Cover Story: Barack & Load

Alan Gottlieb’s challenge to a gun ban in the President’s adopted hometown has made it all the way to the Supreme Court, and fattened the ex-con’s wallet in the process.

From his office in the James Madison Building at tree-shrouded Liberty Park, a citadel of gunfire and tax exemption in Bellevue, the Second Amendment Foundation’s Alan Gottlieb surveys an America under siege, not by the 90 million gun owners who possess 300 million firearms, but by the laws against them. At 62, armed and affable, he has spent 37 years battling gun haters, as he calls his opposition, growing his once-tiny Second Amendment Foundation into a 650,000-member crusade and transforming himself, an ex-con, into a multi-millionaire, often by demonizing gun-controlling liberals and cashing in on the backlash. 

When a gunman reportedly used an assault rifle to ambush Seattle Police Officer Timothy Brenton, 39, in a Halloween night drive-by two weeks ago, for example, and gun opponents raised concerns about the easy availability of such weapons, Gottlieb dashed out a press release accusing them of “dancing in Officer Brenton’s blood” to “advance a political agenda.” Now he’s going for a landmark victory, asking the United States Supreme Court to rule that President Barack Obama’s adopted hometown of Chicago is preventing homeowners from arming themselves. With pro-gun money pouring in, his group is financing a legal hit squad intent on not only bringing down U.S. gun bans but dramatically changing constitutional law.

“We’ve had a very well-plotted-out legal strategy for years, leading up to this,” Gottlieb says of his organization’s lawsuit. Chicago, because of Obama, is also a prized symbolic target. “[Obama] supports the ban, always has,” Gottlieb claims.

Balding, bespectacled, and mustachioed behind a neatly-kept desk, Gottlieb clicks the keys of his laptop, checking for contributions, media requests, and hate mail. “Considering the millions of letters and e-mails I mail out and all the TV and radio I do each month, the three or four hate letters a week that I get are very minimal,” he says, sitting beneath a “No Whining” sign. He’s in demand by radio and cable-news interviewers daily, where he often repeats the line: “Barack Obama is the most polarizing president we’ve ever had.”

A bow-tied conservative with rapid-fire delivery, Gottlieb boasts that he’s already helped revoke the prevailing gun law of Obama’s new home, Washington, D.C. The Supremes last year threw out the capital city’s ban on gun ownership, in a lawsuit organized and financed by Robert Levy, chairman of the libertarian Cato Institute, and backed by friend-of-the-court briefs from SAF and others. But the ruling’s effect was limited to the District, a federal enclave.Gottlieb’s Chicago lawsuit, filed only hours after the court decided the D.C. case, could extend that ruling to any U.S. locale with a similar gun ban.

Among dozens of major lawsuits filed by SAF over the years, the Chicago case is Gottlieb’s legal pinnacle, backed also by the four-million-member National Rifle Association and 34 state attorneys general. Among them is Washington’s Rob McKenna, who says he has received more than 1,300 messages from constituents thanking him for signing on to Gottlieb’s case. McKenna responded to all of them thus: “As you know, the right of the people to keep and bear arms guaranteed in the Second Amendment applies to federal laws regulating firearms. The brief argues that the Second Amendment should also apply to state and local laws in the same way that other rights guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, such as freedom of speech and freedom of religion, apply to state and local laws.”

McKenna’s communications director, Janelle Guthrie, says the AG’s office did not receive any dissenting messages. She adds that McKenna is espousing a constitutional belief, not striving to ease up on the state’s gun laws. “Our office has yet to support any measures placing fewer restrictions against guns,” says Guthrie.

Conversely, Gottlieb sees gun control as a civil-rights issue—and as a living, getting better every hour that Obama is president. Like the NRA, SAF is experiencing growth in membership and contributions, reflected in corresponding increases of gun and ammunition purchases nationwide. Merchants report a steady climb in sales, which spiked immediately after Obama’s November victory. (The week of his election, the FBI says it received more than 374,000 requests for background checks on gun purchasers, nearly a 50 percent jump over the same period in 2007, and the Washington Post reported last week thatnearly 12 billion rounds of ammunition were soldin the past year, an increase of more than two billion).

