Exposé on grassroots gun rights activism in Ohio funded by the anti-gun Joyce Foundation, but did they get what they hoped for?
by Chad D. Baus
The Chicago-based Joyce Foundation has been the primary source of funds for anti-gun rights groups for at least a decade. The Foundation, for which Barack Obama once served as a board member, has funneled millions upon millions of dollars into groups such as the Violence Policy Center (over $3.6 million since 2005), Mayors Against Illegal Guns (over $1.6 million since 2006), the Legal Community Against Violence (over $1.5 million since 2005) and the International Association of Chiefs of Police (over $1.3 million since 2006). They have funneled millions more to state-based anti-Second Amendment organizations such as the Ohio Coalition Against Gun Violence (which has received over three quarters of a million dollars) and the Wisconsin Anti-Violence Educational Fund (over $1.9 million since 2005), or to groups designed to bolster these state groups.
Despite this massive cash barrage, the groups supported by the Joyce Foundation have been almost totally unsuccessful in their efforts to stop the progress made in the past decade by pro-gun groups that have little cash, but rather are chock full of something far more important - dedicated grassroots volunteers.
And so it seems the Joyce Foundation has begun to shift its focus. The grants intended to fund biased "studies," and to assist anti-gun rights groups in their legislative efforts (mostly defensive, of late) are still being issued, but the group is increasingly devoting funds toward attempts to shape public opinion through advocacy journalism, something for which the Society of Professional Journalists ethics committee chair recently told BFA he takes takes a dim view of.
Earlier this year, Joyce gave $790,000 to something called the New Venture Fund to support "messaging research on gun violence and gun policy." Last year, the Joyce Foundation granted $400,000 to Media Matters For America, a left-leaning 'media watchdog' to support "a gun and public safety issue initiative." In addition, $79,950 went to the Research Foundation of City University of New York "to fund the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice to develop in-depth and well-researched journalism on issues related to gun violence." (And as revealed by Buckeye Firearms earlier this year, the college used it to fund grants to journalists who wrote advocacy articles on gun violence that promised to have a "major public policy impact.") Also in 2010, $75,000 went to the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) "to fund a series of investigative reports on the gun industry lobby in America."
It is that CPI grant that has now been brought to bear in an extensive exposé entitled "Carrying concealed weapons just keeps getting easier - Ohio one of many states that have weakened requirements" by Rick Schmitt.
From the article, published at iWatchNews.org:
In Ohio, it is now OK to possess a hidden, loaded handgun in cars and bars, public parks and parking lots. Gun owners have broad discretion in using deadly force against burglars and car thieves. A 12-hour gun training course is still needed to get a concealed-carry permit, one of the stiffest requirements in the country. But in 2008, a written test to renew a concealed-carry license was abolished as over-regulation.
Today, seven years after the Buckeye State first allowed citizens to carry concealed weapons, more than a quarter-million Ohioans have concealed carry permits. People debate the impact, although the fact that the identity of the permit holders is off limits to the general public makes that tough. A law giving reporters access to the information was scaled back after gun rights’ groups complained that the press had abused the privilege.
The sweeping changes are part of a little-known but dramatic expansion of user-friendly gun laws across the country. Rough estimates put the number of concealed carry permit holders at between 4 and 7 million nationwide.
Schmitt then cites the Legal Community Against Violence (you know, the same LCAV that has received over $1.5 million from Joyce since 2005) lamenting the fact that in the past three years 22 states have "weakened or eliminated" laws regulating the possession of concealed weapons, before outlining some of the many recent successes pro-gun rights groups have had in various states.
All of this legislative wrangling also reveals a broad shift in both the tactics and strategy of the gun lobby writ large, including a growing emphasis on policy skirmishes outside the Beltway. Since just 2003, the National Rifle Association has poured $2.5 million into the coffers of state candidates, according to the non-partisan National Institute on Money in State Politics.
