N.H. gun lobbyist has an ear for both sides of the debate

  • Former president Ronald Reagan handles a custom engraved Colt AR-15 given to him by gun lobbyist and Rindge resident Richard Feldman (left) in Santa Barbara, Calif., in 1992. Feldman presented the rifle to Reagan on behalf of the firearm industry, which he represented at that time. Courtesy

Monitor staff
Sunday, February 25, 2018

In 1992, Richard Feldman stood near Republican giant Ronald Reagan and smiled as the former president took aim with a Colt AR-15, a gift from the Rindge gun owner.

Five years later, Feldman was back in front of the cameras, this time allied with Democratic President Bill Clinton in a Rose Garden ceremony at the White House, part of a gun-control bill that introduced child-safety locks for most handguns by the end of that year.

We’re in the midst of another national debate on gun control and the Second Amendment, pushed into our consciousness 11 days ago by the shooting deaths of 17 people at a high school in Parkland, Fla.

And Feldman has become a regular player during the seemingly never-ending dialogue that has gripped the country for years. He’s worked for the National Rifle Association, the American Shooting Sports Council and the National Shooting Sports Foundation. Eight years ago he founded the Independent Firearm Owners Association, a platform promoted on Facebook.

He worked in the Commerce Department for Reagan, lobbied for the aforementioned safety measure when Clinton was in charge, and spoke with Democratic Vice President Joe Biden after 26 died in the Sandy Hook shooting in Connecticut.

With a background check like that, it’s obvious that Feldman backs the right to bear arms. And with his reputation as an open-minded clear thinker, he’s met heavyweights in both the political and media arenas, earning praise and criticism from both sides of the issue, meaning his thoughts feature balance more than blind passion.

Reached by phone recently, Feldman said the alleged killer in Parkland was the “posterboy” for a system steeped in failure, a harsh example of how the lack of oversight can – and does – lead to a shooting spree.

Second Amendment rights are crucial, Feldman agreed, but in Parkland, obvious warning signs –Facebook postings, tips to law enforcement, a troubled past – should have signaled a time to harness gun rights.

He mentioned “gun violence protective orders,” citing its narrow focus as a powerful reason to get behind it.

“When you post something on Facebook that says, ‘I’m thinking of killing a whole lot of people,’ that is the kind of stuff a judge could look at and say, ‘It doesn’t matter what anyone thinks, it’s what (the shooter) said,’ ” Feldman told me by phone. “So bring it to a judge’s attention on an emergency basis and they can issue a temporary restraining order and send the police with judicial authority.”

Feldman owns guns numbering in the “triple” digits. He’s got handguns, shotguns, rifles, Glock pistols and other semiautomatic weapons. And if you believe Feldman opposes banning the AR-15, the weapon used to kill 17 people in Parkland, you’re right.

He knows this isn’t popular among gun regulation folks. He knows it makes them cringe. He used an analogy to explain himself, the one about cars.

“It’s like saying after a traffic accident (involving a Ford) with 17 fatalities, ‘Let’s ban Fords, because if we banned Fords, there would not have been one around to have created this incident.’ ” Feldman said.

“But I have a Buick and a Cadillac, so will that stop me from driving? There are hundreds of guns, other semiautomatic firearms, that fire (the same caliber as the AR-15).”

So where’s the balance with this guy, some may ask? Feldman sees three distinct groups of potential shooters whose Second Amendment rights require a closer look: “Convicted felons, unsupervised juveniles and the dangerously disturbed mentally ill.”

“We ask the wrong questions,” Feldman said. “The question is what do we all agree on, and there is an answer. That is an enviable goal, to keep guns out of all of those hands.”

What about the NRA and its powerful boss, Wayne LaPierre? Would he be on board?

“I can not speak for Wayne,” Feldman said, “but I would be shocked if not.”

Age, of course, came up. With the Parkland shooting still fresh, President Donald Trump recently lobbied to up the legal age to buy a semi-automatic weapon from 18 to 21.

In New Hampshire, you must be 21 to buy a handgun from a federally licensed firearms dealer, but you can buy one through a private sale at 18. I wondered what Feldman thought.

“That is worth debating,” he said.

Ultimately, politics surfaced, with its selfish, frustrating, nonsensical characteristics that drive Feldman and most everyone else nuts. Feldman represented the gun industry in talks with the Clinton White House over child-safety locks in 1997.

He told the New York Times at the time, “We very much want to be the responsible industry, and perceived that way by the public.”

He also told the newspaper that the industry would have gone this route regardless, “but not as quickly,” and that “This is an issue whose time has come.”

It was also an issue that Feldman said drove a wedge between himself and the NRA. About 10 years later, as he worked on his book, Ricochet: Confessions of a Gun Lobbyist, he said a light went on, the light that shines on the deep-seated evil at the base of politics.

He cited Trump’s detractors, saying, “If you hate Trump and he says the sun rises in the east, your response would be that can’t be right. It’s no longer what is being said; it’s who’s saying it.”

He realized that Democratic heavyweights like Sens. Chuck Schumer and Dianne Feinstein “could probably mandate that everyone own a gun and gun people would be against it because it’s Charlie Schumer and Dianne Feinstein.”

And he thought back to that day in the Rose Garden in October of 1997. The NRA, Feldman said, was upset with him, but not because of the legislation.

“They had a lot of problems with my doing it and making the announcement in the Rose Garden sitting next to Bill Clinton,” Feldman said. “I had an epiphany, that they were not pissed at me because of policy, but that I destroyed fundraising for them.

“Both sides do that.”

And so it goes.