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Billionaire's Gun Control Role Is Debated
Middle-of-the-Road Advocacy and Infusion
of Cash Stir Controversy on All Sides

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 29, 2001; Page A10

Last summer, Andrew McKelvey decided he knew how to break the impasse that has dogged the gun control debate: Acknowledge Americans' right to own guns, but say that these rights come with responsibilities.

If he had been an ordinary gadfly, McKelvey might have gone unnoticed. But as the owner of Monster.com, the job search Web site, the billionaire New York businessman used his wealth to position himself at the center of the gun control movement -- and to emerge as its dominant force.

The ascension of his advocacy group, Americans for Gun Safety, has altered the national debate over guns. At a moment when the steam has seemingly gone out of congressional efforts to enact tougher gun control laws, McKelvey's supporters hail him as a potential savior who can attract a broader constituency to their cause.

Many longtime advocates of tougher gun control laws, however, charge that his endorsement of gun ownership is dooming the gun control movement by watering down its message.

No one questions McKelvey's influence. His group's $3 million advertising campaign in Colorado and Oregon helped propel to victory in November ballot initiatives seeking background checks at gun shows. His staff is now helping craft a new gun show proposal on the federal level that Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) plan to unveil within a matter of weeks.

A political novice, McKelvey, 66, used his personal fortune to assemble a formidable political network that gave him access to policymakers and made his organization a critical contributor to state gun control groups. He hired top officials from the Clinton administration and Republican congressional aides, picking Jonathan Cowan, who was Andrew M. Cuomo's chief of staff at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, as his group's president. He commissioned polls from Democrats Mark Mellman and Mark Penn as well as from Republican John Zogby, and also hired GOP image-maker Greg Stevens to film issue advertisements on the group's behalf.

McKelvey, who marvels at his sudden access to national leaders -- "I'm about as apolitical as it comes. I don't know anybody" -- says his group is simply being pragmatic. "I try to work on things in which we can have some results," he says.

A plainspoken man, he dismisses the notion some hold that a searing personal experience drew him into the debate over gun violence. "They want to know, 'Did you have a brother shot?' The answer is 'no,' " he says. "All these kids just kept getting shot in schools."

His group's drive to pass measures requiring gun show background checks in Colorado and Oregon bore all the hallmarks of a traditional campaign. In Oregon, the group paid for a half-million phone calls and a quarter-million pieces of direct mail to voters, in addition to running television advertisements featuring McCain's support for the initiative.

McKelvey compared the McCain ads his group ran in Colorado and Oregon to the catchy television commercials his Web site pioneered. "Advertising, particularly television advertising, is certainly an effective vehicle," he says.

Now, the group has expanded nationwide, running ads in favor of closing the gun show "loophole" -- which allows people in 32 states to buy weapons at gun shows without undergoing background checks -- and providing tens of thousands of dollars in funding for state groups.

Despite the shot in the arm Americans for Gun Safety has given to the gun show issue, many advocates of stricter gun laws are critical of McKelvey's efforts.

Violence Policy Center public policy director Joe Sudbay notes that the group's focus on gun shows addresses just a small part of a much larger problem. He says McKelvey is using his money to try to get cash-strapped state gun control advocacy groups to support his middle-of-the-road approach -- at the risk of undermining the broader gun control effort.

McKelvey offered $60,000 to any state group willing to become a "chapter" of his organization. Although many of these affiliates balked once they discovered that the organization's mission statement endorses gun ownership, McKelvey allowed them to keep the one-year grants.

"I think he was trying to do a hostile takeover of the gun control movement," Sudbay says.

Sudbay is equally critical of McCain and Lieberman's gun show proposal, which would allow private gun show dealers to move to a 24-hour background check in three years if the attorney general certifies they are able to access files on 95 percent of buyers.

Lieberman, who says he and McCain became convinced that the gun issue had become too polarized after they both campaigned for national office last year, defends McKelvey's efforts, saying he may have identified the kind of balanced approach that has eluded lawmakers so far. "There's a logic to this," Lieberman says.

At the moment, however, gun rights advocates aren't rushing to embrace McKelvey's approach. His overtures to some of Capitol Hill's most staunch conservatives have been rebuffed. The May issue of the National Rifle Association's magazine features a caricature of McKelvey with the caption, "The New Gun Haters Have Arrived . . . With the Same Old Scheme."

While Americans for Gun Safety has yet to engage in direct electioneering, its critics and allies predict that it may become even more powerful if the changes to campaign finance laws passed by the Senate are enacted. The proposal, sponsored by McCain and Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), would end the raising of unlimited "soft money" donations to political parties from corporations, labor unions and wealthy individuals. It could give new power to independently funded groups such as McKelvey's, which would not be subject to the new restrictions.

Cowan says the group is still evaluating its political strategy for the next election. Without question, he adds, "McCain-Feingold actually helps groups like us. . . . The right of a democracy is people can organize themselves to effectively advocate for a point of view."

For McCain, McKelvey's willingness to devote millions of dollars to influence lawmakers on issues such as gun control is something to be lauded rather than criticized. "I'm glad a guy with a billion dollars, or two billion dollars, wants to spend his money on an issue he feels strongly about," McCain says.

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