Schmitt failed to mention, of course, that this $2.5 million, spread out over hundreds of state candidates over a period of eight years, is only about one quarter of the money spent by the Joyce Foundation on just four national anti-gun organizations in about half the time.
Meanwhile, scores of new grassroots gun groups have cropped up in recent years, making a mark with their political activism and assertive tactics.
Borrowing organizing and advocacy techniques from the civil rights movement, these activists are casting gun owners as victims, denied the right to defend themselves and their families against violence, even as the parameters of that right under the Second Amendment remain far from clear under current Supreme Court precedents.
At the same time, a nationwide decline in violent crime over the last two decades has left anti-gun groups on the defensive. Even a growing number of Democrats who previously supported some gun control measures have found little downside from voting with the gun lobby.
The parade of new laws, though, is creating fresh issues and quandaries for private employers, restaurants, churches and other institutions. The laws are also prompting debate about the cultural shift that comes with growing acceptance of guns in daily life and society.
After working in another quote from the LCAV, complaining about this cultural shift toward acceptance of guns in daily life and society, Schmitt recaps the recent fight in Ohio over legislation which restored the right to bear arms for self-defense in places that serve alcohol. He notes that when the bill was being debated in the Ohio House, some members on both side of the aisle began to get cold feet.
But the elephant in the room was the Buckeye Firearms Association, a local gun rights group, which had circulated a plainly worded letter to members about the legislation, saying it would hold any opponents accountable next November. The group had already targeted one lawmaker for his committee vote by taking out newspaper ads saying he had lied to the group in order to win an endorsement.
Democrat Mark Okey of Canton decried Buckeye Firearms' "political hits" and intimidation, and urged his fellow lawmakers not to succumb to the pressures.
"This is our house," he said in an emotional plea. "We have a right to defend it." He announcesd his intention to vote against the bill, declaring, "Buckeye Firearms, you don't own my vote."
[Todd] McKenney, an NRA member, acknowledged he was inviting trouble for himself by opposing the legislation. "They don't agree with my view. They said they will be sure to point this out at the next election. Of course they will. They could have saved their postage," he said.
Whe it was all said and done, Schmitt notes the bill passed the House by a vote of 56-39, and the Senate, 25-7, and that it was signed into law by Gov. John Kasich.
His article then shifts to provide a short history on the fight for concealed carry in Ohio, noting that for much of the 1990's opposition came at the hands of Republicans like George Voinovich and Bob Taft. Schmitt also notes that "opponents exploited divisiveness in the gun rights camp: the state’s main gun group at the time wanted a system without any permitting requirements, and showed little interest in anything less."
Starting in 1999, a new group, Ohioans for Concealed Carry, decided to take a different tack. It found a police chief in suburban Gahanna, Ohio, who supported the idea of concealed carry, in sharp contrast with the party line espoused by state law enforcement organizations. The group also adopted a more conciliatory tone in negotiating a bill, giving it added credibility. "We were seen as the reasonable gun guys," says Jeff Garvas, 36, the group's founder and chairman, who by day is an IT professional at a local communications firm.
Taft eventually signed a concealed-carry bill into law in January 2004, with some conditions. The new law gave permit holders the right to carry a loaded handgun in their cars, but only if it were holstered or kept in a locked glove box or compartment.
The article also notes that while Ohio put the names of license holders off limits to the general public, Taft insisted on a provision making that information available to journalists, saying it necessary "so we can ensure that the right people are getting permits and that the wrong people aren't."
The next part of the article focuses extensively on efforts by Buckeye Firearms Association in the years that followed to "de-Taft" the law.
A well-organized militia
James Irvine, the chairman of Buckeye Firearms, says his message for lawmakers in Ohio and their party bosses is simple: "If you cross us, we are going to hit back," he says in an interview. "Know it is coming."
He backs it up with a little money and a lot of motivated volunteers on the ground, including experts on the Internet, who adroitly leverage technology as an organizing and advocacy tool to rally support for both legislation and preferred candidates.