Though the White House says Obama has never promised to push for a gun-sale ban, Gottlieb claims that’s Obama’s intention, and that it has led to a hardening of the American gun debate. “The middle just gets smaller and smaller,” says Gottlieb. As a result, he expects his annual budget could grow to $6 million this year, considerably more than the $3.6 million that SAF, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, took in last year, according to the group’s 2008 IRS filings.

Gottlieb’s major opponents, in his view, are Democrats who want to strip America down to its last water pistol. “With Obama in the White House and anti-gunners in control of key committees in Congress, the gun grabbers are out for blood,” he says in one fund-raising pitch. At the annual Gun Rights Policy Conference in St. Louis last month, sponsored in part bySAF (they raised money by selling racy calendars featuring the “Locked and Loaded Ladies,”), he launched into a sermon about Obama, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and the “anti-gun bigots” in the Senate who have “us and our gun rights in their crosshairs.” Likewise, NRA leader Wayne LaPierre urged the 700 attendees to become “gun-rights activists” and raise a stink over Obama’s possible revival of the assault-weapons ban, which George W. Bush allowed to expire in 2004.

Gottlieb beats the pro-gun drums in fear that opponents are gaining a new foothold. One of Gottlieb’s recent targets is Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., who has proposed a ban on gun possession by anyone on the FBI’s terrorist watch list. [This story has been changed since it was first posted. It originally gave an innacurate description of how Gottlieb “refers to” Lautenberg.] Yet gun-control hysteria clearly softened after the Sept. 11 terror attacks. Washington CeaseFire president Ralph Fascitelli, who calls Gottlieb a “scoundrel,” concedes gun control “on the federal level is stymied,” though he says his Seattle-based group remains active. “Actually, the Supreme Court’s [D.C.] ruling last year was one of the best things to happen to the gun-control movement,” he says. “That slippery-slope argument, that any new gun law is just another step towards taking all guns away, is dead.”

Ex–Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper says much of the debate now is just hyperbole, noting that “with few exceptions, politicians, for all their bluster, are timid, calculating souls. As with the drug war, the people are generally out ahead of their elected officials on gun control.” Obama, he adds, has “too much on his plate, and too little political capital, to try to separate Americans from their guns.”

Peter Hamm, Communications Director for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, says that, if anything, Obama has failed to meet his group’s expectations. “We’re not seeing the same thing [Gottlieb] and his friends are,” Hamm says. “It’s propaganda of the most ludicrous and misleading sort. They wanted to gin up their supporters before the election, and couldn’t do it, so now ever since the guy got elected he’s the Antichrist of guns. Yet Obama’s done nothing.” (Actually, he’s done something—inking a bill that overturned a national-parks gun ban.)

But Gottlieb’s tactics may be winning out. An October Gallup Poll concluded that 55 percent of gun owners believe Obama will attempt to ban gun sales. Another October poll by Rasmussen Reports found that just 39 percent of respondents think the country needs stricter gun laws, down from 43 percent six months earlier. Americans, say Gottlieb, “have had it with utopian gun bans that leave them defenseless against merciless thugs.”

He’s talking about firearms possessed by violent criminals, who take advantage of the mostly unchecked flow of legal and illegal handguns and assault weapons. He’s not talking about armed white-collar felons, such as himself.

Gun control pulls everyone’s trigger, and Gottlieb is usually happy to be the media bull’s-eye. But he wasn’t so fond of that role in the 1980s, when some of his own employees turned on him. In a lawsuit, they claimed he was wrongly using SAF funds for his personal benefit, and tried to wrest control of the nonprofit. (The disagreement even came to blows in 1984, when police were called to break up a scuffle between Gottlieb family members—his wife is also an SAF employee—and the rebelling workers.)

In a drawn-out court fight, Gottlieb countersued and ultimately prevailed: A judge dismissed the employees’ suit and stuck them with $30,000 in damages. Acontented Gottlieb said he used the money to buy himself a black Corvette.

Adding to the spectacle, Gottlieb at the time had just finished serving a year-and-a-day prison term related to a tax-evasion investigation. He pled guilty to a federal charge of failing to pay a $29,396 tax debt (with penalties and interest) on his personal income five years earlier.

