Larry Ward acknowledges that when he picked the date for a first-ever national "Gun Appreciation Day," he took a peek at the political calendar. He scheduled the event for Saturday – two days before President Obama's inauguration – because he doesn't "mind poking the bear."
The comment, though, also shows how Mr. Ward's call for gun owners to rally around gun shops, shooting ranges, and the Second Amendment on Jan. 19 has become an easy mark for critics, who say many gun owners are risking their legitimacy by being tone-deaf to tragedy.
"Gun Appreciation Day" is patterned after "Chick-Fil-A Appreciation Day" last summer, which provided support for the fast food brand after it had come in for criticism for its stance on gay marriage. But the gun-rights event comes two days ahead of the holiday to honor Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights leader slain by a sniper's bullet in 1968, and just over a month after a gunman used an assault-style rifle to kill 20 grade school students and six staffers at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn.
Ward says he's simply asking gun owners to show their faces in support at a time when political opponents are the ones exploiting tragedy to advance gun-control legislation. In the process, he and his backers hope that these faces will show America that gun ownership defies many accepted stereotypes.
"I expect and hope that this event will turn out people, including women, who will surprise those who are trying to portray us as a bunch of radical crazies," says Michael Hammond, the legislative consultant for Gun Owners of America in Springfield, Va., which bills itself as the "no-compromise gun lobby." "If we say nothing, we're attacked, if we say something we're attacked – the other side is going to attack everything we do. I think they're attacking [Ward] and this 'Gun Appreciation Day' because they're afraid it might have some impact, so good for him."
Polls suggest that he is right: Gun owners are not a monolithic bloc of rabid enthusiasts. But that doesn't mean they see any attempt at regulation as an infringement of their constitutional right to bear arms. According to a late December Pew Research Center poll, half of Americans with a gun in their household say assault-style weapons make society more dangerous, while 34 percent of gun owners say such weapons make America safer, suggesting a split between hard-core National Rifle Association supporters and Americans with more centrist views on gun ownership.
Mr. Obama is expected to propose on Wednesday a ban on assault-style weapons and high-capacity magazines, as well as universal background checks.
In that light, showcasing gun owners and gun culture may be a shrewd tactic, Chris Cooper, a political scientist at Western Carolina University, told the Asheville, N.C., Citizen-Times.
“Right after this happened, it was too soon, too close to the events in Newtown for this,” Mr. Cooper said Tuesday. “But now we’re getting to the point where it’s a policy debate — it’s more about the policy than about one or two events. I think the gun rights advocates need to take back the debate, and this is one attempt to do that."
In promoting "Gun Appreciation Day," Ward points to deeper conspiracy fears among many conservatives and gun owners about a looming imperial presidency aimed at sidelining the Constitution and subjugating Americans by disarming them.
"The Obama administration has shown that it is more than willing to trample the Constitution to impose its dictates upon the American people," said Ward, president of Political Media, Inc., a Washington public relations firm, in a statement. "If the American people don't fight back now, Obama will do to the Second Amendment what he has already done to the First with Obamacare; gut it without a moment's thought to our basic constitutional rights."
Meanwhile, Ward has been criticized for being insensitive and brandishing a gun culture in the faces of those still mourning slain children and teachers.
"I respect that you don’t want stricter laws regarding guns … let’s sit down and talk about that," writes blogger Amy Hatch on the Baby Center Blog. But "let’s not create a public spectacle designed to glorify guns. That can only be hurtful, not only to meaningful discourse about a difficult and urgent subject, but also to the parents and families of those who were killed…. It seems that human compassion takes a back seat to political rhetoric all too often."
Ward says his hand has been forced by politics.
"This wasn't in reaction to the shooting.… President Obama, [Chicago Mayor] Rahm Emanuel, [New York Mayor Mike] Bloomberg, [California Sen.] Dianne Feinstein have all exploited the tragedy to advance their legislation to infringe upon the Second Amendment," Ward told ABC News. "We're reacting to that."
So far, Ward's coalition is rag tag, including a group that has warned about a looming one-world government, as well as the Second Amendment Foundation, the Women Warriors PAC, Citizens and Country, and the Conservative Action Fund. This week, Ward made more news for saying in a TV interview that, "I think Martin Luther King Jr. would agree with me if he were alive today that if African-Americans had been given the right to keep and bear arms from Day 1 of the country's founding, perhaps slavery might not have been a chapter in our history."
While the number of Americans who say they now support gun-control measures such as an assault-weapons ban has ticked up dramatically after Newtown, the same polls also find that 55 percent of Americans side with the NRA on its proposal to put armed guards in all US schools.
Many of those who show up on Saturday, however, will have no such ambivalence. They see Obama's gun control gambit as nothing less than a bid to break the pro-gun movement in America.
The Democrat-led gun control push could rile up middle America, who will punish them at the polls in 2014, or Obama comes out saying he "broke the back of the NRA," says Mr. Hammond of Gun Owners of America. That could deal a severe blow to the Republican core, he adds. "No less is at stake."