Besides Irvine, a commercial airline pilot, the leadership includes a lawyer who is an NRA firearms instructor, and a pre-owned car dealer who is the main blogger and opinion leader on the Buckeye web site. They all were originally part of Garvas' group but split in 2006 over what the two sides call strategic differences.
Buckeye has its own PAC, and while its war chest is modest — about $54,000 right now, Irvine says — its giving is carefully targeted. Among the beneficiaries: the current Speaker of the Ohio House of Representatives, the Secretary of State, the chair of the Ohio Republican Party, and the Chief Justice of the Ohio Supreme Court.
Members — 33,500 people subscribe to its weekly newsletter — are encouraged to take advantage of an Ohio law that gives a tax credit ($50 for a single person, $100 for a couple) for contributions to state legislative campaigns.
More important: delivering support on the ground to favored candidates. In 2010, Irvine stumped for the incumbent governor, Democrat Ted Strickland, riding around rural Ohio in an RV, dubbed "Sportsmen for Strickland," which was decorated with a camouflage paint job and endorsements from the NRA and other pro-gun groups. The NRA gave $2,500 to Strickland, and spent another $26,000 in independent expenditures promoting his election. Buckeye Firearms gave Strickland $1,000.
Strickland, long a gun-rights proponent, had earned the NRA's highest candidate rating. The credentials of his Republican opponent, John Kasich, were suspect ever since he voted for a national ban on assault weapons while a member of Congress in the mid-1990s.
"It ticked off a lot of my Republican friends," Irvine says. "People would ask, 'Can we really trust a Democrat on the gun issue?' My answer was, 'I am a Republican. I am riding around with him. If that is the case — we can absolutely trust him.'" Kasich won but it remains to be seen whether the gun lobby will rally around him.
The Buckeye web site – Irvine says it generates about 375,000 page views a month — features pointed commentary, analysis, legislative updates, and tools, such as a downloadable 38-page "Grassroots Action Guide," including tips on how to be an effective pro-gun volunteer and insights into "how the anti-gun mind works."
It also has an online messaging system that allows members to instantly contact legislators in Columbus. What it calls a social-media "strike force" to get subscribers to link items of interest to their personal Web pages or other media is generating tens of thousands of new hits.
An occasional web series titled "the Idiot Chronicles" brings new insights on anti-gun lawmakers and other adversaries. A favorite target: Toby Hoover, the long-time head of the Ohio Coalition Against Gun Violence, the state's largest gun-control group. Among other things, Buckeye has revealed ties between Hoover and the Chicago-based Joyce Foundation, which has made more than $400,000 in grants to the Ohio watchdog. (The Center for Public Integrity has also been a Joyce grantee.)
"[Buckeye Firearms] has become a leader of leaders of the grassroots groups...a model that people are emulating and copying," says Alan Gottlieb, the chairman of the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, which named Buckeye its organization of the year in 2011.
Schmitt deserves commendation for mentioning (in a round about way) the direct connection between his article and the Joyce Foundation - something The Columbus Dispatch's Theodore Decker failed to do when his series of Joyce-sponsored articles, entitled "Overrun by guns", were published last summer.
It bears noting that Schmitt has also written two other CPI articles in 2011 which were funded by the Joyce Foundation. His February 3 article "Romanian weapons modified in the U.S. become scourge of Mexican drug war", which touted the Obama administration's line that lax American gun laws were to blame for Mexico's drug cartel problem, was published less than a month before news broke that the Obama administration's ATF was in fact supplying guns to the cartels through an undercover initiative called Operation Fast and Furious. A June 23 article, entitled "Badly flawed background check system fails to contain firearms sales," touted the claims of anti-gun groups (including the Joyce-funded Violence Policy Center and Mayors Against Illegal Guns, both mentioned in the article sans any mention of ties to Joyce) that there are "loopholes" in background checks that allow prohibited persons from obtaining guns.
