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Americans For Gun Safety May Be The Name . . .

Monday, July 16, 2001

*But examination of the group`s internal documents--documents it hides from the public--proves beyond doubt that AGS should really stand for

"Anti-Gun Sophistry."

By James L. Pate

ot-com billionaire Andrew McKelvey`s purse will be a little lighter this summer when the anti-gun group he bankrolls--Americans for Gun Safety (AGS)--pops up at a movie theater near you.

At a cost to AGS of $250,000, theaters in 44 states will begin showing a 30-second trailer featuring U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) preaching the AGS message about gun rights and personal responsibility. And while the message sounds good--after all it should, NRA`s been preaching it for 130 years--in AGS`s case, the admirable message masks sinister motive.

When McKelvey first ventured into the gun-control arena it was as a board member of Handgun Control, Inc. (HCI). His enormous donations to HCI`s "Legal Action Project" underwrote the flurry of reckless municipal lawsuits designed to bankrupt the firearms industry, but he abandoned that group after becoming disenchanted with its lack of effectiveness in advancing the anti-gun agenda.

According To AGS:
"There is no limit on the number of guns an unlicensed seller may sell," AGS says on its website.

FACT: This statement is purposely misleading. Federal law requires anyone "engaged in the business" of selling firearms to have a federal firearms license. Congress, after lengthy and deliberate debate, expressly exempted from the licensing requirement the "person who makes occasional sales, exchanges, or purchases of firearms for the enhancement of a personal collection or for a hobby, or who sells all or part of his personal collection of firearms."

McKelvey founded AGS with an immediate goal of retooling the gun-control movement`s losing public-relations strategy. He determined to stop talking about gun "control," which a national survey he commissioned said is "not widely supported by swing voters" and "suggests confiscation."

Listed first among "barriers to overcome" for McKelvey`s strategy to work was "the concern that gun-control advocates don`t respect the right to bear arms and . . . that all gun control is . . . a slippery slope towards banning guns.

"The term `gun control` should be dropped and replaced with `gun safety,` `responsible gun use,` or `accountability in gun use,`" said the report, prepared in June 2000 by the public relations firm of Penn, Schoen & Berland-longtime consultants to the election campaigns of Bill Clinton and Al Gore. Armed with fresh survey research and a bulging bank account, McKelvey began calling for "a new national dialogue, shifting the gun debate from one of rights versus responsibilities to rights and responsibilities."

With an initial start-up budget of more than $12 million of his own fortune, McKelvey created AGS as a new national coalition of local and state anti-gun groups. AGS was designed to move debate from Capitol Hill into state legislatures and to bring various state anti-gun activists under one umbrella. In return for affiliating with McKelvey`s group and becoming, in effect, a local franchise, each chapter was guaranteed $60,000 a year to staff and equip an office and train volunteers.

Pledging that his new organization would be all-inclusive and appeal to "mainstream" citizens, including gun owners, McKelvey`s pitch to the public is soft-spoken. But the strategy behind it is shrewd and slyly crafted.

"In politics, things are less important than their names," author James Payne wrote in a recent issue of The Foundation for Economic Education`s monthly journal. An expert on the military and U.S. defense policy, whose latest book is a history of violence, Payne noted that "once we focus on the thing itself, we discover a wide gap between perception and reality."

Such is the case with AGS, where there is a significant credibility gap between its soft--sell approach-cleverly designed to erode public support for Second Amendment rights--and its real agenda: enacting increasingly stringent gun-control laws.

With Clintonesque subterfuge, AGS describes itself as being politically "centrist" in a mission statement circulated at its organizational meeting last September in Oakland, California. But a careful analysis of the study prepared for McKelvey--and other internal AGS documents that detail goals for a propaganda war--reveal the group`s support for the individual right to keep and bear arms is, at best, very narrow; at worst, a deliberate deception.

Most revealing is AGS`s "top national priority . . . passage of licensing and/or registration in the next Congress."

The meaning is clear--AGS is neither nonpartisan nor a friend of gun owners. Its volunteer training includes basic instruction on how to organize street demonstrations, how to upstage news conferences or public appearances by the opposition, how to attract and manipulate the news media, how to exploit "the children" with horror stories about "gun violence," and how to cloak their cause in an apparent veil of morality by associating with like-minded religious leaders.

