National Rifle Association icon Charlton Heston was fond of claiming gun control advocates like Al Gore could only pry guns and Second Amendment rights “from my cold, dead hands.” Indeed, those five dramatic words became a mantra to rifle and pistol enthusiasts during the 1990s.
But Feldman, a former firearms lobbyist and regional political director for the National Rifle Association, is more likely to enjoy the Beatles’ “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” than Heston’s Holy Moses rhetoric.
In addition to his NRA stint, Feldman served as a director of the American Shooting Sports Council, only to be ousted after compromising with former President Bill Clinton on child safety locks. His iconoclastic take on the subject has left him a knowledgeable insider who’s been banished outside. And he’s extremely outspoken.
Author of the just-released book “Ricochet: Confessions of a Gun Lobbyist” (John Wiley & Sons, $24.95), Feldman loves rock ’n’ roll almost as much as he adores lock ’n’ load. His autobiography is packed with heavy metal bravado and no-holds-barred language (he calls the NRA “a cynical, mercenary political cult”). He can recite Warren Zevon lyrics nearly as quickly as he can cite the most obscure provision of the Brady bill.
Though he’s been at odds with the NRA’s leadership for years, he remains a staunch advocate of gun owner rights; his book is at once an exposé and a rallying cry. Reading his explosive accounts of the gun industry’s reactions to the Oklahoma City bombing, Bernard Goetz, the Long Island Rail Road shootings and Feldman’s own voluntary gun lock agreement is like careening around the wrong end of a shooting gallery.
He’s got a built-in audience. There’s no gun registry in the U.S., so it’s impossible to know precisely how many weapons are actually in circulation. But in a 1990s Gallup survey, 49 percent of U.S. households reported owning a gun, a percentage which likely has grown following the post-Sept. 11 sales spurt.
This week, Feldman has been making the rounds on a whirlwind book tour, stopping overnight in Los Angeles to meet with Hollywood types interested in adapting his book for the screen. (He’d like to see James Woods in the lead role.)
A loquacious, self-described politics wonk who grew up in Long Island, New York, but now lives in New Hampshire, Feldman still keeps his hand in gun issues, especially as they pertain to the 2008 elections. “Guns,” he says, “are a high-visibility wedge issue, just like abortion or the war [in Iraq].”
So far, it seems the presidential debates have focused on Iraq, Iran, tax cuts, Iraq, Iran, health care, Iraq, Iran and education. But Feldman predicts that gun control will play a larger role in the presidential campaigns for both the GOP and the Democrats, especially as the large number of primary candidates gets winnowed down and the general election looms.
“It’s fascinating to watch Rudy Giuliani, who’s been an opponent of what the NRA stands for during his entire professional life, from his days at the Justice Department through his two mayoral terms in New York,” says Feldman. “I don’t know whether he’s seen the light or just felt the heat. He’s hard to read.”
Among other GOP candidates, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Fred Thompson, a former senator from Tennessee, both get high marks from Feldman.
But “the real enthusiasm amongst ideological gun owners, not surprisingly, goes with Ron Paul.” Feldman says he’s been contacted by the Paul campaign for advice and tells of seeing him at a gun rights rally outside Cincnnati recently. Half the people in the 800-strong crowd had guns, says Feldman, and a large number were carrying them openly.
“Don’t be surprised if Paul comes in third or fourth in New Hampshire,” he predicts.
The gun industry’s best friends in the Democratic race, says Feldman, are Mike Gravel, the former senator from Alaska, and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson. “Gravel says he’s not sure if he’s pro-gun or not, but he told me he sleeps with a loaded .357 by his bed — I’d consider that pro-gun,” laughs Feldman.
The NRA’s biggest policy targets, naturally, are Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama. “The Democrats have finally figured out how this issue hurts them, but they haven’t figured out how to work it,” he suggests. “They’re stuck in this pro-gun/anti-gun debate. They need to learn that if they’re going to do anything with the issue, they need the gun owners on their side. And that’s not impossible. Most gun owners don’t want criminals to get guns, either.”
On the other hand, a Clinton presidency wouldn’t hurt the NRA, Feldman says, since it helps fundraising to have a high-profile enemy. His book, which accuses the association of using fear to raise money so its leaders can pay themselves sky-high salaries, touches only briefly on the 2008 elections. (Clinton has so far remained quiet on gun control issues — as have most of the candidates — but she earned an “F” on the NRA’s scorecard for presidential hopefuls.)
Given that about half the households in America have firearms, Feldman suggests that the presidential candidates be mindful of gun rights issues. “No one wants to be the enemy of American gun owners,” he says.