General

John McCain's Gun Control Problem

by John Velleco
Director of Federal Affairs

In 2000, Andrew McKelvey, the billionaire founder of monster.com, threw a sizable chunk of his fortune into the gun control debate.

It was shortly after the Columbine school shooting. Bill Clinton was in the White House and gun control was daily front-page news. McKelvey wanted in.

He started out contributing to Handgun Control Inc., which had since been renamed the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. But while he agreed with their gun banning goals, McKelvey thought the way they packaged their message was too polarizing.

"I told them that Handgun Control was the wrong name. I thought what they were doing was great but I thought it could be done differently," McKelvey said.

So McKelvey struck out on his own and formed Americans for Gun Safety. Although AGS shared almost identical public policy goals as other anti-gun groups, McKelvey portrayed the group as in the 'middle' on the issue and attempted to lure pro-gun advocates into his fold.

To pull it off, he needed a bipartisan coalition with credibility on both sides of the gun debate. On the anti-gun side, the task was easy. Most of the Democrats and a small but vocal minority of Republicans supported President Clinton's gun control agenda.

Finding someone who could stake a claim as a pro-gunner and yet be willing to join McKelvey was not so easy. Enter Senator John McCain.

McCain's star was already falling with conservatives. He had carved out a niche as a 'maverick' as the author of so-called Campaign Finance Reform (more aptly named the incumbent protection act), which was anathema to conservatives but made him a darling of the mainstream media.

Gun owners were outraged over CFR, but McCain still maintained some credibility on the gun issue.

Earlier in his career, McCain had voted against the Clinton crime bill (which contained a ban on so-called assault weapons), and he did not join the 16 Senate Republicans who voted for the Brady bill, which required a five-day waiting period for the purchase of a handgun.

But as he ramped up for his presidential run in 2000, McCain, expanding on the 'maverick' theme, staked out a position on guns far to the left of his primary opponent, George W. Bush.

McCain began speaking out against small, inexpensive handguns and he entertained the idea of supporting the 'assault weapons' ban. His flirtation with anti-Second Amendment legislation quickly led to a political marriage of convenience with McKelvey.

Within months of the formation of AGS, McCain was featured in radio and television ads in Colorado and Oregon supporting initiatives to severely regulate gun shows and register gun buyers. Anti-gunners were ecstatic to get McCain on board.

Political consultant Scott Reed, who managed Bob Dole's presidential campaign in 1996, hoped McCain would "bring a conservative perspective to the gun debate."

The ads not only pushed the anti-gun show measure in those two states, they also served to undermine the efforts of gun rights activists who were furiously lobbying against the same type of bill in Congress.

"I think that if the Congress won't act, the least I can do is support the initiative in states where it's on the ballot," McCain said in an interview.

At the time still a newcomer to the gun control debate, McCain said, "I do believe my view has evolved."

McCain continued to pursue his anti-gun agenda even after his presidential run ended, and the next year he and McKelvey made it to the big screen.

As moviegoers flocked to see Pearl Harbor, they were treated to an anti-gun trailer ad featuring McCain. This time the Senator was pushing legislation to force people to keep firearms locked up in the home.

"We owe it to our children to be responsible by keeping our guns locked up," McCain told viewers.

Economist and author John Lott, Jr., noted, "No mention was ever made by McCain about using guns for self-defense or that gunlocks might make it difficult to stop intruders who break into your home. And research indicates that McCain's push for gunlocks is far more likely to lead to more deaths than it saves."

Also in 2001, McCain went from being a supporter of anti-gun bills to being a lead sponsor.

Pro-gun allies in Congress who were holding off gun show legislation -- which would at best register gun owners and at worst close down the shows entirely -- were angered when McCain teamed up with Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-CT) and introduced a "compromise" bill to give the issue momentum.

"There is a lot of frustration. He has got his own agenda," one Republican Senator told Roll Call.

After September 11, 2001, McKelvey and McCain, now joined by Lieberman, had a new angle to push gun control.

"Terrorists are exploiting the gun show loophole," AGS ads hyped. McCain and Lieberman hit the airwaves again in a series of radio and TV spots, thanks to McKelvey's multi-million dollar investment.

A Cox News Service article noted that, "The ads first focused on gun safety but switched to terrorism after Sept. 11. Americans for Gun Safety said the switch is legitimate."

However, Second Amendment expert Dave Kopel pointed out that, "the McCain-Lieberman bill is loaded with poison pills which would allow a single appointed official to prevent any gun show, anywhere in the United States from operating."

Ultimately, the anti-gun legislation was killed in the Congress and AGS fizzled out and disappeared altogether. The issues for which McKelvey spent over $10 million are still in play, however, and John McCain remains a supporter of those causes. In fact, as recently as 2004, McCain was able to force a vote on a gun show amendment.

In the post-Columbine and post-9/11 environments, the Second Amendment was under attack as never before. Pro-gun patriotic Americans who stood as a bulwark to keep the Congress from eviscerating the Constitution were dismayed to look across the battle lines only to see Senator McCain working with the enemy.

John McCain tried running for president in 2000 as an anti-gunner. This year it appears he is seeking to "come home" to the pro-gun community, but the wounds are deep and memories long.