AGS guidelines for "Advocacy Basis" are taken directly from a U.N. primer on garnering global support to spend your tax dollars on Third World AIDS victims. The instructions for "Applied Media Advocacy Skills" were prepared at the University of California at Berkeley, long a hothouse for nurturing the looney left.

Among other tactics, the Berkeley manual details how to cultivate the news media, "using anniversaries to make news on guns," based around such events as political assassinations, celebrity murders, schoolyard shootings, and even a Fourth of July holiday observance based on the theme, "Independence from fear of violence."

In the executive summary of the focus group report by Penn, Schoen & Berland, under the heading of "Barriers to Converting Support," AGS leaders are cautioned about being too candid; to "be careful not to raise the fears that our goal is to restrict gun rights."

An intent to deceive is also implied by the advice to "focus on licensing, product safety [and legal] `loopholes`; de-emphasize registration, background checks [and] purchase limits."

There`s no fooling, though, about who McKelvey sees as the enemy. At the organizational meeting in Oakland, McKelvey said he is "sick to death" of NRA. And, according to a market evaluation on the gun issue prepared for AGS by ARC Research and presented in Oakland, organizers were admonished that "NRA is the #1 competitor."

The three-phase market study was aimed at identifying those voters on which AGS could best focus its efforts and suggests a bias from the outset.

The first phase, for example, involved interviews with participants in the Million Mom March in Washington, D.C., and Austin, Texas. Next, focus groups were organized in Orlando, Detroit, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Columbus, Ohio. Included were suburban parents, members of both major political parties in swing districts, gun owners, "activist women," teachers, and an unspecified number of people identified as NRA members.

Focus group members were asked to complete selectively worded opinion surveys and respond to numerous television ads prepared by HCI. Only one NRA ad was screened.

AGS hopes to recruit the so-called soccer moms who loomed large electing Clinton and Gore to power. According to the ARC Research report, "suburban women are (the) primary target" because they are "already convinced" of the AGS agenda and are easier to "convert to activists."

Suburban men are identified as a "secondary target," who recruiters were warned to "not antagonize; respect the needs of legitimate gun owners." To their face, at least.

According To AGS:
"Today, convicted felons are buying guns at gun shows," AGS says in its slickest television commercials.

FACT: Federal gun laws do not change because someone has walked into a gun show. A convicted felon faces a 10-year term in federal prison if he attempts to purchase a firearm at a gun show.

Listed among the "compelling strategies" to emerge from the study was "gun owner safety education . . . supported by all, even NRA members." But on the issue of teaching gun safety to kids, the report identifies the idea as a compelling strategy, but notes that AGS is "opposed."

Some of the recommendations are patently hypocritical. While AGS claims to "rise above partisanship," the same section of one consultant`s report stresses the need to "attack the NRA for politicizing the issue . . . for being more interested in politics than in finding consensus."

As for members of Congress who stand strong in defense of the Second Amendment, AGS plans to "attack the[ir] voting records to set the agenda . . . . A concerted campaign waged early and at high intensity can change the terms of the debate."

Not all the study findings were in step with what AGS organizers undoubtedly had hoped for. Despite being a member of the "primary target" group, an Orlando woman was adamant. "It`s not the guns," she said. "The government should enforce the laws that are already on the books. We don`t need more laws . . . we need to work on people`s attitudes and the way children are raised."

A page later in the report, her sentiments were criticized as "a knee-jerk reaction."

Other dismissive and unflattering characterizations reveal the true nature of AGS attitudes toward both gun rights and gun owners. Arguments in favor of nationwide gun licensing, gun registration, and mandatory testing, the Penn, Schoen & Berland study noted, "did not sway the hard-core paranoids, who brought up the examples of (gun confiscation in) Nazi Germany . . . ."

