A rifle in one hand, a laptop in the other. Behind the scene with pro-gun bloggers

"Cowboy Blob" and other online commentators fill the press box at the National Rifle Association convention.

Matt York/AP
Sen. John McCain speaks during the National Rifle Association's annual meeting in Phoenix on Friday.

While many old-school beat reporters stayed in New York or Washington this weekend to write about conventional political and social events, the pseudonymous “Sebastian” live-blogged GOP head Michael Steele’s fiery speech from the press box at the National Rifle Association convention in Phoenix.

“01:26: Steele is done and the crowd erupts in thunderous applause,” he tapped. “Make that a standing ovation. He deserves it. It was a good speech. I was skeptical. I even argued with ILA over the choice privately, someone there told me ‘He’ll get it right. Trust me on this.’ I will admit, I was wrong

“01:27: Saxby Chambliss is up, but he’s phoning it in.”

With some 55,000 readers a month, Sebastian, an “IT guy” from Pennsylvania who writes the snowflakesinhell.com blog, is part of a contrarian gang of gun bloggers attending the 2nd Annual Second Amendment Blog Bash here.

But here's the real news: In the press box, bloggers outnumbered national reporters by a good margin. And officially, nearly 50 bloggers -- compared to 100 mainstream print journalists -- were accredited by the NRA press office to attend the 138th annual convention.

Experts say that ratio at a major national news event featuring a panoply of GOP stars -- including John McCain and Mitt Romney -- presents a stunning affirmation of the rise of a mix of both partisan and fiercely independent and sometimes downright cranky “New Media,” marking its growing power to not only cover breaking news, but set the tone for political policy -- and, in the case of Second Amendment rights, even the direction of the NRA itself.

“Mass media has an audience where news goes in one ear and out the other,” says Brian Anse Patrick, professor of communications at the University of Toledo in Ohio, and author of the upcoming book, “Rise of the Anti-Media.” For gun-bloggers, “this is an identity issue, a behavioral thing, instead of mere attitude and a piece of news,” he says. “You have these communities all over the places that’s essentially gun culture: autonomous, but coordinated, very powerful and very effective.”

No matter where you look on the Internet these days, bloggers are mucking it up, taking on the big bad “mainstream media” with a mad mix of polarization, cheerleading, and snark. But just as lefty bloggers got the word out about the promise of Barack Obama during last year's election, the rightosphere is pulling out its big guns, too. And in few places is the keyboard jockey scene as fast-growing or as influential as the world of firearms and Second Amendment rights.

While their standard battle stance is from an underdog position, the pro-gun forces are, for now at least, winning the battle for hearts and minds, even gun control advocates concede.

“If you compare the pro-gun activity in the blogosphere versus the pro-gun-control activity, the scales have just tipped tremendously in their favor,” says Josh Sugarmann, founder of the Violence Policy Center in Washington, which advocates for more gun control in the US. “There’s much more engagement, more involvement, and they clearly have more free time than people on our side of the issue do.”

In the process, gun bloggers are taking on issues like gun control preemption laws in Philadelphia and putting pressure on firearms firms for their choice of spokesmen. And while their reach can be argued, their rise appears to mirror polling data showing that Americans, sometimes by double-digit gains, increasingly favor more gun freedoms, not gun control.

Gun control groups have roughly 150,000 members in the US while gun rights advocates number closer to 12 million, with perhaps as many as 80 million Americans owning some 200 million firearms.

The Internet presence of gun rights advocates actually began in the early 1990s, making them early adopters of the Web as a social and information tool. They took the lead on issues like concealed carry laws which have now spread to nearly 40 states, says Mr. Patrick, the University of Toledo professor.

“If you’d asked a policy expert in 1987, ‘Twenty-five years from now, are we going to have liberation of concealed carry laws or more control?’ they would have said that we’d have more restrictions -- and they’d be wrong,” says Patrick. “The question is: How did they succeed? How do you succeed in the face of conventional wisdom, common sense and elite opinion?”

