Control Freaks

It just seemed like a lot of kids were getting
with guns," mused Andrew McKelvey, recalling the days after the Columbine school
shootings in 1999. "I said to myself, someone should do something about it." So
McKelvey -- a multimillionaire business executive and political neophyte -- did. In
the three years after Columbine, McKelvey poured millions of dollars into
advertising, legal action, and groups like the Million Mom March and Handgun
Control, Inc., giving gun-control advocates a financial strength approaching
that of the National Rifle Association. He also launched a new organization,
Americans for Gun Safety (AGS), which set out to unify the otherwise
decentralized state advocacy groups and build an NRA-style grass roots. Headed by
Jonathan Cowan, a smart, ferociously ambitious former aide to Andrew Cuomo, AGS
was meant to be "a nonpartisan group that would work on a McDonald's-like model,"
as Newsweek put it, with "'franchises' in every state, all using the same
logo and strategies."

"Our angel," one activist said, "has arrived." But these days, things are a
little less heavenly. The grass-roots Army has failed to materialize. The state
activists are grumbling. Relations between AGS and other national groups are
chilly. And an upcoming fight in the Senate to close the "gun-show loophole" in
the 1994 Brady Bill -- which required background checks on gun purchases but didn't
cover sales at hundreds of gun shows held across the country each year -- will
probably make things worse. While AGS backs a bill introduced by Republican
Senator John McCain, nearly all the other gun-control groups prefer a bill
sponsored by Democratic Senator Jack Reed. The resulting fight might just tear
the gun-control movement apart.

Things first began to unravel in the fall of 2000,
as gun-control
groups across the country prepared for the November elections. The initial
contract between AGS and the state groups, signed that July, called for AGS to
create a marketing plan, give each of the 29 state groups $60,000 a year for two
years, and pay for a substantial amount of training and services. Passage of
federal gun licensing and registration, the contract stated, would be "the top
national priority." The state groups were ecstatic. But then, at an AGS
conference in September, Cowan presented a slew of AGS-funded polls and
introduced the new national slogan: "rights and responsibilities." Within a
couple of days, as the state groups began to receive talking points and sample
press releases from AGS, they found out what Cowan meant by "rights": Americans
were guaranteed the right to own guns, a position long promulgated by the NRA and
opposed by nearly every gun-violence organization in the country.

To McKelvey and Cowan, this was just good politics. Most Americans already
believed it to be true, the pair argued. (McKelvey says he didn't think the
constitutional issue "was terribly relevant to anything.") But the state groups
were livid -- especially given that the July contract had stressed gun licensing
and registration. "I remember distinctly looking through it, and when I finished,
I got right on the phone," said Bryan Miller, director of Ceasefire New Jersey
(CNJ) and a board member of States United for the Prevention of Gun Violence, the
informal grass-roots coalition that had signed the contract on behalf of state
guncontrol groups. "That's when things really fell apart." For the next few
weeks, Cowan and the state activists argued fiercely over the slogan and who
would adopt it. The activists felt that they had been blindsided and that AGS in
general, and Cowan in particular, were being "a little dictatorial," as one
participant put it.

Meanwhile, AGS had decided to get involved in Oregon and Colorado referendums
aimed at closing the gun-show loophole at the state level. They hired Scott Reed,
a Republican consultant, and began to spend what would be a total of $3 million
to help pass the initiatives. In early October, AGS triumphantly unveiled its
campaign, announcing that McCain would appear in AGS ads (reversing his 1999
Senate vote against closing the loophole). But by month's end, AGS and the state
groups had stepped back and negotiated a new contract: AGS would still give out
the $60,000 per group, but would offer significantly less training and
operational support. The state groups, meanwhile, would not have to endorse
specific legislation or adopt AGS's slogan.

In the end, the November elections went relatively well for the gun-control
side. Though Al Gore's presidential campaign was hurt by his loss in some pro-gun
swing states, a number of House Democrats won with strong gun-control stands and
some incumbent, NRA-backed state and national lawmakers were unseated. Most
significantly, gun control was pivotal in defeating three staunchly pro-NRA
Republican senators: John Ashcroft, Spencer Abraham, and Slade Gorton. The
referendums in Oregon and Colorado passed with healthy majorities, boding well
for the issue. "The passage of these measures," Cowan said after the election,
"sends a clear message to policy makers across the country that the debate on
guns has changed dramatically."

