The Gun Lobby

by J. Tobias Beard

A look at the Virginia Citizens Defense League. This was cut from the gun story I wrote for C-VILLE.

guns save lives

The Virginia Citizens Defense League’s April 23 membership meeting starts with a potluck dinner at 6:30, mac and cheese, macaroni salad, potato salad, pie, cake, cookies and donuts all spread out and slowly congealing on a picnic table in the windowless, low-ceilinged main room at the Rivanna Rifle & Pistol Club, off of Old Lynchburg road just outside of Charlottesville, Virginia.

After dinner, VCDL president Philip Van Cleave stands in front of 29 people sitting in mismatched chairs at white plastic picnic tables, five of them women and at least five openly wearing pistols, and talks politics and media bias. Behind him, on either side of a big brick fireplace, is an American flag and a Gadsden flag, the yellow banner with a coiled snake and the motto “Don’t tread on me” that’s become the ubiquitous symbol of the Tea Party and their sympathizers. On the wall a poster reads, “Never Disarm. Register to Vote, Your Gun Rights Depend on it.” There is a lot of paranoia in the room, and even more anger; at the press, at New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, at Senator Chuck Shumer, at the general state of things, freedom-wise, in America today.

“Word to the wise,” Van Cleave says, “it’s gonna be a rough four years.”

The Virginia Citizens Defense League is a non-profit (and therefore tax exempt) lobbying group focused solely on, “advancing the fundamental right of all Virginians to keep and bear arms as guaranteed in the United States and Virginia Constitutions.” There are no highly paid lobbyists (the president is the only paid employee), instead, the VCDL relies on its roughly 6,000 dues-paying members to vote, protest, write letters to editors, and generally keep the pressure on the politicians (There’s a VCDL PAC as well that’s separate from the lobbying organization.)

If you go by sheer amount of legislation introduced, then the VCDL certainly does seem to be “the Commonwealth’s dominant gun lobby,” as Roanoke Times columnist Dan Casey said in January. Their website proudly claims that they are the “ONLY organization to get pro gun bills introduced in every legislative session since 1997,” and the following list of accomplishments does indeed have at least one legislative victory listed under each year, although language like “Instrumental in getting X bill passed” and “Worked with X to get Y” leaves a lot of wiggle room as to how big a political powerhouse they are. The usual measuring stick, right or wrong, is money, and looking at the VCDL PAC’s output over the years leaves one with the impression that the group is pretty ineffectual.

But if unwavering certainty and sheer stubbornness count for anything, than the VCDL is a force to be reckoned with. Simply put, they won’t be satisfied until there are zero restrictions on gun ownership. The merest whiff of an impingement on their freedom to pack heat brings the faithful out to protest or vote. They love to show up at public places en mass and armed, be it libraries, state parks, federal office buildings, or schools. One of their more dubious recent actions was 2011’s “Operation Campus Safety,” a series of rallies held on college campuses around Virginia, including Virginia Tech, aimed at removing campus bans on guns. Their slogan was “No Guns No Funds,” and they asked parents and alumni to withhold sending money to the schools until guns are allowed. Putting aside the question of whether or not an armed student body is the best defense against future school shootings, the truly offensive thing about this strategy is the idea of sacrificing students ability to think, in order to ensure their ability to shoot back (especially since rates of gun violence are lower in states with more college graduates.)

With gun control having one of its moments in the political sun, and with Virginia being an easy drive from Washington DC, Van Cleave and the VCDL are getting a lot of airtime, more certainly than their size and relevance merits. But whenever there’s a gun control rally, they can be counted on to be there, a convenient counterpoint for journalists to satisfy the need to be “objective.” VCDL politics are suitably extreme to make for exciting quotes, yet Van Cleave as a spokesman is calm and reasonable sounding. I recently saw him described as looking like a college professor, which made me wonder what college the writer had gone to. If I were to choose a stereotype for him, I’d go with long suffering insurance salesman, which in a way, he is.

Philip Van Cleave and John Oliver on The Daily Show.

