How the Gun-Control Movement Got Smart - Molly Ball - the Atlantic
Here is how advocates of gun control used to talk about their cause: They openly disputed that the Second Amendment conferred the right to own a gun. Their major policy goals were to make handguns illegal and enroll all U.S. gun owners in a federal database. The group now known as the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence was once known as Handgun Control Inc.; a 2001 book by the executive director of the Violence Policy Center was entitled Every Handgun Is Aimed at You: The Case for Banning Handguns.
“There was as much fighting between the groups as with the opposition,” David Hantman, a former aide to the bill’s sponsor, Senator Dianne Feinstein, recalled. “Some of them insisted that we couldn’t just renew [the ban], we had to strengthen it.” With Republicans controlling the White House and both houses of Congress, that wasn’t politically feasible, and the ban was allowed to lapse. Around the same time, legislation to close the “gun-show loophole” by requiring background checks for non-dealer gun sales was defeated, and Congress passed a bill according gun manufacturers blanket immunity from product-liability lawsuits.
McKelvey, a Yellow Pages ad marketer-turned-tech billionaire, came to the gun issue after being shocked by Columbine. Described by friends as an apolitical businessman who enjoyed hunting (he died of cancer in 2008), McKelvey was frustrated by the tone-deaf approach he saw the gun-control movement taking. He joined the board of Handgun Control Inc. and immediately began pressuring the group to change its name, promising substantial financial support in exchange for such a move; when the group resisted, he quit the board and set out to form his own group — AGS.
If the NRA today seems fixated on the notion that the left is out to undercut the Second Amendment, confiscate law-abiding Americans’ legally acquired firearms, and instigate federal-government monitoring of all gun owners, that’s because 15 years ago, gun-control advocates wanted to do all of those things.
Federal licensing and registration as a requirement for gun ownership was a top policy goal — in the 2000 Democratic presidential primary, then-Vice President Al Gore came out in favor of photo licenses for gun owners, drawing criticism from Senator Bill Bradley, who supported the further step of registering every gun. National bans on handguns were also on the agenda: One such proposal, introduced in the House and Senate in 1993, would have “prohibit[ed] the transfer or possession of handguns and handgun ammunition, except in limited circumstances,” requiring current handgun owners to turn in their weapons over the course of a six-month grace period. And the idea that the Second Amendment didn’t confer an individual right to own a gun, which was at the time a fairly mainstream legal view, was part of the gun-control movement’s gospel. (The Supreme Court ruled in 2008 that such a right existed, knocking down the D.C. handgun ban in the process.)
“The right to own a gun is flat-out stated in the Second Amendment,” Cowan told me. By taking a position — however legally defensible — that that right didn’t apply to individuals, gun-control advocates were putting up “a stone wall, a barrier to gun owners” that made them “logically presume you want to take their gun away,” he added.
In 1999, when McKelvey was looking to change the gun debate, Cowan was a former chief of staff to then-Housing and Urban Development Secretary Andrew Cuomo. The two teamed up to start AGS.
From the start, the group was not shy about confronting its peers in the movement. In an essay published in 2001 in Blueprint Magazine, the organ of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, Cowan and AGS Policy Director Jim Kessler wrote that Democrats “will have a hard time recapturing the presidency and building a durable majority if it treats gun-owning Americans like sociopaths.” They continued:
Bill Andresen, a former chief of staff to Senator Joe Lieberman, recalled how toxic the issue was with blue-collar voters back then. “I remember when Lieberman was running for vice president,” he said. “We were in Michigan, and he was doing visits to plants, shaking hands with union workers. The first thing he said to me after — all the people he was talking to said, ‘I want to vote for you, but I can’t, because you’re going to take my gun away.’ These were union voters, UAW workers, and the Democratic Party was losing them” over gun control. Andresen credits AGS with “fundamentally changing the debate in an important way.”
The whole debate, in short, has shifted to the right. “Democrats are now more conservative on guns, and Republicans are much more conservative as well,” Hantman, the former Feinstein aide, said. The NRA itself has become more hard-line: Post-Columbine, the group took a more accommodating stance, coming out in favor of expanding background checks and barely fighting the 2000 state ballot initiatives. An ad aired by Mayors Against Illegal Guns during the Super Bowl last weekend featured a clip of LaPierre testifying in favor of background checks in 1999. At the time, “When some NRA Board members objected to the NRA supporting gun control, Wayne LaPierre (chief operating officer of the NRA) and Jim Baker (chief lobbyist) threatened to quit if the NRA backed away from instant background checks,” according to a 2001 article in National Review that argued that the NRA, not AGS, was the true moderate voice in the gun debate.
Perhaps no politician typifies the shift so much as McCain, who tacked steadily to the right as he fended off primary challengers first for the 2008 presidential election and then for his 2010 Arizona reelection. In addition to taping ads in favor of gun control, in 2004 he cosponsored federal gun-control legislation with Lieberman. In the current debate, however, he’s been silent on the issue. “I think all of us should have this conversation. I applaud the conversation,” McCain said when asked about guns last month on CBS’s Face the Nation. “We need to have it stopped, but to somehow believe that guns away from people is the answer — I don’t think history shows that that’s the right way to do it.”
McCain also said he was against a new assault-weapons ban, which he’s opposed in the past. I followed up with his communications director, Brian Rogers, and asked if the senator had taken a position on some of the other measures being considered — universal background checks, restricting magazines, cracking down on gun trafficking. “He hasn’t,” Rogers replied.
The gun debate has changed in remarkable ways in the last 15 years. But whether that change makes it more likely something gets done on the issue remains to be seen.