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