How the Gun-Control Movement Got Smart

Why are advocates so optimistic now when reform has failed so many times before? Because they have a totally new strategy.

Why are advocates so optimistic now when reform has failed so many times before? Because they have a totally new strategy.

Pete Souza/White House

Here is how advocates of gun control used to talk about their cause: They openly disputed that the Second Amendment conferred the right to own a gun. Their major policy goals were to make handguns illegal and enroll all U.S. gun owners in a federal database. The group now known as the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence was once known as Handgun Control Inc.; a 2001 book by the executive director of the Violence Policy Center was entitled Every Handgun Is Aimed at You: The Case for Banning Handguns.

Contrast that with what you see today: Gun-control groups don't even use the term "gun control," with its big-government implications, favoring "preventing gun violence" instead. Democratic politicians preface every appeal for reform with a paean to the rights enshrined in the Second Amendment and bend over backwards to assure "law-abiding gun owners" they mean them no ill will. Even the president, a Chicago liberal who once derided rural voters' tendency to "cling to guns or religion," seeks to assure gun enthusiasts he's one of them by citing a heretofore-unknown enthusiasm for skeet shooting, adding, "I have a profound respect for the traditions of hunting that trace back in this country for generations. And I think those who dismiss that out of hand make a big mistake."

A frequent question in the current battle over gun control is why anyone should expect reform to succeed now when it's failed repeatedly for the last 20 years. Maybe this is why: Between then and now, advocates of gun control got smarter. They've radically changed their message into one that's more appealing to Middle America and moderate voters.

If the NRA today seems fixated on the notion that the left is out to confiscate Americans' legally acquired firearms, that's because 15 years ago, advocates wanted to do exactly that.

In the late '90s, "Democrats and gun-control groups had approached the debate consistently in a way that deeply, almost automatically alienated a lot of gun owners," said Jon Cowan, former president of a now-defunct group called Americans for Gun Safety.

The story of the way the gun debate changed is largely the story of AGS. Formed in 2000 by Andrew McKelvey, the CEO of, the group sought to reset the terms of the debate and steer the gun-control movement away from its inward-looking, perpetually squabbling, far-left orientation. The various advocacy groups were often more concerned with fighting with each other than with taking the fight to their opponents, and a vocal contingent valued ideological purity over pragmatism.

For example, an April 1999 newspaper report on President Clinton's plans for gun reform after the mass shooting at Columbine High School includes this paragraph:

While moderate organizations such as Handgun Control Inc., based in Washington, applauded the broad package of gun control measures announced Tuesday by President Clinton, an official of the Violence Policy Center, an activist group in Washington that favors a ban on handgun sales, said the package's only worthwhile proposal was to ban sales at gun shows.

In the end, no federal legislation passed in the wake of Columbine. Infighting and unrealistic goals also helped doom the Assault Weapons Ban in 2004, when it was up for renewal.

"There was as much fighting between the groups as with the opposition," David Hantman, a former aide to the bill's sponsor, Senator Dianne Feinstein, recalled. "Some of them insisted that we couldn't just renew [the ban], we had to strengthen it." With Republicans controlling the White House and both houses of Congress, that wasn't politically feasible, and the ban was allowed to lapse. Around the same time, legislation to close the "gun-show loophole" by requiring background checks for non-dealer gun sales was defeated, and Congress passed a bill according gun manufacturers blanket immunity from product-liability lawsuits.

McKelvey, a Yellow Pages ad marketer-turned-tech billionaire, came to the gun issue after being shocked by Columbine. Described by friends as an apolitical businessman who enjoyed hunting (he died of cancer in 2008), McKelvey was frustrated by the tone-deaf approach he saw the gun-control movement taking. He joined the board of Handgun Control Inc. and immediately began pressuring the group to change its name, promising substantial financial support in exchange for such a move; when the group resisted, he quit the board and set out to form his own group -- AGS.

If the NRA today seems fixated on the notion that the left is out to undercut the Second Amendment, confiscate law-abiding Americans' legally acquired firearms, and instigate federal-government monitoring of all gun owners, that's because 15 years ago, gun-control advocates wanted to do all of those things.

