Loving Arms

Looking for America's gun-rights heartland? Look no further than Tucson.

When Tucson's Sandy Froman makes the traditional move from first vice president to president of the National Rifle Association in 2005, she'll be the third Arizonan to take that top job in the last 20 years.

Froman's promotion would've already happened if the NRA hadn't amended its bylaws to keep Charlton Heston in the chair for an unprecedented five years. Beloved by the NRA rank-and-file, Heston boosted the NRA's image and recruitment efforts, and probably could've kept the job even past his death--like his portrayal of El Cid--had Alzheimer's not interfered.

Froman was elected second vice president in 1998 after joining the national board in 1994. She typifies the new type of NRA leader, and member, in several regards beyond gender. She hails from the urban San Francisco Bay Area, has degrees from Stanford and Harvard Law School and didn't fire a gun until she was in her 20s. She has since become a regular shooter and hunter, and became active because she didn't like how gun owners were being treated.

"Like a lot of gun owners and shooters, I simply got tired of being trivialized both by politicians and the media," says Froman, a Tucson resident for more than 20 years. "People can make a difference."

Froman's Arizonan predecessors were former Attorney General Bob Corbin and onetime South Dakota Gov. Joe Foss, a Marine war hero who had retired to Scottsdale. The first woman to lead the NRA was Marian Hammer of Florida, who was elected a decade ago. Over the last 20 years, numerous women have served on the national board, which currently has 10 female members. Froman will be the first Tucsonan to head the group.

Unlike almost every other national lobbying organization, the NRA elects its national Board of Directors by a direct vote of the membership. Anyone who has been a member for at least five consecutive years is mailed a ballot; nominations can be made from the membership by petition as well as by the appointed nominating committee. Twenty-five members at large are elected annually to three-year terms, with one additional member picked from the floor of the annual meeting, making a total of 78. These folks then choose, from among themselves, the NRA executive board, whose officers serve one-year terms. Two other Tucsonans are on the national board: Don Saba (just elected on his second try) and Todd Rathner, who also serves on the executive board. (Saba was out of town and unavailable for comment.)

Rathner works well with Froman and is often the point man for numerous issues, particularly lobbying efforts.

"The NRA in D.C. employs a full-time lobbyist for Arizona and I try to make sure we're all on the same page. My job is to represent the members." Rathner says.

Rathner counted off recent political issues--and the results. "Manufacturer's Protection, signed by Governor (Jane) Hull. Gun show pre-emption--twice, the last one under this governor. Shooting range encroachment protection--not all we wanted--but (it) passed. Concealed carry reciprocity with other states, passed and signed this year. Our biggest focus has been on the threat by cities and counties to pass additional gun laws, which is why you see us doing more than just lobbying at the state level.

"For the first time, the NRA has gotten active in local elections. We were even involved in one election in Sahaurita. We've noticed that local officials are the farm team for the Legislature and Congress," Rathner states.

"And we're clearly not afraid to go into supposedly liberal and Democrat strongholds like Tucson. We were a big part of the two council wins in 2001 by (Kathleen) Dunbar and (Fred) Ronstadt. That time, we supported the GOP candidates, but we like friendly Democrats, too. Our members are bipartisan, and we represent them."

This penchant for internal democracy has caused numerous rebellions over the years, usually when the membership figured the folks in the DC office were getting too comfortable in the Beltway and too cozy with the pols. Some internal argument have been over direction the group was taking--that's what got Heston and others elected in the first place.

Froman says the infighting comes with the territory.

"Some members think we're too extreme; others think we're too soft. I think that means we're about right," says Froman.

THINGS WERE ONCE MORE accommodating, both internally and otherwise. The NRA started as an establishment group, formed after the Civil War by Union officers who noticed that Johnny Rebs were usually better shots. Their mission was to train citizens how to shoot before the next war--and it still is.

The U.S. Army retains the position of Director of Civilian Marksmanship, and by participation in specified NRA shooting events, you can qualify to purchase a surplus World War II Garand rifle from the U.S. Army. By standardizing shooting range distances and configurations, as well as working on scientific data such as ballistics, the NRA became the equivalent of the Department of Weights and Measures for firearms. They still pretty much are.