The article also details Buckeye Firearms Association's efforts to ensure that concealed handgun license-holders private, personal information remain as law-makers intended - "not a public record." Schmitt cites a particular case involving the editor of an Ohio newspaper who disagreed with a BFA-backed modification to the law which meant that journalists could still view the lists, but could no longer take notes or make copies:
Matt Westerhold was not the first reporter to run afoul of Irvine's group. But he says he personally will never make that mistake again.
...Westerhold, the managing editor of the Sandusky Register, a 20,000 circulation daily, decided to engage.
He had been getting calls from readers wanting to know if their neighbors had guns. A local prosecutor had gone to court to suppress a request for the records from another publication. One day in June, 2007, Westerhold thought it was time to take a stand.
"We had the list...We had readers who had requested the information," he recalls. "We decided to publish the list...as a public service." The list, including the names and birthdates of some 2,500 permit holders, was published on the paper's Web site. The response was immediate. "A firestorm," he says.
Irate gun owners felt he had blown the cover of permit holders and put innocent lives at risk.
"I was getting phone calls from all over the country, hundreds of phone calls," he says, including 250 calls just from readers within his paper's circulation area. Some he considered personally threatening.
"There were so many nut jobs. There were so many threats that said, 'I am going to kill you'.... 'You should die slowly'... probably dozens of emails and phone calls," he says.
"And then, Buckeye Firearms got involved," he says, "in a very pro-active way."
The group searched the public record and posted on its Web site Westerhold's phone numbers, auto records, traffic citations, a partial Social Security number, a photo of his home, and details about his divorce and ex-wife.
His daughter, then 12, even got pulled into the fray. Buckeye published a kind of road map on how one might obtain information about the public school she attended and the bus she took there. The group noted that a photo of the girl from her school yearbook could probably be found in the reference section of the local library.
"I never experienced anything like that in my life," Westerhold says.
"Everything was fair game," he says, until his daughter became an issue.
He says he consulted an attorney, and took the information to a local prosecutor, who found no grounds to take action.
Irvine said Buckeye Firearms did not publish the information about Westerhold to be vindictive, but wanted to show the editor the downside and destructive impact of publishing information just because it was publicly available. "We could have gotten way, way more personal," he said.
The blowback appeared to achieve its unstated aim.
"At that point, I went to a low profile," Westerhold says. "We left the information on line but I have never sought to follow up or do anything with the list."
"We had a Democratic governor and a state chairman of the Democratic Party who absolutely sold out the issue completely," he said. "I thought, 'Why should I fight this fight?'"
MediaMatters.org (yes, the one that received $400,000 from the Joyce Foundation last year) has picked up on this segment of Schmitt's article, writing as if it is a current story, when in fact the entire incident happened in 2007, and was covered extensively at the time, even by talk show host Rush Limbaugh, of whom Media Matters is highly critical.
It is important to recall that Westerhold chose to publish personal information that was, by statute, "not a public record," all the while hiding behind the First Amendment and repeatedly justifying his actions because he believed the legislature should have made the information public. While BFA stuck only to publicly available information, and even refrained from revealing everything we had uncovered through entirely public sources, Westerhold clearly got a lesson on how damaging publicly available information can be.
Schmitt goes on document the many legislative and legal victories that have been achieved in Ohio since passage of the original concealed carry law in 2004, including over-riding the veto of then-Governor Bob Taft, and also delivers a short examination of the debate on how these laws effect crime rates. While the article mentions a couple of examples of CHL-holders who broke the law, and a couple of examples of people who were able to protect themselves or others, it unfortunately does not mention the fact that there are far more examples of people protecting themselves than of people breaking the law.
The article once again returns to an examination of Buckeye Firearms Association's successful efforts to improve self-defense laws for Ohioans:
If Ohio's legislators had any doubts on how to vote on this year's bill allowing concealed weapons in bars, there was always the case of Matt Lundy to consider.