As a convicted felon, the man who advocated unrestricted gun ownership couldn’t own a gun. But as an ex-con (he did his time in a Spokane work-release facility), Gottlieb discovered a little-known program administered by the bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. It allowed him to regain his gun rights in 1985, after an ATF review concluded he was a worthy nonviolent offender. (The restoration law still exists, but Congress has barred ATF from funding the program since 1992, effectively killing it).

In an ATF report obtained by the D.C.-based Violence Policy Center, which undertook a study of gun-reinstatement cases, Gottlieb told federal agents that it was “awkward for him not to handle firearms” when here he was the firearms nut. (Gottlieb’s e-mail address, incidentally, is In recommending restoration, Gottlieb’s investigating officer sympathetically described him as a “very devoted gun person…into conservative Right Wing stuff.” It wasn’t as though he shot anybody. And he never has, he says. (One night in a parking lot, he did draw on a man with a knife intent on robbing him, Gottlieb says. The suspect “left quickly.”)

Gottlieb calls himself a responsible, if prolific, gun owner. At his Bellevue home he has at least 60 weapons, mostly collectors’ firearms. He doesn’t like to be photographed with his guns, and isn’t demonstrative about them—he’s no Stephen Colbert, fondling his “Sweetness.” A black bag filled with the handguns Gottlieb takes to a nearby shooting range sits among the organized clutter of his office, which includes a portrait of a gunman shooting a bullet so large it requires a second portrait to capture it.

Personally, Gottlieb favors either a Detonics .45 or a Browning 9 mm. He doesn’t always bear a weapon, he says, and hardly ever carries one around the office. “My employees [about a dozen] are armed enough to protect me,” he notes with a smile. So when is Gottlieb most certain to be packing? “Whenever I go to Seattle,” he says, still smiling.

Gottlieb thinks Greg Nickels is wasting time and money on efforts to control guns in Seattle. Most recently, the mayor decreed that guns should not be allowed in most city parks. It’s Nickels’ belief, says his spokesperson Alex Fryer, that guns increase the risk of injury and death even when possessed for self-defense. The mayor cites a recent University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine study concluding that people who carried guns for self-defense were 4.5 times more likely to be shot during an assault than those without guns.

But the parks ban is unenforceable and unconstitutional, says Gottlieb, who two weeks ago filed suit challenging the ban in King County Superior Court. State law pre-empts the mayor’s ban, he claims, and only the legislature can change that—an opinion shared by McKenna. Besides, the ban isn’t supported by the public, says Gottlieb, citing 1,088 e-mail comments sent to City Hall, in which 1,044 opposed the ban.

Mayoral spokesperson Fryer says only 35 percent of that tally came from Seattleites, and other responses were prompted by an NRA Web site. “We remain convinced,” says Fryer, that the ban “has the support of the majority of people here in Seattle, and is the right thing to do.”

Gottlieb and Nickels, himself a Chicagoan, were once likely on the same side. Gottlieb was born into a family of Los Angeles Democrats (who later moved to New York), but crossed over to conservatism during the era of violent Vietnam War protests. (Gottlieb says he received an honorable discharge from the National Guard.) Bearing a degree in nuclear engineering from the University of Tennessee, he came to Seattle in the early 1970s as a regional coordinator for Young Americans for Freedom, a still-active movement of college-age conservatives who think, according to their founding credo, “that political freedom cannot long exist without economic freedom”—and that Commies suck. He launched an early version of what in 1974 became SAF, which today stakes its claim as “the nation’s oldest and largest tax-exempt education, research, publishing and legal action group” with the intention of making America safe by pitting guns against guns.

Officially, Gottlieb is SAF’s vice president, but he takes a more active day-to-day role than president Joe Tartaro, who doubles as executive editor of SAF’s Gun Week magazine. Gottlieb was paid $36,000 last year, according to the group’s IRS filing, while Tartaro received $15,000. Gottlieb also earned $36,000 as chairman of the Citizens Committee to Keep and Bear Arms, SAF’s gun-lobbying arm, housed in the same building. The Citizens Committee brought in $2.8 million last year, spending $1.5 million on “education” and “grass-roots lobbying” against gun control.