That built a long-term relationship with the military and law enforcement, something that has eroded as the wave of support for more gun-control measures engulfed big-city politics in the last half of the 20th century. Big-city politicians appoint police chiefs.

The NRA currently has more than four million dues paid members, with 100,000 in Arizona and about 20,000 in the greater Tucson area. They tend to bunch up, with only about 8,000 living within Tucson's city limits. You'll find a lot more in Catalina than you will in Sam Hughes--which is a big clue about what is called the "gun culture." It's obviously present in rural populations, but the tradition comes along when those folks move to an urban or suburban area.

That's the story of country and western music. But don't think of gun rights advocates as exclusively southern or western. The state with the fewest firearms laws is Vermont.

National stats and rational estimates tell us that there are more than 200 million firearms in the United States owned by about 80 million people. Those numbers should daunt advocates of gun registration, as the costs would be monumental. There are about 20 million hunting licenses issued by the states every year. Most gun owners are collectors, target shooters and folks who believe in self-defense--or all three. Females probably make up about 25 percent of those 80 million, a growing percentage. The Million Mom March got most of the ink, but never produced anywhere near that number and has since been folded into Sarah Brady's outfit. The rival Second Amendment Sisters is growing and still around.

There are other national pro-gun groups--most more militant than the NRA, which is considered the mainstream group by both members and opponents. The largest is Gun Owners of America, which boasts several hundred thousand members and a more aggressive attitude. GOA types consider NRA leaders to often be sell-out wimps too ready to compromise. Other long-established firearms groups are the Second Amendment Foundation, the Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms and Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership. Some memberships overlap.

There are local versions of the above groups, but they all function informally, with no official local or state chapter. Members of the national groups get together in ad hoc or local groups or, as with the Friends of the NRA, meet as local groups in events sponsored by the national organization. The NRA also has local and state-affiliated shooting clubs, such as Pima Pistol and the Tucson Rod and Gun Club, but they are not NRA chapters per se. Local groups here include Brassroots and the Firearms Action Committee, Tucson (FACT). Both of the latter groups, along with the NRA, are known to most legislators and other pols for their intense lobbying efforts.

FACT was formed in 1989 by two long-serving activists in the shooting-sports community, Don Burtchin and Lenny Gulotta. The grand old man of the NRA in Tucson and probably the state, Gulotta has chaired the Friends of the NRA annual dinner, served as president of the Tucson Rod and Gun Club and served five terms as president of the Tucson Trap and Skeet Club. He's currently state chairman of the National Shooting Sports Foundation for Arizona--and still finds time to run Lenny's Truck and Auto.

Burtchin, retired from both the U.S. Navy and Pima County's Department of Environmental Quality, is right behind in assorted memberships. Both are the kind of guys you always ask to serve--and they always do. They formed FACT to disseminate information, which they've done admirably for years.

Gulotta has been doing this long enough to notice how times have changed. "We probably have more public officials currently friendly to the gun culture than ever before. The Tucson City Council has had a major turnaround and even the governor (Janet Napolitano) isn't as bad as some thought she'd be."

BRASSROOTS IS A LOCAL GUN-owners group formed in 1996 by critics who believe that the NRA "concedes too much," in the words of one of their best-known members, Ken Rineer, who retired from the U.S. Air Force in 1993 and currently works as a civilian employee at Davis-Monthan.

The motto of Brassroots is "Principio Obstate"--resist from the beginning. Rineer is the gun culture's equivalent of a 1960s Freedom Rider, who chose to challenge a Tucson ordinance prohibiting the possession of a firearm in a city park by getting busted back in 1996. After winning the first round in Municipal Court, Rineer lost at both the Superior and Appellate levels. The Supreme Court showed its usual disinclination for constitutional questions and again allowed a lower court opinion to stand.

The net result of Rineer's action was a series of hard-fought battles in the Arizona Legislature reducing the power of local governments by expanding and clarifying of the state's pre-emption statute as it applies to firearms. For this fight, Brassroots and the NRA were on the same side.

