Why you should care
Everyone has an opinion on guns.
Deep into an Arizona summer, it’s 113 degrees outside. The sweat beads on my neck as I fumble to press the copper-colored cartridges into the magazine. Once loaded, I slam the magazine into place with the palm of my hand. I chamber the round and assume the proper position: feet shoulder-width apart, arms in an A-formation, dominant hand gripping the 9 mm pistol. One eye closed, I narrow in on my target. Steady, steady, pop. There’s a burst of light and a casing clanks against the cement floor. Bull’s-eye, baby.
Granted, the target was only 7 feet away. But as we stand inside the shooting range, it’s still a different story when my teacher, one of the country’s most infamous gun advocates, takes his turn. Alan Korwin is a mediocre shot. It’s a little embarrassing — in fact, you feel bad for the guy. But that doesn’t stop him from offering another quick tutorial to a friend.
Korwin, in his mid-60s with a professorial white beard and bushy eyebrows, may not be a familiar face. But you’ve likely heard his message. He’s the man millions of gun owners count on to fight for their right to bear arms. By his own count, he’s logged more than a thousand interviews with the press. Behind the scenes, he makes the rounds talking to tea partyers, state legislators and even the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, helping to shape the argument for Second Amendment rights. “He’s utterly changed the paradigm for the right-to-bear-arms community,” says Charles Heller, former executive director of Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership. Korwin has even changed the vocabulary. Instead of gun control, it’s crime control; assault weapons are household firearms; and they’re not gun rights, they’re civil and human rights.
However you come down on one of the most controversial issues of the day, one that only gets more heated with every heartbreaking mass shooting, Korwin turns out to be quite a surprise. In some ways, he’s the ultimate accidental gun advocate. This (once) red-haired Bronx native with an English degree will tell you he’s more into funk music and bird feeders than AK-47s. Korwin stumbled into his profession serendipitously, when he discovered a whole unexplored (and lucrative) world related to firearms: the welter of laws and regulations that govern them. To him, defending the Second Amendment is just a job, more intellectual exercise than heart-thumping rallying cry for the card-carrying NRA folk.
It’s a classic lesson in how few people backing any provocative issue are the cardboard figures they seem. Korwin argues that he can leverage his unusual entrée into this world of firearms to add a measure of rationality to one of America’s most rancorous debates. We want to know: Can he?
Korwin’s own history probably best starts in 1986, the year he moved to Arizona. Once a scrappy city kid, he had given up working in the New York music industry to go into technical writing. While visiting Flagstaff for a Reader’s Digest conference, he and his now wife decided to elope, marrying on the city courthouse lawn. He wore white linen; she wore a Hawaiian shirt. Shortly after, the newlyweds decided to move across the country and buy a stucco house in suburban Scottsdale. Nineteen eighty-six also happened to be a turning point in the history of guns in this country.
The first restrictions on gun ownership came in the late 1960s, when the federal government put firearms beyond the reach of a certain few, such as felons and the mentally ill, and “the political lines began to be drawn in a way we would recognize today,” says Craig Whitney, author of Living With Guns: A Liberal’s Case for the Second Amendment. At first the NRA went along with some of the regulations, and, Whitney says, even proposed an automated system to screen buyers, not realizing the technology for such a thing wasn’t that far off. But the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan, among other events, galvanized gun control advocates and gun rights groups alike, and eventually led to a series of laws being passed in 1986 that limited government oversight of firearms ownership.
Not long after relocating, Korwin was strolling the aisles of a Smitty’s supermarket. He came across, as will happen in Arizona, a case of guns. When he asked what he needed to buy one, the clerk responded, “How much money do you have?” “I was totally shocked by the gun culture,” Korwin says. When he started asking around about the gun laws, he was even more shocked to find that no one — not even the police — had a clue what they were. Three years later, in 1989, he published a little book called The Arizona Gun Owner’s Guide, which parsed the everyday rules around buying, owning, carrying and using guns. Now in its 26th edition, the title became an unexpected juggernaut, spawning replicas in 32 states. Korwin’s Bloomfield Press, named after the street he lives on, is now, according to Korwin, the largest publisher of gun law literature; his monthly newsletter alone has 50,000 subscribers.