Gottlieb got a bigger payday through his side business, a for-profit enterprise called Merril Mail-Marketing Inc., also housed at Liberty Park. Merril (Gottlieb’s middle name) earned $384,000 from SAF and $211,000 from the Citizens Committee in 2008 for mail and marketing services. Merril also sells the names and addresses of SAF and Citizens Committee members, Gun Week subscribers, and even NRA members to direct-mail clients seeking to target conservatives—and scare them into buying something.

In his 1993 book, Trashing the Economy, which he co-authored with Ron Arnold, Gottlieb offered this advice to commerical solicitors: A “direct mail letter must appeal to three base emotions: Fear, Hate and Revenge…” It must also target a “bogeyman” because “if you are not frightened, you won’t send money.” These are things he still believes today. “Fear, hate, and revenge,” he says, “are three very powerful motivating factors in not just political fundraising but in politics as a whole. That is why negative TV and radio ads work so well. We all hate them, but we do respond to them.”

Gottlieb has thusraised millions for his causes, including funds for the so-called “Wise Use” movement, dedicated to stripping the land of its trees, metals, and other natural resources, headed by the environmentalist-loathing Arnold. (What to do about those tree-huggers? “Kill the bastards,” Arnold said once on TV). Gottlieb and Arnold continue to espouse Wise Use through yet another Liberty Park–based group, the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise (CDFE), which maintains a lively Web site but raised just $20,000 in contributions and grants last year, compared to $300,000 annually in the 1990s.

“The CDFE is still alive, but has scaled down since the Clinton years,” says Gottlieb, predicting Obama’s politics will soon pump up the volume for that group too, perhaps doubling last year’s income. “The health-care issue is what is driving the CDFE to grow at this time,” with single-payer as the bogeyman.

Of course, Gottlieb has been busy with other things. As Willie Sutton reputedly said of banks, guns are where the money is. And in a way, courts are too.

In the case of District of Columbia v. Heller, the Supreme Court last year held by a 5–4 vote that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual’s right to keep and bear arms. The NRA’s LaPierre deemed the ruling “a great moment in American history.” The court was not asked to decide if that right extended to all of America, but that’s the potential impact of the pending SAF case, McDonald v. Chicago. It is named for one of the four plaintiffs, Otis McDonald, a retiree who has been working with police to rid his neighborhood of drug dealers, and who wants to keep a handgun at his home, contrary to current Chicago law.

“We have a very compelling case,” says Alexandria, Va.–based SAF attorney Alan Gura, “and I feel very good about our chances, considering the court’s treatment of the Second Amendment in Heller.” In that case, which Gura argued, he says, “The Supreme Court acted exactly according to constitutional design, enforcing a fundamental right against recalcitrant political forces. Not just conservatives, but all Americans, should rejoice in the decision.”

Besides McDonald, the other plaintiffs in the Chicago case are Adam Orlov, a former police officer, along with software engineer David Lawson and his wife, Colleen, a hypnotherapist, whose home has been targeted by burglars. Gottlieb’s foundation, along with the Illinois Rifle Association, filed the Chicago lawsuit in June 2008, suing the city and Mayor Richard M. Daley in U.S. District Court.

Chicago’s 28-year-old law, Municipal Code § 8-20-040(a), bans handguns and automatic weapons. Long guns such as hunting rifles can be kept in the home, but must be annually re-registered at fees ranging from $20 to $35. A violation is punishable by a $300 to $500 fine and up to 90 days in jail. A re-offender faces a higher fine and up to six months in Cook County Jail.

If the Chicago statute is struck down and the ruling extended nationwide, the high court must agree to a wider application of the Fourteenth Amendment, guaranteeing due process and equal protection. Thoserights have been extendedpiecemeal over the years, under what is called the incorporation doctrine. The high courtapplied the Fourteenth’s federal protections to the First Amendment and to the states, for example, when it said in 1925: “For present purposes we may and do assume that freedom of speech and of the press—which are protected by the 1st Amendment from abridgment by Congress—are among the fundamental personal rights and ‘liberties’ protected by the due process clause of the 14th Amendment from impairment by the states.” Local laws thereafterhad to conform with constitutional speech rights.

