Ruminations of a (former) gun lobbyist
Richard Feldman spent much of the 1980s and 1990s lobbying for gun owners and manufacturers, working first as a regional political director for and consultant to the National Rifle Association, then as executive director of the American Shooting Sports Council. But he had a bitter falling out with top NRA lobbyists when the ASSC -- which represented manufacturers and retailers -- struck a deal with the Clinton administration to voluntarily add child-safety locks to their products. Now he’s promoting a juicy tell-all book -- “Ricochet: Confessions of a Gun Lobbyist” -- replete with details on how the gun lobby works. He stopped by the Times today to chat about his experiences and his thoughts on the right way to combat gun violence (hint: it’s not more stringent gun control laws). Here are some edited excerpts from his conversation with Jon Healey and Tim Cavanaugh.
Richard Feldman: I think one of the great mistakes that the media has made on this issue over the years has been not understand that there are multitudes of NRAs. There isn’t an NRA. If you were to editorialize against something that you perceive is stupid by the NRA, and you say, “This is just ridiculous, and the NRA is a bunch of crazies.” Well, I’m the NRA. I’m still an endowment member. You’ve attacked me. And the leadership of the NRA loves it when they get attacked, because they can turn that around into a great fundraiser.
What I came to realize (about why) the NRA was so upset with me, it wasn’t the policy of what I was doing with the child safety locks. They could care less. In fact, they said a year later, (NRA CEO) Wayne LaPierre said in print that the NRA has always child safety locks. Well, if they always supported them, how come I was a traitor for announcing it, and you’re a hero for admitting it? What I was really doing and what upset them was on two different levels. One, I was eliminating fundraisers. They could have railed against these child safety locks. They would have been putting all our friends on Capitol Hill defending the indefensible, at least appearing to be against child safety locks. Having lived through the Brady Bill for all those years, and once I saw it from the business perspective, I saw so much in the Brady Bill I really liked. It protected the weakest link in the gun industry. If the gun manufacturers could have devised a system to protect themselves -- which they didn’t, it just worked out this way, in my view -- they would have set up the system we have today. Because it goes from a licensed manufacturer to a licensed wholesaler to a licensed retail dealer, to the consumer. Where does the rubber meet the road? It’s between the retail dealer and the consumer. That’s where there’s a mistake. But if they sell it, lawfully or otherwise, how does it get back to the manufacturer? It’s two steps removed! Even the wholesaler (can say), “I sold it to a licensed dealer.” They don’t control the distribution chain, the manufacturers.
Healey: In your early years with the industry, you didn’t have any problem with the NRA leadership.
Feldman: That’s exactly right. There was a different orientation. The people who were running the political operation were people who’d already had careers. They came to Washington to solve the problem and go home. That was their game plan. Fix it, protect America’s gun rights. And they’ve come a long way. I think part of the problem today is they refuse to admit that they’ve won, because they’d rather fight than win. Fighting’s good for membership development, recruitment, fundraising. Winning isn’t good for any of those things. The worst thing that happened to NRA at that level was George Bush getting elected. Had Gore won back in 2000, NRA’s membership might well be pushing 7 million today.
There’s nothing specific to NRA about that. It’s true for the environmental movement. It’s true for any group. The best thing that can happen to your movement is for the enemy to win because boy, you can raise money. That’s true across the board. I don’t mean to suggest NRA is peculiar in this regard. They’re not. Sarah Brady needs Wayne LaPierre just as badly as Wayne LaPierre needs Sarah Brady. They both need dragons to slay. And absent those dragons, they’re no longer that wedge issue in American politics. And it’s in their interests to have that crisis du jour going on, whatever it may be. And if one isn’t going on, they’ll create one.
Cavanaugh: What are they (NRA leaders) doing wrong? What are they focusing on that they shouldn’t be focusing on?
Feldman: On their behalf, I think they’re doing all the right things for them to continue to be viewed as a wedge issue in American politics, to be on the front pages of the newspaper, to do wonderful fundraising opportunities, to build their membership. They’re not doing anything wrong for them.
Healey: Is the NRA letting gun owners down?
Feldman: Some of the time. Some of the time. In urban states that have a lot of gun control, they’re not that eager to help gun owners in those states because they want to rail against those states. They’re the good fundraising opportunities. (adopting NRA persona) “This could happen to you. How would you like to live under this jurisdiction?” (in a quivering voice) “No, no, please, what do I have to do?” (back to the NRA voice) “Just write that check now!” California is one of the states. You still have your assault weapons ban. You do have a little bit more of a waiting period than most of America.
It’s a lot more fun for us to discuss points of contention. But what’s not as much fun is to say hey, you know what, we’re really in agreement on a large part of this issue, and we are. Why don’t we resolve the things we agree on, and just hold the things we disagree on in abeyance until we resolve the many things we don’t really disagree on.
Healey: Who are the parties you’re talking about here?
Feldman: The NRA and HCI (Handgun Control Inc.) and the politicians, which are most of them, who really don’t care one way or another, but what’s in it for me today.