So when Rhode Island's senior senator, Jack Reed,
decided to
reintroduce a 1999 bill (originally sponsored by Frank Lautenberg, a former New
Jersey senator) that required background checks at gun shows, he naturally
thought of McCain. After all, the referendums that McCain had helped pass in
Oregon and Colorado were, in most respects, identical to Lautenberg's bill and,
in some ways, even tougher. (Lautenberg's bill defined gun shows as any events at
which 50 or more firearms were exhibited or offered for sale; the referendums
drew the line at 25.) Reed and McCain chatted in December 2000, but McCain was
noncommittal. When Reed introduced his bill at a press conference four months
later, McCain didn't attend -- and neither did Carolyn McCarthy, the Long Island
Democrat who had won election in 1996 on a tough gun-control platform.

It soon emerged that McCain and McCarthy were crafting their own bill. Why?
Part of the explanation, certainly, lies in the fact that Jonathan Cowan had
begun to reconfigure AGS from a would-be grass-roots organization into a Beltway
advocacy powerhouse. Last winter, AGS opened a plush new office on L Street in
Washington, hired well-connected staffers (including James Kessler, previously
the policy director for gun-control champion Charles Schumer), and retained
high-powered lobbyists (such as John Wyma, a former Schumer chief of staff). AGS
had also begun to woo centrist Democrat Joseph Lieberman and McCarthy, who tried
and failed to pass a Lautenberg-style bill in the House in 1999 and was looking
for "a new approach, a new angle" to gun control, according to one aide. (It
probably didn't hurt that McKelvey had been among McCarthy's biggest supporters:
During the 2000 election cycle, McKelvey, his wife, and employees of his two
firms accounted for McCarthy's second-biggest chunk of contributions.) And in
February of last year, AGS launched a new ad campaign aimed at getting
"Washington 'to stop playing politics with guns' and require criminal background
checks at gun shows."

At first, it also tried to bring the state groups on board. At an AGS
conference in Maryland, AGS staffers tried to persuade local activist Ginni Wolf
not to support a pending Montgomery County law to ban all gun shows. The
Washington Post
and The Washington Times were covering the
campaign, and Wolf's group was making AGS look too anti-gun. Wolf refused. After
the conference, CNJ's Miller harshly criticized AGS in an e-mail to fellow state
activists. The e-mail got back to Cowan, who called up CNJ's chairman, Jodi
Tolman, and demanded that CNJ withdraw from the contract. Tolman declined. "It
was a difficult conversation," Cowan said, "but I never raised my voice." Tolman
recalls things differently. "He was unbelievably rude. He was belligerent... . We
said if you want to eliminate us from your roster of grantees, than you do it. He
knew that if they terminated the relationship, it would have looked very bad,
because there were a lot of state groups besides us that didn't agree with their
mission statement. But Jonathan's interest, I think, is in just being on top. He
told me, 'Gun control is dead, and AGS is here to revive it.'"

With AGS looking to score a big Washington victory, this refrain would prove
to be the dominant theme. "Both parties, and certainly Democrats, are looking for
a new approach to the issue to break the polarization," Cowan told The New
York Times
in March of 2001. "It's time for a third way." In May,
McCain, Lieberman, and McCarthy unveiled their new legislation, complete with a
$1-million AGS ad campaign and public endorsements from the National Association
of Police Organizations and the National Education Association. Compared to
Reed's bill, McCain's created a somewhat less tightly regulated class of
individuals permitted to run background checks and had a looser definition of
"gun show." But McCain's bill also had funding to help states computerize their
background records and allowed them, after three years, to limit checks to 24
hours provided that 95 percent of those records were accessible by the Brady
background-check system.

By offering the possibility of quicker background checks and more people able
to run them -- both pushed by the NRA in 1999 -- McCain's bill was designed to have
more credibility among gun-rights supporters. And by winning McCain to the cause,
Cowan argues today, AGS "changed the entire landscape and politics and strategy"
of the debate. Schumer, who in the end decided to support both bills, agreed.
"I'm tired of going to the floor and arguing passionately about an issue but
sending nothing to the president's desk," Schumer announced. "This bipartisan
bill bows to the reality of getting something done without sacrificing

Reaction in the gun-control community was mixed. Few activists opposed funding
to improve background checks, but many questioned the implicit concession that
the Brady law's "up to three days" language was inconvenient to gun owners,
because 95 percent of all checks were (and are) completed in under two hours.
Others were unwilling to criticize longtime allies like McCarthy and Schumer -- and
welcomed McCain's involvement -- but questioned the "third way" posturing.
Furthermore, Lautenberg's original bill had itself been "bipartisan, moderate
legislation," as AGS called McCain's bill, and the Lautenberg-Reed language had
already proved agreeable to voters in Oregon and Colorado. McCain went on TV to
claim that his bill was "basically the same that passed in Colorado," when in
fact it was Reed's bill that was basically the same. McKelvey himself seemed to
favor even stiffer kinds of traditional gun control. "If licensing and
registration would save kids' lives," he told The Atlanta
in June, "then yeah, we have to look at it."