Despite an overall drop in gun violence since the publication of Korwin’s first book, high-profile mass shootings have fed the virulent debate — and gun sales. After headlines about the Newtown and Aurora shootings came reports of surging firearm revenue; the industry’s economic impact grew from $13.9 billion to $17.8 billion between 2011 and 2014, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation. Meanwhile, as U.S. police become more militarized, the argument for Second Amendment rights has taken on more resonance, says Richard Stevens, a D.C. lawyer and author of Dial 911 and Die: The Shocking Truth About the Police Protection Myth. “When you see militarized police power growing unchecked, you see people on the right and left saying this is not right,” Stevens says.
Whether it’s because messages like Korwin’s have penetrated or one of the many other reasons, for the first time in more than two decades the majority of Americans considered it more important to protect the right to bear arms than to control gun ownership, according to a December Pew Research Center study. In just two years, between 2012 and 2014, the percentage who said firearms protect citizens from crime, rather than facilitate it, jumped from 48 percent to 57 percent. And nearly half of all gun owners claimed security as their main reason for owning a gun; that was up from 26 percent in 1999, when most reported using guns for hunting. For this anxious, security-minded market, Korwin published another slim volume: After You Shoot: Your Gun’s Hot. The Perp’s Not. Now What? (His short answer: Don’t call 911.)
Korwin owns firearms and sometimes carries one, but he won’t say whether he’s had the occasion to draw one. Still, he considers himself a utopian pacifist. But, unfortunately, there are what he calls the four horsemen of humanity: anger, hunger, stupidity, and wickedness. As long as humanity is plagued by such character defects, peace must be achieved through superior firepower, and freedom defended by force. When Korwin says he’s “not so much into guns as the concept of guns,” he means guns as a means to defend personal freedom. That, he says, is what’s at the core of the entire gun debate: To fight the threat of government oppression or other evil forces, the citizenry must be armed.
This is the standard libertarian take on guns, of course, but it’s also a view shared by many who are not as skeptical of the government or humanity in general, like the liberals Whitney writes about in his book. By couching his arguments in the ideals of freedom and peace, Korwin’s ideas have a wider reach. Because he “doesn’t come originally from the gun culture,” he can “speak to people who don’t share his mindset,” says Dave Kopel, an attorney, author and gun rights — oops, human rights — activist. Indeed, Korwin, who considers himself agnostic, attends an ecumenical lunch group of diverse, spiritually minded diners during which they discuss philosophical questions of God, and good and evil. “I’m weary of anyone who says they know something for sure,” Korwin says.
But when it comes to guns, Korwin says there’s no reasoning with his adversaries. It’s all heart-pulling anecdotes and flying figures about lives lost because of firearms. “The left is willing to lie to create a scenario and narrative that fits their image,” Korwin says. Yet he himself doesn’t hesitate to invoke evidential statistics or emotional imagery, as when he compares a gunless world to the Genghis Khan era. Or when I ask him about Trayvon Martin, the Black teenager who was fatally shot by a member of a neighborhood watch group, Korwin responds that the teen was a “thug” who beat the man’s “head into the cement.” (When I remind him that who touched whom first was never definitively proven, Korwin softens his tone and agrees that’s a crucial but missing element of the story.)
Speaking with the remnants of a New York accent, Korwin can offer an answer for everything on the issue of firearms. How do we protect children from accidentally shooting themselves? Make gun safety education a mandatory part of school curricula, similar to the way we teach sex ed (but no mandatory training for adults). In fact, he says, by not teaching gun safety, “the schools are negligent.” How do we shut down the illegal market? End the drug war. How do we prevent killing rampages by racist young men? Arm teachers and pastors and … everyone.
Still, as he hands me a red button that says “Guns Save Lives,” Korwin nods to the fortuity of his role. Had his first publication been, say, a glossy city guidebook, he might not have become the gun law guy at all, he says, drawing out each word. No empire of gun law books, no appearances at conferences or gun shows or before cameras and under klieg lights. Nope, Korwin says. He’d have been the “city guy” instead. Because, in the end, “you kinda just follow the money a little bit.”
Video by Melanie Ruiz.