Activists Brawl Over Background Checks
Blog ››› ››› ALEXANDER ZAITCHIK
CHICAGO -- The national gun lobby in Washington, D.C. is a big machine, motored by a multi-billion-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 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 who, 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 epitaphs 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?