Lundy, a Democratic House member representing Lorain County near Cleveland, had voted for other gun-friendly measures, but decided he could not support guns in bars. He thought the idea was absurd and was troubled that law enforcement opposed it. “Is there any guarantee that the bullets always hit the bad guys?” he asked during a committee hearing.
To Buckeye Firearms, however, Lundy had suddenly become a turncoat. Two weeks before the House vote, it blasted him with a media barrage, pegged to a 2010 candidate questionnaire in which he indicated support for allowing guns in restaurants and other locations that serve liquor.
Buckeye Firearms issued a press release to hundreds of news outlets in Ohio, emailed thousands of pro-gun voters, and shared its viewpoint in a newspaper advertisement headlined "Matt Lundy LIED!" The ad appeared in two newspapers that covered his district, both of which published stories about the flap, one accusing him in an editorial of "weaseling."
"[Buckeye Firearms] wanted to intimidate members who might have been on the fence," Lundy says in an interview. He said the message seemed to be: "We are going to throw you under the bus and make sure the tire hits you on the way through."
What influence the shot across the bow had on the vote was unclear. But the final tally was overwhelmingly in favor of the legislation. Lundy indeed voted no. Kasich signed the bill at a ceremony attended by gun lobbyists, including several Buckeye Firearms representatives. Bubp was honored by Ohioans for Concealed Carry for his work on the bill.
As for Lundy, he now finds the whole episode a little baffling. "I don't think you can effectively be a legislator if you agree with someone 100 percent of the time," he says. "I was disappointed how you can go from being someone who is well-liked to being totally hated."
Irvine said Buckeye has not decided whether it will campaign against Lundy when he is up for reelection next year. That will depend on the record of his opponent. "We will send him a survey and see how he responds," Irvine says. "But...he has lost some trust."
Toward the end of the article, as he wraps up discussion on passage of Ohio's restaurant carry bill, there is an interesting quote from Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman (the fact that Coleman is the Ohio chair of the Joyce Foundation-supported Mayors Against Illegal Guns is not mentioned):
Some people around the capital are still scratching their heads. One critic, Michael Coleman, the mayor of Columbus, has suggested that the legislature "should do unto themselves what they intend to do to us" and follow Wisconsin's example in allowing guns in the State Capitol building.
We welcome Coleman's call for our Second Amendment rights to be restored at the State Capitol. Perhaps we'll call him to offer proponent testimony when such a proposal is introduced.
The article concludes by citing an Oct. 11 incident where a concealed handgun license-holder, Chad O'Reilly, 25, was arrested for numerous crimes after getting in a fight in a Cincinnati bar, exiting, and returning with a firearm.
The gun lobby said the incident showed how the new law was working.
"The law has been tested and it passed the test," Buckeye Firearms editorialized. "An apparent crime was detected, law enforcement were called, no one was hurt, and the accused is facing serious felony charges."
Schmitt's article is extensive, and I highly recommend you read the entire piece at iWatchNews.org. A shorter variation of the article is also available at the liberal website MotherJones.com. That version includes a quote from the Joyce Foundation-funded Violence Policy Center that was not included in the CPI piece.
The reality of millions upon millions of dollars being spent by an anti-gun rights group on efforts to influence the news media through "advocacy and policy" efforts can be discouraging. But as Buckeye Firearms Association Legislative Chair Ken Hanson recently pointed out in a response to an anti-gun rights Cleveland Plain Dealer editorial, "unlike anti-gun groups and their shills, the pro-gun grassroots movement is all-volunteer. You will not see BFA getting large Joyce Foundation grants in order to pay their personnel a salary. Instead, you see us taking unpaid time away from our jobs, burning our own $4 per gallon gasoline, working for a cause we believe in. There is no force on Earth that can match that..."
Chad D. Baus is the Buckeye Firearms Association Vice Chairman.