What’s interesting is now to see the Democrats so frightened of even talking about the gun issue. They just shut up about it. They finally figured out that all the poll data is wrong. That when 70% of the American population says they’re for gun control, and then they support it, they get thrown out of office. They lost control of the House of Representatives in 1994 because of the assault weapons bill. Maybe to some degree the whole Brady Bill that year. I don’t think there’s any question, the Republicans would not have taken control of the House of Representatives in 1994 absent the assault weapons legislation in the omnibus crime bill. That vote happened three weeks before the Contract with America. And there were lines outside gun shops after that, and they were setting up booths for campaigning from those lines. I never saw gun owners more motivated, more activated.
Cavanaugh: Since then, has gun control been in retreat?
Feldman: No, not since then. I’d say since 2000. Who cared about 250 hanging chads in Palm Beach County? The gun issue in Florida was worth 300,000 to 450,000 votes. If Gore’s position on guns was reasonably close to Bush’s, and it wasn’t a big issue, Gore would have won Arkansas, he would have won his home state of Tennessee. He was always an A-rated, NRA-endorsed candidate when he ran for the U.S. Senate and when he ran for the U.S. House from Tennessee.
What they (pollsters) weren’t seeming to get, which was odd, is, it’s not enough to say, where are you on the issue. You’ve got to ask, how strongly do you feel about the issue? And people that own guns feel very strongly about their ownership of guns. People who do not own guns, and that is the majority of the population, don’t feel very strongly about the issue, one way or another. You’re not going to vote on the gun issue when you don’t own one. When you do own guns, you’re far more likely to vote on guns.
Cavanaugh: What do you make of the racist-roots-of-gun-control thesis?
Feldman: Historically, this is the case. I remember once, I was sitting at a table in Albany with then-Gov. Mario Cuomo, who finally lowered himself to speaking with us, and he was waxing eloquently about something or other. And I finally said, “You know, governor, the Sullivan law, the granddaddy of gun control in the Northeast, the reason this was passed was to keep (guns away from) those who looked funny and talked funny, largely of southeastern European extraction, particularly Italians. They didn’t trust Italians because they spoke funny, dressed differently. And that’s the history of gun control in America. It’s the history of racism, sexism and elitism. I’m OK, you’re not. I’ve never heard a politician say, “I want to give up my guns. I think it’s a bad idea for me to own guns.” It’s always someone else’s guns. “I don’t trust you with the guns.” Some people shouldn’t be trusted with them, I agree. It doesn’t matter if it’s a 50-caliber Browning automatic. If you’re a good guy, you’re not going to decide to go into a 7-11 and rob it because you have this gun. And if you’re a bad guy, having a single shot .22 Derringer is far more than you need to commit an armed robbery. When we focus on the gun, we miss the opportunity to focus on the problem. The problem is criminals in possession of guns. All criminals in possession of any guns, we have a problem. All citizens who don’t commit crimes, in possession of any guns, if there’s a problem at all, it’s not a criminal justice problem, it’s a safety problem. And those are different solutions.
Healey: Do you consider the mentally disturbed person with guns a safety problem or a criminal justice problem?
Feldman: I guess it’s both. You have people that are criminally insane...
Healey: Well, look at the guy at Virginia Tech.
Feldman: Clearly, there, criminal. The way he used the gun. Under current federal law, he shouldn’t have been able to get the gun. He was committed. The history records weren’t upgraded enough, and that’s what the current legislation, the McCarthy-Schumer bill, which NRA just must be chewing their fingers off, having to support something that has the names Schumer and McCarthy on it. But they’re actually doing a very good job I think on this. Of course, they’re getting beaten up by their hard core ideological supporters that they’re “giving away something.” And I always love when, you know, I do a radio show, and an NRA member will call up and go, “You’re for gun control. And I’m against it.” And I’ll go, “Oh well, maybe. So tell me, you’re in favor of violent predatory criminals being able to lawfully buy guns?” “Well, no.” “I guess then you’re for gun control, too. Not it’s just a matter of deciding which gun controls we’re both for. You know what? We’re all going to agree on a wide area of keeping guns out of the wrong hands. We may change our definition of who the wrong hands are, but at some point, there’s going to be still a pretty good amount. How do we do a better job in this country of making it harder. It won’t be impossible, the more difficult the better off we all are. And why don’t we do something about them when we have them? But we don’t, historically. When criminals attempt to buy guns from a gun shop and they get a hit (on the background check), the guy has a felony conviction. He’s just committed a federal crime by attempting to buy that gun. Why do we have to wait until he buys one from some other source on the street and misuses it? We know this person shouldn’t be buying a gun. They’re looking to buy it. We now have information. Why don’t we get him now, put him away now? This is a good time to put ‘em away, before they hurt somebody. I know, that makes sense. I can’t be accused of that.
That’s what’s missing, it’s probably fair to say, in lots of debates in this country. But it’s certainly missing in this debate about guns. The debate’s all about what we disagree about, instead of the areas of large agreement on the issue. And we could resolve a great deal of the problems within this issue cluster. But in whose interests are it to resolve the problems? The American people, gun owners, sportsmen, non-sportsmen, citizens, maybe even politicians. But it’s not in the interests of the ideological groups to resolve these problems too quickly. The NRA doesn’t want to lose. They just don’t want to win anything too quickly, because there are fundraisers involved.