WASHINGTON – A massive and seemingly mobilized online community has sprung among gun rights advocates readying for any possible action by the Democratic-led Congress to limit an individual's right to bear arms.
While activity on gun issues has been light in recent years — no Million Mom march or action to renew the assault weapons ban that expired two years ago — an explosion of activity among Web loggers shows Second Amendment purists are anything but complacent with the new majority.
"Blogging is sort of like a gun store, you get a whole bunch of guys around the store, really just to talk," said Gunner Miller, who runs the No Quarters Web site. "It has a swarm effect — if we see a problem, we all start swarming on it."
Nobody knows that better than Jim Zumbo, a well-known outdoorsman with a 40-year relationship with the National Rifle Association. Zumbo recently lost his weekly television program on the Outdoor Channel, his decades-long gig as hunting editor for the magazine Outdoor Life and many of his big-name sponsors, including Remington Arms Co., for which he was a spokesman, in a matter of days over comments he made on his personal blog about so-called assault weapons.
On Feb. 16, Zumbo wrote on his blog, which has since been shut down, that the use of AK and AR semiautomatic rifles, which he called assault rifles according to the definition set forth in the 1994 assault weapons ban, has no place in American hunting.
"I'll go so far as to call them 'terrorist' rifles," he wrote. "Let's divorce ourselves from them. I say game departments should ban them from the prairies and woods."
The response was swift and sure across the blogosphere, and despite Zumbo’s subsequent apologies, he is now considered something of a pariah. Gun rights advocates say Zumbo's comments could easily be used by gun control campaigns to question the credibility of gun ownership and advance efforts to renew the assault weapons ban.
Any comments that might indicate a split in the gun rights ranks needs to be rectified quickly, bloggers say.
"The amazing thing about Zumbo was, he posted it on Friday night and by Monday there was a mushroom cloud," said Jeff, a gun-rights advocate who runs GunLawNews.org and did not want to be identified by his full name. "I think it teaches a lesson to those who are listening that the power of the Net should not be underestimated."
Jeff Soyer, who runs the popular Alphecca.com, said he avoided the original "dust-up" over Zumbo and was sorry Zumbo's career is now in tatters.
"I think it was an overreaction considering Zumbo's apologetic statements afterwards," he said.
Blogging, the NRA and the 110th Congress
The NRA, which claims 4 million members and 20 million "who say the NRA speaks for them," for years has been tapping into the energy of the online network by cultivating its own blogs and e-mail lists.
"We certainly have a comprehensive online strategy to deal with the ever-changing landscape and ever-changing election strategy," said the organization's chief lobbyist, Chris Cox. He said the number of e-mail addresses on its list is in the "seven-figure range."
Bloggers and the NRA are taking credit for the August 2006 signing of the "Emergency Powers Protection Act" by Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco. The bill, which would prevent the confiscation of legal firearms from law-abiding citizens in an emergency, was spurred in part by reaction to images and stories of police in New Orleans taking away guns in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
A similar bill, the "Disaster Recovery Personal Protection" measure, was signed by President Bush in October.
The pro-gun blogosphere has also been ablaze in the wake of the March 8 federal appeals court ruling against a 30-year-old handgun ban in Washington — one of two U.S. cities, the other Chicago, that has such a ban. The ruling is being appealed, but Republican lawmakers gummed up a Thursday vote in the House on D.C. voting rights when they tried to include a repeal of the ban in the legislation.
While Cox said the NRA is able to "update our members in real time" on legislative alerts and other perceived threats to their cause, some bloggers say their online network has allowed them to report stories even faster.
"Blogs covering gun rights provide the same immediacy of coverage and action as others do that cover more general politics," said Soyer. "Blogs are on the story as it happens."
Miller suggests that blogs have evolved to the point that they can go around the NRA hierarchy to communicate with millions of people on their own.
"I think bloggers have diluted the power of the NRA," said Miller. "If I find an atrocity done by my elected official in my state, I don’t have to contact the NRA and tell them to get on it. It can be passed along where it does not have to go through the bottleneck, where the NRA puts its own spin on it."
Cox said, however, that the NRA is at the heart of the grassroots effort. "Both our friends and enemies agree that when it comes to making a difference, when it comes to grassroots activism, no one does it better than the NRA."
Challenges From the Other Side
Dennis Henigan, legal director for the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, one of the most recognized gun control groups in the country today, said the last six years of a Republican-controlled Congress and White House, were quiet compared to the Clinton-era campaigns, exemplified in the anti-gun Million Mom March on Washington, D.C., in 2000.
He said he hopes that is about to change.
"This is very much a new day and there are some traditional allies of the gun violence prevention movement in leadership positions right now," Henigan said of the new Democratic majority.
"This Congress will be far more interested in listening to the views of law enforcement and the nation's mayors" on the issue of corrupt gun dealers and black markets, he said.
There is more interest now, in part, because of the recent spike in violent crime throughout the states, Henigan added.
According to figures released by the FBI in December, the first six months of 2006 saw a 9.7 percent increase in robbery, a 1.4 percent increase in murder and a 1.2 percent increase in aggravated assault — a 3.7 percent increase in violent crime overall.
"During the Bush administration, you're seeing more guns and fewer cops," Henigan said.
Last month, Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y., whose husband was gunned down on a Long Island train in 1993, introduced a new assault weapons ban that many consider broader and more restrictive than the 1994 ban. She failed to get a similar bill through the last Congress.
Though chances for this latest bill aren't much better, it is expected to reinvigorate the debate, said her spokesman, George Burke.
"We are realists here," Burke said, noting that many Democrats elected in the wave of 2006 were from moderate districts and have constituencies that would not be happy about a new assault weapons ban.
However, at the state and local level, gun violence is "certainly a live issue," he said. "There is beginning to be a drum beat."
The pro-gun lobby has pledged to fight any attempt to ban assault weapons. On the other side, Henigan said their activists are lobbying to dismantle current language in the annual Department of Justice appropriations bill that prevents the public sharing of information collected by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms about guns found at crime scenes.
The NRA argues the information compiled by the ATF is often manipulated by outside interests to make a case against guns. Henigan said the information can be useful in research, and in busting corrupt gun dealers.
"There will be a battle over whether the language will stay in the bill," he said.
Henigan said that gun rights advocates are not the only ones making good use of the Internet — his group is pleased with the activity on the Brady Campaign's site, StoptheNRA.com.
On the other hand, Jeff from GunLawNews.org said he is proud that the gun rights activists are able to have so much of an effect, generally, on the debate.
"There are a lot of small-time players," he said of the blogosphere. "But if you total all those up you have a substantial mass and the market looks at that."