Control Freaks

The Prospect is known for high-quality journalism. So it's a shame that before letting loose with falsehoods and half-truths about Americans for Gun Safety (AGS), Nicholas Confessore didn't check with us ["Control Freaks," April 8, 2002]. Our "plush new offices" are just a few feet from TAP's own.

Confessore botches his analysis of both the forest and the trees. First, he argues that the gun debate was going well and there was no need for a new voice like AGS. But consider these facts: Following the last election, the entire Demo-cratic Party establishment was convinced that guns cost Al Gore states like West Virginia and Tennessee; Virginia's Democratic candidate for governor solicited the NRA's endorsement; and Senator Zell Miller, the new voice of conservative Democrats, wrote that the gun issue was killing the party in the South. Traditional gun-control groups fell right behind Democrats, with the Violence Policy Center and others waving the white ?ag and making known their plans to focus on the state level.

Enter AGS. Rather than demonizing gun owners as half-baked fetishists, we support the right to own a gun. But we believe that with gun rights go responsibilities. We have gotten results because we've been strategic and aggressive, and because a majority shares our rights-and- responsibilities approach. We worked with new allies such as John McCain, who, with his public appeal and media access, helped us return guns to the national agenda. We had ballot-measure wins in Colorado and Oregon, which led McCain and Joseph Lieberman to sponsor a gun-show-loophole bill in Congress. The traditional gun-control groups, conversely, still back the same bill that failed in 1999, when Columbine was fresh. How the bill could become law now, with a hostile House leadership and a skeptical president, is a mystery.

So much for the big picture. Confessore does even worse with the details, particularly concerning our relationship with the state-based gun safety groups. One example: AGS President Jon Cowan presented our rights-and-responsibilities message to States United a month before the September 2000 conference -- not at the conference, as Confessore alleges. The States United board voted for the message; but after the meeting, some groups decided they didn't approve. AGS nonetheless allowed all groups to keep their funding.

This and other mistakes lead Confessore to conclude that "most of the state groups [have] parted ways with AGS." Huh? All 29 state groups continue to benefit from our trainings; 16 responded to a request to work jointly on state gun-trafficking legislation; and 21 endorsed McCain-Lieberman despite pressure not to.

With McCain-Lieberman, AGS is taking the fight to Congress, while gun-controllers head for the hills.

Matthew Bennett
Americans for Gun Safety
Washington, DC

Nicholas Confessore Responds:

What is Matt Bennett smoking? Not only did I visit AGS's offices last fall, I spent several hours on the phone interviewing Bennett, AGS President John Cowan, and Director of State Affairs Mark Chekal-Bain.

First, the forest: Did gun control hurt the Democrats? It was one factor hurting Al Gore in several states that he lost and in several, such as Pennsylvania, that he won anyway. Nationally, according to polling by Stan Greenberg, guns ranked as the ninth most important issue for those voting against Gore; as a rule, though, anti-Clinton sentiment proved far more potent. House, Senate, and local elections in 2000 were little short of a disaster for the NRA. So, as I wrote in my piece, the record on 2000 is mixed. But within the Democratic Party, the debate over gun control has been largely a battle of perception; as I noted, it was only after the election, once John McCain decided to sponsor his own bill, that AGS developed an interest in portraying gun control as a loser.

As for the trees, Bennett alleges various "mistakes" but names only one: the timing of when gun-control activists learned about AGS's "rights and responsibilities" message. It's not a mistake. As Bennett writes, AGS first presented the message to States United board members four weeks before the September conference. But details of the new plan became much more widely known to gun-control activists at the conference, after which, as I wrote, opposition to AGS began to grow. The June 2001 training conference Bennett presumably refers to was specified in a contract signed in October 2000, before AGS's relations with the state groups soured; why should policy differences with AGS have stopped activists from taking the training, anyway? For that matter, why shouldn't 16 state groups work with AGS on interstate gun trafficking? Unlike the gun-show loophole, there's not much of a policy disagreement there.

Is the Third Way Finished?

Two points in John Judis's "Is the Third Way Finished?" [July 1] demand further comment. First, defending Social Security was not a part of Clinton's third-way agenda. As former Clinton administration officials have said publicly, he was looking to propose a George Bush-style privatization plan until 1998, when he ran into intern problems. His core constituency (labor, minorities, feminists) demanded that Clinton resist privatization efforts in exchange for the support he needed to save his presidency.

Judis also discusses economic stagnation as something that just happens. This may be the third-way perspective, but it's wrong. The European Central Bank has been strangling Europe's economy with a tight money policy that would never be tolerated in the United States. Third-wayers say little about Europe's contractionary monetary policy, but it is an important factor in Europe's high unemployment. Whether this is the result of ignorance or excessive deference to financial interests, it indicates a great deal about the third-wayers' ability to govern in the interest of working people.

Dean Baker
Center for Economic and Policy Research
Washington, DC