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Not Quite a Million Moms

Alternative gun groups to watch.

Mr. Kopel research director, Independence Institute.

National Review Online. May 15, 2001 12:35 p.m. More by Kopel on anti-gun groups.

The "Million" Mom March rally in Washington, D.C., on Mother's Day, drew about 100 people, according to CNN.

In Nashville, the MMM obtained a permit for a rally at the state capitol, but didn't even show up. At the MMM rallies around the country, crowds tended to around the size of the D.C. rally.

At most MMM rally sites, pro-rights demonstrators, led by the Second Amendment Sisters (sometimes in conjunction with the Tyranny Response Team) staged counterprotests.

A few weeks beforehand, the MMM had laid off 30 of its 35 paid staff. And thanks to outstanding investigative work by www.keepandbeararms.com, the MMM was expelled from its offices in San Francisco General Hospital. The MMM had obtained office space from the Trauma Foundation, without SF General's knowledge, and was using the space for lobbying, in violation of the city-owned hospital's rules.

The MMM was the darling of the media in the spring of 2000, but its abysmal election results in November have shown both politicians and the media that the group had little of the grassroots political power that it claimed.

Now, the leading organizations in the anti-gun movement are two groups which were unknown a year ago. Americans for Gun Safety is the creation of the billionaire founder of Monster.com. Its goal differ little from those of Handgun Control, Inc., (HCI) on whose board the AGS billionaire used to serve. But AGS--in sharp contrast from MMM, HCI, and most of the rest of the anti-gun movement avoid incendiary rhetoric attacking gun owners or gun manufacturers.

The other anti-gun group worth watching is the Violence Policy Center (VPC), a non-lobbying educational organization which explicitly favors prohibition of handguns and a huge number of shotguns and rifles, and which criticizes other anti-gun groups for timidity and incrementalism.

Two years ago, Handgun Control, Inc., was king of the anti-gun movement. Led by Sarah Brady, the group had achieved unprecedented success in promoting gun control at the federal level, and had achieved important victories in some states. But the 2000 election results also hurting HCI, which can legitimately take responsibility for Al Gore's defeat and for continued Republican control of the House of Representatives, as well as for the 1994 Republican take-over of Congress. Newsweek reports that the group is planning on changing its name, having belatedly discovered that "control" isn't something that resonates well in American political culture.

HCI's educational/legal spinoff, the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence, is having trouble too. The group is swimming in money, with tremendous support from Hollywood and foundations. But the CPHV's flagship project promoting government lawsuits against handgun manufacturers, retailers, wholesalers, and trade organizations has been a bust. Following well-established precedent, many courts have dismissed the lawsuits as a transparent attempt to win in court what the anti-gun groups cannot win in the legislature. If the suits are to survive anywhere, their best prospects are in Ohio and (to a lesser degree) in California, where anti-gun civil lawsuits are before the state supreme courts, and in Boston.

As a political tactic, the lawsuits have been a pure loser. While HCI/CPHV have usually been adroit at framing issues (like waiting periods and "assault weapon" bans) which have intuitive appeal to a majority of the public, opinion polls show that a large majority of the public opposes the lawsuits. This is one reason why 26 state legislatures have now enacted laws banning such vexatious suits.

The process of lobbying for the anti-lawsuit laws has helped the NRA build closer ties with mainstream business groups, which recognize that if the gun lawsuits succeed, many other product manufacturers and distributors will be vulnerable to similar suits. Indeed, they will be more vulnerable, since guns are sold under a regulatory system that is stricter than the regulations for any other major consumer product except prescription drugs. If full compliance with strict regulation isn't sufficient protection from legal liability, then compliance with the looser regulations for alcohol, fast food, and other products would likewise be legally insufficient.

A second political effect of the lawsuits is that, for the first time in history, the American firearms industry has been shaken from its torpor, and begun major political and public education efforts, rather than simply relying on the consumer-oriented National Rifle Association.

Under the direction of the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), firearms manufacturers have finally started to make their case to the public.