Federal licensing and registration as a requirement for gun ownership was a top policy goal -- in the 2000 Democratic presidential primary, then-Vice President Al Gore came out in favor of photo licenses for gun owners, drawing criticism from Senator Bill Bradley, who supported the further step of registering every gun. National bans on handguns were also on the agenda: One such proposal, introduced in the House and Senate in 1993, would have "prohibit[ed] the transfer or possession of handguns and handgun ammunition, except in limited circumstances," requiring current handgun owners to turn in their weapons over the course of a six-month grace period. And the idea that the Second Amendment didn't confer an individual right to own a gun, which was at the time a fairly mainstream legal view, was part of the gun-control movement's gospel. (The Supreme Court ruled in 2008 that such a right existed, knocking down the D.C. handgun ban in the process.) 

"The right to own a gun is flat-out stated in the Second Amendment," Cowan told me. By taking a position -- however legally defensible -- that that right didn't apply to individuals, gun-control advocates were putting up "a stone wall, a barrier to gun owners" that made them "logically presume you want to take their gun away," he added.

In 1999, when McKelvey was looking to change the gun debate, Cowan was a former chief of staff to then-Housing and Urban Development Secretary Andrew Cuomo. The two teamed up to start AGS.

From the start, the group was not shy about confronting its peers in the movement. In an essay published in 2001 in Blueprint Magazine, the organ of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, Cowan and AGS Policy Director Jim Kessler wrote that Democrats "will have a hard time recapturing the presidency and building a durable majority if it treats gun-owning Americans like sociopaths." They continued:  

On the right ... the public face of the gun lobby is that of Charlton Heston daring anyone to pry that flintlock from his cold dead hands. On the left are various gun-control groups that view gun ownership as an absolute wrong. They believe the Constitution does not confer an individual right to own a gun; that owning a gun is irresponsible and unsafe; and that America is a more violent place because of access to guns. The public face of the gun-control lobby is a mother at a rally with a sticker on her cheek showing a handgun with a red slash drawn across it.
Meanwhile, they wrote, most Americans were in the middle -- they believed gun ownership should be legal, but should come with responsibilities and common-sense restrictions. "Even 65 percent of gun owners and 61 percent of Americans who view the NRA favorably agree that gun rights and reasonable gun restrictions can coexist," Cowan and Kessler wrote. But no one was speaking for that silent majority.

The plea for a new approach resonated with Democrats who were tired of losing on the gun issue. Clinton believed the backlash to the Brady Bill had helped hand the House to Newt Gingrich and the GOP in 1994; Gore blamed the gun issue for his electoral-vote loss in 2000, which could have been avoided if he'd done better in formerly Democratic states like Tennessee and West Virginia that had come to see the party as out of touch with their values.

Bill Andresen, a former chief of staff to Senator Joe Lieberman, recalled how toxic the issue was with blue-collar voters back then. "I remember when Lieberman was running for vice president," he said. "We were in Michigan, and he was doing visits to plants, shaking hands with union workers. The first thing he said to me after -- all the people he was talking to said, 'I want to vote for you, but I can't, because you're going to take my gun away.' These were union voters, UAW workers, and the Democratic Party was losing them" over gun control. Andresen credits AGS with "fundamentally changing the debate in an important way."

AGS's big political project was a pair of 2000 state-level ballot initiatives to close the gun-show loophole in Colorado and Oregon. In the wake of Columbine, the Colorado initiative polled strongly from the start, but advocates had to make sure they didn't bleed support from moderate- and conservative-minded voters, particularly middle-aged men, said Rick Ridder, a Denver-based political consultant who spearheaded AGS's efforts in the state.

Mailers featured hunters expressing their support for the Second Amendment, imagery and language that reappropriated the other side's emphasis on sportsmen and the Constitution. And the group got Senator John McCain, the well-known maverick from Arizona, to record a television commercial in support of the initiative. "I'm John McCain with some straight talk," he said in the ad. "Convicted felons have been able to buy and sell thousands of guns at gun shows because of a loophole in the law. Many were later used in crimes, and that's wrong .... I believe law-abiding citizens have the right to own guns, but with rights come responsibilities."

