THE BLOG
10/16/2013 09:04 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

What 'Guns Saves Lives Day' Tells Us About the Pro-Gun Movement

Alan Gottlieb, executive vice president of the Second Amendment Foundation, hit rock bottom on Monday night when his plans to sponsor a "Guns Save Lives Day" on the one-year anniversary of the Sandy Hook massacre were contested by CNN host Piers Morgan on his show "Piers Morgan Tonight." The idea of "showing America that there is a good side to guns" on a day when we will be reflecting on the slaughter 20 children and six adults at the hands of a mentally ill young man wielding an AR-15 assault rifle equipped with 30-round ammunition magazines would be a tough sell for anyone. Gottlieb made matters even worse, however, by laughing openly at the following quote by Erica Lafferty (the daughter of slain Sandy Hook Elementary principal Dawn Hochstrung) when Morgan read it to him:

December 14 is a sacred day for Newtown families that should be about our loved ones -- not this disgusting political stunt. These people will be trampling on the graves of the innocent children and educators who were murdered that day. It's absolutely grotesque to suggest that if my mom had a gun that the Newtown massacre may have somehow turned out differently. She was a mother and an educator -- not a Marine. And she did everything in her power to protect those children from harm. These cowards don't have an ounce of the courage that my mom had.

"My heart goes out to them... but that doesn't allow them to use that day either to attack my rights," Gottlieb bristled. And his announcement that "Guns Save Lives Day" had been moved back a day to December 15, 2013 did nothing to win him new friends.

Most Americans who saw the interview probably dismissed Gottlieb as another frothing, gun-worshipping lunatic. There's some truth to that, but Gottlieb is also a man who recently tried to lead the pro-gun movement into the light of honest self-assessment, but like the Icarus of Greek mythology came crashing down to earth.

"Guns Save Lives Day" is not the first such event Gottlieb has sponsored. On January 19th of this year, Gottlieb's organizations, the Second Amendment Foundation (SAF) and the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms (CCRKBA), sponsored a similar "Gun Appreciation Day" with DefendGunRights.com founder Larry Ward after it became clear the White House and Congress would respond to the Newtown tragedy with a legislative package of reforms.

But then something remarkable happened: Gottlieb decided to buck the opposition of the National Rifle Association (NRA) and National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) and formally endorse the central element of that legislative package -- the so-called "Toomey Manchin Amendment" that would have required background checks on all private sales of firearms at commercial venues (i.e., gun shows, the internet, and classified ads in newspapers). After throwing the full weight of his SAF and CCRKBA behind the amendment (named after NRA 'A'-rated Senators Joe Machin of West Virginia and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania), Gottlieb was caught on camera giving an incredibly revealing speech at a dinner in Portland, Oregon on April 12, 2013.

During the speech, Gottlieb bragged that he and his staff had helped to write the Toomey-Manchin Amendment behind the scenes, and then added this bombshell:

Philosophically, in a perfect world, I don't want any background check either, but I also don't want criminals buying guns and killing people with them and I can't justify morally that a person walks into a gun show, buys a gun from somebody without giving his name, the guy can hardly speak English, and he walks out the door with that firearm with no check, nothing at all. It goes on every day at every gun show. I want to be honest with you. We can't tolerate that. We're going to lose all our rights if we allow that to continue to go on. It's not a sustainable position for us to take. Yes, we might be able to win the battle this time and stop it in Congress. You're going to lose the war over time with that. Your Republican candidates, they're going to run on that, with [Mayors Against Illegal Guns co-chair and New York City Mayor] Mike Bloomberg spending millions of dollars in their districts and wiping them out? And then Democrats get their [way] on background checks [and] they want gun bans. It's not a tenable position for us to take. We're marching off the edge of a cliff with it.

As Gottlieb saw it, it was better to accept this reality and negotiate with gun violence prevention advocates in the short-term in order to win what concessions they could for pro-gun activists in the long-term. And while Gottlieb was engaging in utter hyperbole in describing the Toomey-Manchin Amendment as "a Christmas tree" for the pro-gun side, there were indeed some concessions granted to the gun lobby.

But then the pro-gun movement that Gottlieb himself helped to build got wind of his endorsement and speech. Dave Workman, the CCRKBA communications director, described the reaction as "fierce criticism." One editorial by libertarian columnist Claire Wolfe entitled "Gottlieb the Traitor" mocked, "Oh yeah, look at all the 'benefits' [the Toomey-Manchin Amendment is] going to give gun owners. It's like putting warm 'showers' in the concentration camps."

Facing this pressure, Gottlieb decided to pull SAF and CCRKBA's support for the Toomey-Manchin Amendment just hours before it was brought to the Senate floor for a vote, when Senator Manchin made it clear on "Morning Joe" on MSNBC that he didn't have the votes needed to pass it. But just one month later, Gottlieb defended his original endorsement in an interview with Guns.com:

Looking to the future, while we can win the skirmish today on this thing, we're not going to win this war over time. The reason is the polls that show that 90% of the American people want background checks is true. Most gun owners want background checks ... What we're going to face now, and I'll be really up front about this because this scares the hell out of me, in 2014... Mayor Bloomberg of New York is going to spend $16 million putting a ballot measure on in 15 states for a background check that's going to be draconian, one that none of us are going to want and none of us can support. And you know what's going to happen? It's going to pass in 15 states and then Bloomberg and the rest of the crowd are going to go to the American people and say, 'Well, the gun lobby may own the politicians, but the American people repudiated the gun lobby.' I don't want to hear that, I don't want to see that, I want to fight smart and I want to win.

When the interviewer asked Gottlieb what was next in the campaign to negotiate a reasonable compromise on background checks in Congress, however, Gottlieb was pessimistic and had no answers. "We're in a toxic environment," he explained. "For the first time, we are back on the defensive. We are not on the offensive."

Gottlieb's effort to engage the pro-gun movement in a serious conversation about long-term strategy was at an end. The monster he himself had helped to create had risen up to threaten his leadership (and maybe his life as well).

Now, just five months later, Gottlieb is back to his old tricks. His "Guns Save Lives Day" is a cynical attempt to throw red meat to the most radical of SAF/CCRKBA supporters and generate additional dollars for his direct mail empire (the event's webpage is nothing more than a glorified petition form that feeds names, emails and zip codes to Gottlieb) at the expense of the feelings and dignity of gun violence victims and survivors.

Will "Guns Save Lives Day" save Gottlieb's own neck by restoring his personal prestige among pro-gun activists? Maybe. But the event will only serve to march his movement closer to the cliff edge he described in his Oregon speech. Like the broader Republican Party, the pro-gun movement is now dominated by slash-and-burn extremists who are ideologically extreme, disdainful of compromise, and incapable of critical, long-term thinking. There will come a day, probably sooner rather than later, when events like "Guns Save Lives Day" will no longer be viable fundraisers, when changing demographics will result in an American public that is totally offended and alienated by such antics. Alan Gottlieb and his ilk might be bloody rich by that point, but they will also be decidedly out of business.

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