeds, one so taken for granted that it's left unspoken. But never for very long. In Chicago, Sean Maloney of the Buckeye Firearms Association warned, "A universal background check equals universal confiscation. Look it up, it's history, it happens every time." Stephen P. Halbrook delivered a lecture on the discredited theory that gun confiscation was responsible for Hitler's rise to power. California activist Stephen D'Andrilli argued that his state's new microstamping law is not really about solving crime and tracking illicit gun transfers, but setting up a confiscatory police state. All told, around a third of GRPC speakers invoked the unstoppable logic of confiscation.
The coming wave of background-check referenda was just one threat assessed in Chicago. Another peril, one less easily tied to the confiscation scenario, is the current stall in the upper courts. In his luncheon keynote, the celebrated gun lawyer Alan Gura discussed his desire to build on Heller by getting a concealed-carry case before the Supreme Court, and thus extend the right to bear arms beyond the home. But he wasn't holding his breath. Gura noted that the Court has rejected all of his petitions since taking McDonald in 2010. Moving down a notch, Gottlieb noted with alarm that "our enemies" control nine of 13 circuit courts: "Four more go down, and we can't even create a conflict between circuits to get cases to the Supreme Court, where we are hanging on by, disgustingly, one vote."
The movement is also increasingly aware of enemies within. A recurring theme of GRPC 2014 was the danger posed by hucksters preying on the pro-gun community. The most successful and least trusted of these groups is Dudley Brown's Colorado-based National Association for Gun Rights. Brown has built up a fundraising juggernaut with a combination of hyperbolic and fact-challenged advocacy, violent culture war rhetoric and attacks on other activists. He's widely considered to be a snake in the grass. At GRPC, Brown's name drew as many hisses as Eric Holder's.
"We need to be careful," said D. Allen Youngman, a veteran gun lobbyist. "If all a United States senator hears is cut-and-paste talking points from a huckster like Dudley Brown -- 'black helicopters are coming to take the guns' -- then you can imagine how they are going to characterize communications from you." Youngman would know. He represented the U.S. small arms industry at both the Capitol and the UN during that body's Arms Trade Treaty talks, giving him perfect vantage to observe how the rhetoric and falsehoods spread by groups like Brown's take root and undermine the work of more sober activist campaigns.
In Washington State this November, none of that will matter. There are no phone calls to Senate offices in referendum campaigns. The losses that Alan Gottlieb worries the American public may inflict on the gun-rights movement will be delivered directly, by ordinary people checking boxes on pieces of paper. In other words, pretty much the exact opposite of a police state.