Some legal observers think the high court might take the opportunity of the SAF case—giving it even more historic meaning—by applying the Fourteenth to the entire Bill of Rights. The D.C.-based Constitutional Accountability Center is leading the charge, saying such an application would further strengthen a variety of civil protections, including gay and abortion rights. NAACP legal-defense fund president John Payton says these are rights Americans were supposed to have had from the start, and Arizona gun-book author and publisher Alan Korwin, on his blog, says of such an en masse application: “There’s no way to adequately express in words how big that would be for your freedom.”

A narrow application of the Fourteenth to the Second Amendment has already been given by the liberal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco in the case Nordyke v. King, which concerns gun shows in Alameda County. (The ruling was later vacated in anticipation of a Supreme Court hearing on similar pending cases, including the SAF action.) The federal district judge in the SAF/Chicago case, meanwhile, “declined to rule” whether the Fourteenth applies, saying he’d also leave that up to the high court.

In January, the SAF suit and a companion NRA case were combined and sent to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago. Judges there also passed the buck to the Supremes. The two gun organizations promptly filed separate briefs with the high court seeking review.

In September, the court chose the SAF case over the NRA action to settle the issue, bringing a triumphant whoop from Gottlieb, realizing McDonald v. Chicago could become landmark law while the NRA’s case goes unreviewed. The SAF case is to be argued before the court in February, and a decision is likely due by summertime. On that day, should he prevail, Gottlieb will be the toast of gun lovers everywhere.

Still, a ruling in Gottlieb’s favor would likely leave in place other “common sense” gun laws, such as licensing, simple registration, and background checks. “We certainly don’t think it will have a major effect,” says Peter Hamm of the Brady Campaign, as long as the court stays within the parameters of its earlier D.C. decision. But Hamm is wary of the momentum such a ruling will give Gottlieb. “The Second Amendment Foundation,” he says, “never met a proposal that would limit anyone’s access to firearms that it didn’t hate.”

Norm Stamper agrees. “The gun lobby has a lot to answer for,” he says in an e-mail from Australia, where he’s on a month-long tour speaking about drug-policy reform. “In its doctrinaire opposition to reasonable gun legislation—registering firearms, licensing owners, mandatory gun-safety courses—it has blocked laws that would make families and communities safer. And cop-killer bullets? Semi-automatic, or automatic, assault weapons? Gun shows? Please.”

Gottlieb glances at his watch as he chats. His rhetoric has made him one of the media’s go-to guys; producers see his dramatic warnings of a White House gun-rights Armageddonas good theater. This day, he’s minutes away from talking another radio call (WEUS in Orlando, Fla.), marking his 300th interview with U.S. stations this year, one of roughly 3,800 media appearances over more than a decade.

He arranges some of these interviews himself, while others are handled by a booking agency. In a press release, the agency says Gottlieb “is recognized as a member of the working press, maintaining active membership in the Outdoor Writers Association of America.” More accurately, he’s a working publisher: SAF produces Gun Week and several other periodicals, and Gottlieb, thanks to owning his own press, has authored or co-authored 17 books, mostly on guns.

His 2007 self-defense book with Dave Workman, America Fights Back, is still a solid seller. Then there’s the unauthorized bio of Hillary Clinton, She Took a Village (recently ranked 3,754,017 on Amazon), and the quirky Alan Gottlieb’s Celebrity Address Book, in which the direct-mail maven has collected the names and addresses of almost 12,000 celebs—a “must for autograph collectors,” writes one reviewer. Gottlieb’s other duties include overseeing his organization’s network of Northwest radio stations: KITZ in Port Orchard, KBNP in Portland, KGTK in Olympia, and KSBN in Spokane, on which he sometimes appears to discuss his gun advocacy. They are, for the most part, syndicated business-news stations by day, right-wing talk at night—a dash of Mike Siegel here, a glob of Lou Dobbs there.

Dobbs recently returned the airtime favor. CNN’s in-house populist had Gottlieb on his program in August to debate Brady Campaign president Paul Helmke. The topic was the AR-15 toted by a demonstrator outside an Obama appearance in Phoenix. [This sentence has been corrected since the story was first posted. It originally identified the gun as an AK-47.] Gottlieb surprised Helmke by agreeing that an open carry of a semi-automatic weapon to protest the president’s health-care reform plan wasn’t brilliant thinking—or at least “not politically smart,” said Gottlieb, if you’re trying to convince America that gun owners are responsible.