On the surface, this lack of total cohesion between pro-gun groups would seem to give the proponents of stiffer gun laws a tactical advantage. But underneath, it appears to be a vindication of those who advocate the politics of polarization, where one group makes another on the same side look moderate by taking extreme positions.

Rineer says that often his disagreements with the NRA are over methods. "They spend too much time rubbing elbows and throwing events, what's called 'access lobbying,'" he says. "Politicians ultimately react to 'fear or belief.'" Instead, he prefers to exhibit a presence in the legislative halls and more important, deliver a constituency at the ballot box.

The pro-gun folks have done well in that regard, with both Rineer and the NRA's Rathner agreeing that the last legislative session was the "best year ever." Rathner, while differing with Rineer over methods, is an old friend. Both were charter members of Brassroots.

"He uses me and I use him," says Rineer. "Kind of like good cop-bad cop."

Rathner points out that this was the first year where no anti-gun bill was introduced in the Arizona Legislature that had any chance of passage. He attributes that to the hardball campaigning the NRA has done in key legislative districts. Using the time-tested formula of reward and punish, they successfully pursued the ultimate lobbying effort--getting rid of unfriendly politicians--and did so where it counts, in "safe district" primaries, usually against Republicans. 2002 was a banner year: Sen. Sue Gerard of Phoenix was knocked off and GOP House members rated poor on gun issues faced tough opposition and close calls. Phoenix Rep. Debbie Gullett survived by 80 votes while Tucson Rep. Pete Hershberger squeaked back with a margin of 129.

"The first rule of almost all politicians is survival," says Rathner.

THAT RULE MAY HAVE AFFECTED the Tucson City Council as well. Beyond the guns in parks issue, city officials believed they retained some discretion concerning the regulation of gun shows at Tucson Convention Center. They wanted to make individuals and collectors run the same FBI background checks on buyers that federal law requires of licensed dealers.

But the plan was complicated because there was no legal way it could be accomplished without conflicting with federal statutes. The NRA considered the item pre-empted by state statute, but ultimately lost the battle in court. However, the NRA won the war.

The state Legislature stiffened the pre-emption law and Gov. Janet Napolitano allowed it to take effect without her signature. While everyone was waiting for her decision, the mayor and council voted 5-2 to dump the background check. Both were major victories for the NRA and allied groups. The two negative votes were cast by council members Jose Ibarra and Carol West. A serious lobbying effort turned around both Mayor Bob Walkup and Councilman Steve Leal, according to Rathner.

Walkup has faced problems with the NRA in the past. Many believe his campaign statements on issues like the Tucson Convention Center were at best deceptive, and the NRA actually endorsed Libertarian Ed Kahn in the '99 election. Some gun advocates were looking for a Republican--anyone that breathed--to run in the primary this year. Walkup averted that effort by flopping back on the TCC issue.

That decision by the council was the result of hard grassroots work, according to both Rathner and Froman. In 2001, the NRA took an active role for the first time in city politics, sending thousand of pieces of mail and holding rallies in support of Fred Ronstadt's re-election in Ward 6 and Kathleen Dunbar's victory in Ward 3. One event was attended by more than 300 people, according to Rineer, a better turnout than the lackluster campaigns of their anti-gun Democrat opponents were getting in a predominately Democratic town.

The other vote came from Democrat Councilwoman Shirley Scott, who will probably have the NRA's endorsement. Rineer, who has no problem with Scott, says he'll probably endorse her as well. That leaves Republican Mike Jenkins, a longtime NRA member himself, high and dry.

But that's how reward and punish works.

Scott isn't the only local Democrat with ties to the gun folks. Pima County Supervisor Sharon Bronson attributes winning her close calls in both primary and general elections in 2000 to her support from NRA types disproportionately present in her heavily rural district. One of her appointees to the Pima County Parks and Rec Commission was FACT founder Burtchin, who has worked tirelessly to find a site for the new county rifle range funded by a 1997 bond package.

And Napolitano isn't looking for a fight she doesn't need. She allowed the gun show bill to become law and signed another bill expanding reciprocity between states over concealed carry permits. It wasn't all the NRA wanted, but it increased the number of states where an Arizona concealed weapon permit can be recognized to almost 30.