Both ballot initiatives passed that November, and the AGS-endorsed talking points quickly became central to the way advocates approached the gun debate. The group's effectiveness could be seen in the viciousness with which it came under attack. NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre, in a speech in April 2002 -- seven months after 9/11 -- compared McKelvey and AGS to Osama bin Laden and "the Al Qaeda": "Fomenting fear for political gain, funding an ongoing campaign, to hijack your freedom and take a box cutter to the Constitution. That's political terrorism, a far greater threat to your freedom than any foreign force."

AGS ceased to exist in 2005, its staff and advocacy absorbed by the center-left think tank Third Way, of which Cowan now serves as president. But its success endures. These days, proponents of gun-control don't quite march in lockstep, but the movement -- long one of the most quixotic and beleaguered factions of the progressive coalition, on a par with environmentalists and campaign-finance advocates -- is fairly disciplined around the new message. "In the past, there were a lot of pitfalls that those seeking change on this issue had fallen into," the Brady Campaign's president, Dan Gross, told me. (Handgun Control Inc. changed its name a year after McKelvey quit the board over the issue.) "The message is now turned outward instead of inward, focused on engaging and mobilizing the latent majority of the American public that supports common-sense measures like universal background checks." Now, a representative email from a Colorado progressive group to its supporters is headlined, "No one is coming to take your gun."

National Democrats' embrace of the Second Amendment has been credited with defusing a flash point in the culture wars and helping the party turn the Rocky Mountain West into a swing region. Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader from Nevada, has a lifetime "B" rating from the NRA and in 2010 shared the stage with LaPierre at the opening of a gun range in Las Vegas for which Reid had secured federal land and a $61 million earmark. (The NRA nonetheless declined to endorse Reid in his 2010 reelection, but it also did not endorse his opponent or campaign against him.)

Reid likely owes his majority to Democrats' success in recent years at rebranding themselves as pro-gun and winning over rural, blue-collar, and Western voters. But as with the DLC's larger project of moving the party to the center, this success has come at a cost to the party's former progressive ideals. If the gun-control movement is more strategic now than it once was, it's also less ambitious. The president's package of reform proposals -- carefully touted as "gun-violence prevention," in keeping with the taboo on the potentially alienating phrase "gun control" -- would have been considered incrementalist 15 years ago. And the same red-state Democrats who can thank smarter gun messaging for their Senate seats now may pose the greatest obstacle to measures like a new ban on assault weapons.

"Fomenting fear to hijack your freedom and take a box cutter to the Constitution. That's political terrorism, a far greater threat to your freedom than any foreign force." --Wayne LaPierre, 2002

The whole debate, in short, has shifted to the right. "Democrats are now more conservative on guns, and Republicans are much more conservative as well," Hantman, the former Feinstein aide, said. The NRA itself has become more hard-line: Post-Columbine, the group took a more accommodating stance, coming out in favor of expanding background checks and barely fighting the 2000 state ballot initiatives. An ad aired by Mayors Against Illegal Guns during the Super Bowl last weekend featured a clip of LaPierre testifying in favor of background checks in 1999. At the time, "When some NRA Board members objected to the NRA supporting gun control, Wayne LaPierre (chief operating officer of the NRA) and Jim Baker (chief lobbyist) threatened to quit if the NRA backed away from instant background checks," according to a 2001 article in National Review that argued that the NRA, not AGS, was the true moderate voice in the gun debate.

Perhaps no politician typifies the shift so much as McCain, who tacked steadily to the right as he fended off primary challengers first for the 2008 presidential election and then for his 2010 Arizona reelection. In addition to taping ads in favor of gun control, in 2004 he cosponsored federal gun-control legislation with Lieberman. In the current debate, however, he's been silent on the issue. "I think all of us should have this conversation. I applaud the conversation," McCain said when asked about guns last month on CBS's Face the Nation. "We need to have it stopped, but to somehow believe that guns away from people is the answer -- I don't think history shows that that's the right way to do it."

McCain also said he was against a new assault-weapons ban, which he's opposed in the past. I followed up with his communications director, Brian Rogers, and asked if the senator had taken a position on some of the other measures being considered -- universal background checks, restricting magazines, cracking down on gun trafficking. "He hasn't," Rogers replied.

The gun debate has changed in remarkable ways in the last 15 years. But whether that change makes it more likely something gets done on the issue remains to be seen.