And though AGS heralded the bill as the only one that could pass in
Republican-dominated Washington, the GOP wasn't biting. The McCain bill got only
five co-sponsors (Reed had 22) and no Republican co-sponsors besides McCain and
Mike DeWine, who had supported Lautenberg in 1999. Indeed, neither McCain nor
McCarthy had a single demonstrable "new" vote -- that is, someone that hadn't voted
for closing the loophole in 1999. "I think [AGS's] sense was that their bill was
going to be the gun-control vehicle for this congress," said the Violence
Policy Center's Joe Sudbay, who came out strongly against the McCain bill. "I
think they believed that once they got McCain and Lieberman, they were going to
wrap this up quickly."

This put AGS in an odd position: To get their own version of the
gun-show bill passed, they would have to convince Congress (especially Democrats)
both that Reed's bill was inferior and that Reed-style gun control was a hopeless
cause. Cowan, Kessler, and former Clinton Press Secretary Joe Lockhart soon took
to the hustings to make that case. In July, Cowan and Kessler published an
article in Blueprint, the house organ for the Democratic Leadership
Council. "The party will have a hard time recapturing the presidency," they
argued, "if it treats gun-owning Americans like sociopaths." While the Colorado
and Oregon referendums were "sensible, centrist, bipartisan gun policy," they
wrote, the identical Reed bill treated "hobbyists" as "dangerous social misfits."
Writing in The Washington Post the same month, Lockhart argued that he had
been wrong to advise Bill Clinton to "push gun control front and center," and
that his party could only win on the gun-safety debate by embracing the "third
way" approach of McCain and "a new group on the scene, Americans for Gun Safety."
But Lockhart's conversion was greased: Around the same time his op-ed appeared,
AGS hired Lockhart's firm, the Glover Park Group, to do issue ads for the fall.
(AGS consultant Reed published a similar op-ed, aimed at fellow Republicans, in
the Los Angeles Times -- also without disclosing his AGS connection.)

Meanwhile, on the Hill, the AGS spin machine began grinding away. To
centrist Republicans and Democrats, AGS trumpeted McCain's endorsement and
disparaged Reed's backers as "a group of liberal Democrats," as AGS
Communications Director Matt Bennett put it in a recent online chat. To liberal
Democrats inclined to support Reed, AGS has highlighted Schumer and McCarthy's
support. And to everyone, AGS has argued that the McCain bill is simultaneously
an easier vote and a stronger bill. The McCain bill "is always referred to
as a compromise -- including by us, for political reasons," Bennett explained, "but
in fact the McCain-Lieberman bill is a stronger bill than the Reed bill." Indeed,
opponents claim AGS has tried harder to cannibalize Reed's Democratic
votes -- focusing on centrists like Louisiana's Mary Landrieu -- than to get new ones
across the aisle. "They're pushing their bill as the only real alternative,"
argued Reed aide Greg McCarthy. "They're trying to create the sense that this is
over before it's started."

September 11 suspended the debate, but not for long. When it emerged that some
would-be terrorists had bought weapons at gun shows, both sides latched on to the
homeland-security bandwagon. Sometime this spring, both bills will get the
attention of the Senate. But the stakes are higher for AGS: Senate Majority
Leader Tom Daschle has promised Reed he'll get the first vote. That means for
McCain's bill to get a vote, Reed's has to fail. AGS is "criticizing other groups
because they've staked their whole brand name on this," argued Tom Mannard,
executive director of the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence, which like
most of the state groups has parted ways with AGS. "And if [McCain] doesn't
happen, what does that mean for them?"

Cowan is undaunted. He predicts that McCain will get between 55 and 58
votes -- though he won't name whom he's counting on -- and brushes off the criticism
from other activists. "In any debate where some group has stepped in and taken a
high profile, recruited top legislators to work with them, helped carry two major
ballot initiatives, tried to define a different position on an issue, has
significant resources behind it, other people and other groups are going to
attack them."

But can a gun-control movement so deeply divided -- personally and
politically -- win against the NRA? "Compromise only works when the other side
gives," Sudbay argued. "We're compromising with ourselves. If Reed loses because
of what AGS has done, they've done the NRA's work for them."