“I’m glad to hear that Alan has some common sense on this issue,” replied Helmke, “because clearly there’s a lot of people out there who don’t.” Not that Gottlieb was flattered. As they continued, Gottlieb barked, “You prefer nobody to have any guns anywhere, let’s be honest about it!” (The Brady group, says spokesperson Hamm, “certainly is for tougher gun laws, but we don’t blanket oppose any policy whatsoever.”)

That joust was followed by a performance on liberal MSNBC’s Hardball, where Gottlieb grappled with Seattle-based Air America radio host and presidential son Ron Reagan Jr. over the same topic. A composed Gottlieb mostly agreed with Reagan, allowing that open carries at certain public events was no way to promote gun love. That Gottlieb would give any ground in the gun battle made host Chris Matthews suspicious. “I wish,” Matthews said to Gottlieb, “I had you under Sodium Pentothal, sir.” When Gottlieb made other fair points, Matthews opined that his guest was “getting loony.”

Says Gottlieb: “For many, I am the bogeyman.” Still, he managed the last shot: When he got off the air, Gottlieb says, 60 new donations were waiting on the SAF’s Web site.

Stamper hasn’t seen Gottlieb in some time. But at a Seattle CityClub forum in 1997, they came face-to-face in a debate over a trigger-lock and handgun-licensing initiative.

“The problem with this,” Gottlieb told the former police chief, “is that it treats trigger locks like the answer to everything.”

“I know of no single instance,” Stamper countered, “in which a child has been shot or killed with a gun with a trigger lock on it.”

That initiative, I-676, was then the center of the gun debate here. Late NRA leader and actor Charlton Heston was in town to back Gottlieb and support well-funded anti-initiative forces. Ex-Reagan press secretary James Brady, who was paralyzed in the 1981 presidential assassination attempt by John Hinckley Jr. and became an ambassador for gun control, was slated to appear but had been taken ill. (Today’s prevailing Brady Law, requiring gun-buyer background checks and opposed by gun-rights activists, was signed in 1993 by President Clinton; 1.7 million questionable gun buyers have since been turned away.) [This sentence has also been changed. It originally said the Brady Law was signed by Clinton in 2003.]

Leading the I-676 proponents was Tom Wales, then-president of Washington CeaseFire, whose group struggled to match the gun lobby’s power and money. An assistant U.S. Attorney, Wales was sitting at the window in his Queen Anne home in 2001 when he was shot and killed by an assailant who has never been found. Gottlieb later told Seattle Weekly it was likely that “one of [Wales’] own” anti-gun campaigners killed Wales, intending to “martyr” their leader. To this day, CeaseFire president Fascitelli seethes over that comment, calling Gottlieb “a pathological right-wing extremist ex-felon who has lined his own pockets by perpetuating falsehoods and hysteria.”

Initiative 676 got 496,633 yes votes and 1,193,720 no votes, failing by 71 to 29 percent. It was the state’s most recent major firearm battle, and both Gottlieb and Fascitelli agree the center shifted in favor of gun rights after Sept. 11, 2001.

Stamper reflects on some of that from Down Under: “Australians express shock at the numbers of guns and gun homicides in the States. The entire country, 21 million-ish, has an annual homicide count—typically under 300—comparable to any single one of our biggest cities. Gun ownership is at five percent, and only 11 percent of 2007 murders were committed with a firearm. Aussies, in general, treat firearms and the damage they can do with great respect, and seem proud of their relatively new tradition of significant restrictions.

“I don’t doubt [Gottlieb’s] a True Believer,” Stamper continues. “[But] it sounds like he’s made a bundle promoting guns and bullets at the expense of public safety.”

As in their long-ago debate, Gottlieb sees it the other way around: More guns mean more safety. There’s less crime in well-armed neighborhoods, and he has the studies to demonstrate it. The Supreme Court case is another step in that direction, he thinks, and he now spouts the virtues of a system that once put him in prison.

“We have a ballot box,” he says, “and a jury box. We’re going to beat Obama’s gun ban that way.”

And fill the coin box in the process.