Philip Van Cleave and John Oliver on The Daily Show.

Van Cleave and the VCDL don’t factor into the national debate on guns except as an easy target for liberal satirists like The Daily Show’s John Oliver, who used Van Cleave as his punching bag on a hilarious piece called “Gun Control Whoop-de-doo,” where Van Cleave comes across like a hapless Loony Toons villain. In one classic scene, Oliver is grilling him about Australia’s 1996 National Agreement on Firearms. Enacted after the Port Arthur massacre that left 35 people dead and 21 wounded, the new laws essentially banned all semi-automatic guns, required waiting periods and permits for all gun purchases, and $500 million was spent on a nationwide gun buyback program that resulted in 631,000 guns being destroyed. And then what happened?

Philip Van Cleave: “It stopped one thing. That could also be a statistical anomaly.”
John Oliver: “Yeah, it was just … their mass shootings disappeared.”
Philip Van Cleave: “But there were so few of them. Whoop-de-doo!”

I asked Van Cleave what it was like being on the show. They did many, many takes, he said, taking comments out of context and cutting them up to make him look like an idiot, but he admits it was kind of funny. “I laughed,” he said. “I mean, you know, one had to be, I suppose, a good sport.”

Not that he needs editing to put his foot in his mouth. After the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, a Washington Post reporter asked Van Cleave why anyone would still want to own the Bushmaster AR-15 style rifle knowing that it was the weapon of choice in several of our country’s worst massacres.

“Guns are fun,” was his answer, a mere two days after the shooting, “and some of them are much more cool than others. It’s just like we have television sets that look cool, and others are much more boxy.”


I doubt most Virginians know or care too much about the VCDL either, but perhaps they should, because the group does matter, in places where liberals rarely deign to tread, and in those places it’s the VCDL that is giving voice and power to a minority opinion that has majority control over one side of the debate.

There are lots of groups like the VCDL all over the country. Small and hyperlocal, their meetings often have the feel of a beleaguered band of rebels hunkering down to hide from the overwhelming force of their opposition. They talk that way as well, despite the easy connectivity modern technology allows them. Thanks to the internet, Van Cleave tells the members at the April meeting, he can communicate with them freely and privately. One of his big fears is the internet going down. Obama, he says, has a “kill switch” allowing him to shut the whole thing down anytime he wants. Ham radio is brought up as a good alternative should that happen.

“But what if North Korea sets off an electromagnetic pulse?” someone asks. This is acknowledged as a worrisome possibility, but then someone else points out that you could build a Farady Cage out of a metal trash can lined with cardboard and use it to protect your radio. Several people ask him for details.

There is much to fear. Young people are being “indoctrinated” in the schools, brainwashed with lies about Obama. Van Cleave nods in agreement. The best way to destroy this country, he says, is to sneak into the schools and prevent children from learning about the Constitution and their rights. The 2nd amendment, he’s fond of saying, “is the canary in the coalmine when it comes to our other rights.”

Pat Webb, owner of Gadsden Guns in Beaverdam, VA and a VCDL “executive member,” says she’s horrified by the number of gun store owners who support Universal Background Checks. We used to have less crime, she says, because we didn’t tolerate bad behavior. Someone else says we’re taught to be tolerant now, to be politically correct, instead of politically incorrect, the way our country was in the beginning. Webb is adamant about background checks being a cover for a gun registry, and a gun registry, people here believe, is the first step in the government’s plan to impose a true totalitarian regime.

“Universal background checks are a real threat,” Van Cleave says. “I’m 61 and I’ve never seen the country like this. We can keep going on like this, in which case I’m glad I’m a gun owner.” He decries the militarization of our police forces (something I wholeheartedly agree with), and talks about the huge amounts of guns and ammo the government is rumored to stockpiling. Did you know, he asks, that in a speech before 2008, Obama talked about the need for an “internal army?”

“Brown shirts!” shouts the crowd.

“[T]hey’d still have to disarm all of us,” Van Cleave says.