It also implied that Second Amendment advocates might be potentially dangerous, noting that in recruiting victims of gun crimes, "these strategies can be complicated in places where controversy about gun reform and violently expressed pro-gun opinions make victims reluctant to be associated . . ." with AGS.
Other findings, however, may not be to the liking of AGS leaders:

  • "The NRA message of stricter enforcement of current laws is a powerful one."
  • Gun safety, AGS`s alleged raison d`etre, is "not a top issue, except for NRA members."
  • "Most voters do not see gun control as particularly effective. They believe that criminals will always get guns . . . ."
  • "Over half of the focus group people own guns and grew up around them. They generally do not fear guns or believe that the prevalence of guns is the problem . . . . They support safety, responsibility and accountability in gun use," which is consistent with NRA`s policy.

The Million Mom March, which McKelvey helped finance, "had almost no impact (and) does not have a well-established identity, but many believe it represents an extreme anti-gun viewpoint."

Some of the so-called "facts" presented in the public opinion studies for AGS are anything but. One such "fact" notes that "we lack any . . . requirement that there is a record of sale." One must conclude that AGS leaders are either ignorant of the yellow ATF Form 4473s, each of which has a unique transaction number to document each sale, or they are astonishingly poor liars.

An admonition under the heading, "Make messages strong," all but tells these activists that, where truth is concerned, the ends justify the means: "There is little reason to err on the side of understatement."

Far from being a "third way," Americans for Gun Safety is just as politically partisan and just as cynically pragmatic as HCI and all its predecessors. Like those others, AGS`s "whole aim," as H.L. Mencken wrote of such elitist social reformers several decades ago, is "to keep the populace alarmed, and hence clamorous to be led to safety."

If Americans for Gun Safety is as "mainstream" and "non-partisan" as founder Andrew McKelvey would have everyone believe, one might expect a broad array of people with varying political ideologies and levels of hands-on experience with firearms and gun safety to be represented on the staff of AGS, headquartered in the "Gucci Gulch" corridor of well-heeled lobbying firms in downtown Washington, D.C. Instead of gun safety, though, staffers have much more experience with gun-control advocacy and other leftist causes.

Jonathan J. Cowan, President-Prior to joining AGS last year, Cowan spent five years with the Clinton Administration, in the Department of Housing and Urban Development. As Chief of Staff to HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo, Cowan played a key role in HUD`s lawsuits against gun manufacturers.

Jennifer J. Palmieri, Director of Communications and External Affairs-She came to AGS after working six years in the Clinton White House, where she was a special assistant to Chief of Staff Leon Panetta, deputy director of presidential scheduling, and deputy press secretary, ending her tenure as Deputy Assistant to the President.

Francessa J. Wakem, Director of Corporate Affairs-For two years leading up to her new job at AGS, she was chief congressional lobbyist for the MWW Group. Prior to that, she was a deputy national finance director for the Democratic National Committee where she worked for most of the `90s, leading a team that raised more than $90 million for key Democratic elections.

Jim Kessler, Policy and Research Director-Brings a peculiar background to his new role of heading up policy and research for this supposedly "mainstream" gun-safety group. He formerly worked on the legislative staff of possibly the most virulently anti-gun member of the U.S. Senate--Charles Schumer (D-NY).

Edward Hill, senior researcher-A longtime activist in the anti-gun movement, Hill spent three years assisting the plaintiff`s lawyers in the unsuccessful Hamilton v. Accu-Tek case against numerous firearm manufacturers. He is also a veteran of various gun-control initiatives in New York, and advocates "the adoption of `common-sense` gun laws, such as licensing and registration."

Stephanie Albert, general staff-Prior to joining the gun-control movement in her new job at AGS, Albert was a pro-abortion activist in New York, where she was instrumental in recruiting and training young women for that cause. She served for almost three years as a legislative aide to California State Sen. Tom Hayden, a former spouse of Jane Fonda and leader of 1960s radicals Students for a Democratic Society, a group responsible for bombings and other violent acts on campuses across the nation.

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Established in 1975, the Institute for Legislative Action (ILA) is the "lobbying" arm of the National Rifle Association of America. ILA is responsible for preserving the right of all law-abiding individuals in the legislative, political, and legal arenas, to purchase, possess and use firearms for legitimate purposes as guaranteed by the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.