The answer, Patrick says, lies partly in the “horizontal interpretive communities” otherwise known as blogs. Largely ignored, criticized, and even ridiculed by mainstream media, gun owners started their own listservs and bulletin boards, often putting out releases with titles like “Gun news the media didn’t report today.”

Passion, bloggers say, has replaced pay as incentive to inform the masses.

Looking at names like “Bitter,” “Gunnuts,” and “The Smallest Minority,” followers of the growing gun-blogging scene could well imagine some pretty rough-and-tumble characters behind the Internet handles. But at a meet-and-greet with industry reps at Majerle’s restaurant after Friday’s convention, the “blog bash” attendants looked more like attendees at an insurance industry convention, with some Hawaiian shirts thrown in for good measure.

Bob Flyzik at “Cowboy Blob” is retired Air Force from Tucson who specializes in political caricature and photo-editorializing with Photo Shop. He describes his blog as “gun fun and gun fun not.” His profile lists him as “professional hermit.”

“I’m a hopeful skeptic,” he says.

Mike W. at “Another Gun Blog” is a baseball-capped 23-year-old law clerk whose dad is a big-time anti-gun prosecutor out East.

Some came late to guns. Growing up, Daniel Pehrson’s mom wouldn’t even let him have a BB gun until he was 16. He began shooting real ammo at a range in his early 20s, and realized that many states “were trying to make it so difficult to be a law-abiding gun owner that they’d simple give up.” His site, Pennsylvania Firearms Owners Association, has become one of the biggest social networks in the gun world, drawing nearly 4 million visitors a month and featuring thousands of discussion threads.

“If I can help make gun owners safer and more informed, I feel like I’ve done my job and contributed something to society,” says the 20-something Philadelphia computer programmer.

Critics are troubled. They say the NRA is pushing to supplant traditional media with their own Internet TV network and industry blogs, fueling what they say is an increasingly under-informed and misinformed public that reacts within an echo chamber. Some pro-gun blogging networks, like the online-only Examiner, are even getting traction on Google News, which has increasingly become the nation’s digital Page One.

Mr. Sugarmann points to the NRA’s efforts at anti-media, such as NRAtv, an Internet station.

“This is one of the craziest things I’ve ever seen,” he says. “It claims that it’s replacing mainstream media and that this is all the news you need. I think it’s a very clear recognition on the part of the NRA that this works with their supporters, they want to be told what they want to hear. You wouldn’t think it would work, but I think it does.”

NRA board of directors member Tim Pawol says the NRA appreciates the role of the gun-bloggers, saying they can tackle especially local issues that the NRA doesn’t have the resources to focus on. But some say the bloggers are even more influential than that, often pulling the NRA into fights or stances -- not the other way around.

“It’s an interesting phenomenon in a political science sense,” says Dave Kopel, research director at the conservative Independence Institute in Golden, Colo. “You wouldn’t know it from reading the New York Times, but the communicative message of the pro-gun side is not nearly as much something that is under NRA control as it used to be.”

The NRA’s early hands-off stance on the Supreme Court’s Heller case, which last year affirmed the right of citizens to protect themselves with firearms, infuriated Kevin Baker, the proprietor of “The Smallest Minority blog”, a story he has detailed at length.

“They wanted to derail it because they were scared it would fail,” says Mr. Baker.

Mr. Flyzik has criticized the NRA for its stance against a partial concealed carry law in a Midwestern state. “Better to get the camel’s nose under the tent flap,” he says. “Yes, I want to show the NRA in the best light I can, but I’m not swallowing the hook.”

The Phoenix blog bash may be all about the Second Amendment, but the First Amendment figures just as much into their growing firepower, says Gene Policinski, executive director of the First Amendment Center in Nashville.

“We’re beginning to see bloggers gain credentials to cover federal trials, and we’re beginning to see bloggers seated in media areas so they can cover public meetings and hearings,” says Mr. Policinski. “Of course, many of the blogs are coming from a specific point of view rather than a mantle of objectivity … but there’s no requirement in the First Amendment to be objective. [In essence], we’ve gone from the village green to the village screen, and I think you’re seeing that phenomenon at the NRA.”

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