Throughout it all there is the constant crackle of gunfire from outside.

Van Cleave celebrates another VCDL victory.

Van Cleave celebrates another VCDL victory.

In 1995, the state law governing concealed carry permits changed and Virginia went from being a May-Issue state, to being a Shall-Issue state. When Philip Van Cleave heard this news, it changed his life.

“That’s one of those moments where I know where I was standing,” he said. “It’s a photograph in my mind. It hit me that powerfully when I heard the media say, ‘Now in Virginia you can get a permit, and you don’t need to have a reason to do it.’ and so I promptly applied.”

Previously, anyone wanting to carry a concealed weapon in Virginia had to go before a judge and give a reason why he or she needed the permit. It was up to the judge to decide whether or not that reason was justified. This is may-issue, as in, the state may issue a permit, or it may not. In August of 1994, a Virginia judge denied a concealed carry permit to then senatorial candidate Oliver North. The reason? It was something to do the three felony convictions for his part in the Iran-Contra affair, where he helped sell weapons to Iran so the profits could fund rebels in Nicaragua (The convictions were overturned in 1990.)

This injustice so angered a small group of men in Northern Virginia that they founded the Northern Virginia Citizens Defense League (Northern was dropped in 1998) to ensure that no one would ever again need a reason to carry a concealed weapon. When the following year Virginia became a Shall-Issue state, meaning that as long as you were 21 and could pass the basic background check, the state had to issue you a permit, the VCDL had their first victory.

Philip Van Cleave as a Bexar County, TX reserve Sheriff in 1979.

Philip Van Cleave as a member of the Bexar County, TX Sheriff’s Reserve in 1979.

As a kid in Illinois Van Cleave played with BB guns. He got his first real gun, a shotgun, when he moved to Texas at 15, and at 21 he volunteered to become a deputy sheriff and got his first handgun. And that was all he had for a while, until 1994’s Assault Weapons Ban. He hadn’t been interested in them before, but when President Clinton told him he shouldn’t have one of those semi-automatic assault weapons, well, he had to have one. “Once I shot one, I said, ‘Wow, this is fun! These are nice!’ And then I got a few more.”

By 1995, Van Cleave was working as a computer programmer in Richmond. Energized by the new concealed carry law, he went down to the Capitol for the opening of that year’s general assembly, not knowing what he was going to do, but wanting to do something. He ran into the fledgling VCDL his first day there and eagerly joined their ranks, becoming an executive member in a couple of years, then vice president for three years, before finally taking over as President in 2001.


For gun rights activists, every year is a critical one in the fight to keep what they see as their god-given freedom, but every so often, whenever some wacko kills a bunch of white people in the suburbs, Liberals get upset and start talking about gun control, and so things get even more critical. Twenty thirteen happens to be one of those years, partly because it’s an election year in Virginia, with three important offices, Governor, Lt. Governor, and Attorney General, up for grabs.

Talk at April’s meeting turns quickly to which candidates for Lt. Governor are gun friendly. Don Woodsmall stands up and gives a plug for his candidate, E.W. Jackson: “He’s a Vietnam Veteran, a Harvard graduate, a Christian Minister, and pro-gun.”

“And black,” Van Cleave adds.

“[Jackson] was asked what he would do,” Woodsmall continued, “as a minister and a gun supporter, if someone broke into his home. ‘I’d shoot him,’ he said, ‘then pray.’”

Big laughs from the crowd.

At the time, I’d never heard of E.W. Jackson. Twenty five days later he’s the Republican nominee for Lt. Governor.

I leave after the raffle. The winner gets some AR-15 ammo and a two liter bottle of Pepsi (a dig at New York Mayor Bloomberg’s anti-large soda campaign.) The guy who wins is one of the youngest people there, I’d guess in his late 20s, and says he doesn’t own an AR-15. Not yet, anyway. The moon is close to full, the sky dark. There are minutemen and coiled snakes on the cars in the parking lot. The gunfire has not yet abated.