It's just one example of how Democrats, both locally and nationally, are backing off their long love affair with Sarah Brady. There are too many practical implications--like lost elections.

CONCEALED WEAPONS PERMITS currently divide the gun culture. Many like Rineer believe they are an infringement on the national--and state--constitutions. Others see nothing wrong in requiring a background check and instruction before allowing someone to carry a concealed weapon.

NRA members are split, too, with some favoring what is known as "Vermont carry"--i.e., no prior restraints and permits required. (It's interesting to note that that former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, lauded by the media as of the more left-leaning Democrat presidential contenders, thinks gun laws should be left up to the states.)

Without NRA lobbying support, Rineer and others were able to recruit state Rep. Randy Graf, the Republican who serves as the state House Majority Whip, to carry a bill lowering the penalty and eliminating the criminal charge for carrying of a concealed weapon without a permit. Graf, the only outspoken conservative from Pima County, has become a champion of the gun culture. The bill passed the House but died in the Senate--indicating again that while the population base and the votes in the Legislature are elsewhere, the leadership and the impetus for pro-gun measures comes from Tucson.

Another major figure in the local gun culture is attorney Dave Hardy, who has dug in for the long haul as the president of the Tucson Rod and Gun Club, which still exists seven years after the U.S. Forest Service arbitrarily closed its range in Sabino Canyon using a hokey consulting report. Hardy is still fighting to re-open the range.

"John McGee has used every deceptive measure and bureaucratic dodge available to the U.S. Forest Service to enforce his predetermined decision to close down TR&G--and the battle still isn't over," Hardy vows.

But Hardy is best known for arguing successfully that a portion of the Brady Bill was unconstitutional. Representing Richard Mack, who was then Graham County sheriff, Hardy convinced the U.S, Supreme Court that the federal government could not impose the burden of conducting background checks on a local government. It wasn't a Second Amendment argument; Hardy won with a rarely used reference to the 10th Amendment restricting federal powers.

Another unorthodox activist is local radio personality and firearms instructor Charles Heller, who currently hosts the only gun show on talk radio anywhere in Arizona, which airs at noon on Sundays on KJLL 1330-AM. Heller is a colorful but soft-spoken member of Jews for Preservation of Firearms Ownership. He's a classic example of the principle: The more radical the message, the less threatening and mainstream the messenger must be to succeed. While Heller would support laws eliminating permits for carrying concealed weapons, he lives with the present system--for now. As fundamentally radical as Rineer, he still maintains his NRA membership.

WHILE most of the votes the state Legislature come out of Phoenix and the rural counties, most of the leadership and the effort for the gun culture comes from Tucson. There is no equivalent of FACT or Brassroots really functioning in the rest of the state--Tucson has a disproportionate amount of the leadership of the gun culture.

The reason why is twofold. Most of these folks are from somewhere else, where gun laws and other restrictions on personal freedomare much tougher. Rathner is from upstate New York; Gulotta is from Brooklyn; Froman is from the San Francisco Bay Area; Heller is from Chicago; and Rineer is from Pennsylvania. The only Arizona native is Hardy.

It's unanimous:

Rathner: "I moved here for greater freedom."

Gulotta: "New Yorkers didn't used to be paranoid about firearms; too many are now."

Froman: "California has lost too much freedom."

Heller: "Chicago is repressive and Illinois is one of the worst states for personal freedom."

Rineer: "Southern Arizona still has a lot of personal freedoms."

But there's another reason that Tucson's become a gun heartland--one that tells us more about Phoenix than us. Arizona groups with an agenda--from Greens and leftists to artists--requiring grassroots participation have had Tucsonans lead them for years.

When the question is bucks, from ballet to the GOP, Phoenix takes over. Tucson is the state headquarters for all the bottom-up stuff, including the gun culture.

For now, the gun culture is winning. You can tell by the lack of attendance at FACT and Brassroots meetings and the decline in fund raising. A prime principle for the latter is to raise money you gotta scare 'em or piss 'em off. Complacency follows victory, so there's no real agenda currently.

Froman compares her folks to the early Minute Men who fought the battle and then went home to plant their crops.

"Our people are not like the other side, natural meddlers," she says. "They just want to get back to minding their own business."

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