The only company that caved in to the CPHV lawsuits was Smith & Wesson, which was acting under orders of its British parent, the conglomerate Tomkims PLC. As detailed by sources such as MSNBC and the National Journal, the "Smith & Wesson sell-out" has been a disaster for the company. Consumer revulsion at S&W's betrayal of Second Amendment principles has seriously cut sales, no new government contracts materialized as a result of the S&W settlement, and hardly any of the anti-S&W lawsuits have been dismissed.

The S&W disaster has also reinforced solidarity within the rest of the firearms industry. Thus, the CPHV's lawsuits have accomplished a feat which gun rights activists had failed to accomplish: turning firearms companies into a united, active, highly-engaged political force.

According to Fortune, the National Rifle Association is now rated as one of the two most powerful lobbies in Washington, a remarkable comeback from April-May 1999, when a media frenzy over Columbine sent the NRA reeling.

When serving as United States Representative from Wyoming, Dick Cheney was so strongly supportive of Second Amendment rights that he even voted against two (relatively mild) gun-control laws which the NRA supported. As vice president, Cheney has been put in charge of firearms policy for the Bush administration. Notwithstanding President Reagan's pro-gun rhetoric, the current Bush administration is far more closely allied with the gun rights movement and staffed by strong Second Amendment supporters than any administration since the days of Jefferson and Madison. This is a remarkable change from the Clinton administration, which was the only administration in American history with a comprehensive anti-gun agenda that permeated the executive branch. Some previous presidents, such as Lyndon Johnson and George Bush III, had supported isolated gun control laws, but had not devoted their tenure in office to a war on the Second Amendment.

NRA Executive Vice-President Wayne LaPierre's campaign to restore the NRA to its traditional status as a mainstream organization has succeeded. One result is that 33 states now have laws guaranteeing that law-abiding adults can obtain a permit to carry a concealed handgun in public for lawful protection. The right to carry was, as a practical matter, destroyed in almost all the United States by gun laws which were enacted as a result of alcohol prohibition violence in the 1920s and 1930s, and of racial unrest in the 1960s. The contemporary renaissance of concealed carry has saved many thousands of lives, and deterred or foiled hundreds of thousands of violent crimes.

The new handgun carry laws are also playing a major role in bringing legitimate firearms ownership even further into the mainstream of American thought. From Florida to Alaska and most places in-between Americans who don't own guns are getting used to the idea that the woman sitting next to them on the bus might have a Glock 9mm in her purse. And (contrary to the hysterical and mean-spirited warnings of the anti-gun groups), she poses no threat to anyone except a violent predator.

In order to pass concealed carry laws, the NRA sometimes supports regulations which offend Second Amendment purists such as requiring a license applicant to pass a safety training class. Similarly, the NRA sometimes supports (or does not oppose) limited gun control legislation in order to maintain good working relationships with elected officials.

The NRA's mainstream success, in turn, has led some gun rights advocates to shift their support to Gun Owners of America (GOA); the group's lobbyists have little clout with most offices on Capitol Hill, but the GOA's e-mail and fax grassroots network has become extremely effective. GOA was the most important organization behind the failure in the last two Congresses of Senator Orrin Hatch's bill to federalize much of the juvenile justice system. Because of GOA's strong conservative grassroots network, and its libertarian leanings, GOA has developed good working relationships with left-leaning civil liberties groups in Washington, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

While GOA may have a good relationship with the national ACLU, its relationship with the NRA is acrimonious. Yet ironically, the better that GOA does, the better for the NRA. Membership defections to GOA haven't exactly crippled the NRA, which now has record four million members. And the more attention that GOA's grassroots generates, the more the NRA can present itself, quite accurately, as a reasonable organization which lawmakers can work with.

There is still a long way to go before all the infringements on the Second Amendment are removed, and there are still serious new threats to Second Amendment rights, such as gun-show amendments that will be offered to the education bill which comes before the Senate soon; the effort to close the non-existent "gun show loophole" is simply an incremental step towards putting every gun owner in a government database, which itself is an incremental step towards confiscation.

And the greatest asset of the anti-gun prohibition the media has hardly decided that Second Amendment rights deserve even a tenth as much protection as First Amendment rights. Even so, Mother's Day 2001 found even the media acknowledging that political momentum is on the side of gun rights. That's quite a contrast from two years ago, and it's good news for mothers, children, and everyone else concerned with public safety.  


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