Colorado Springs — Despite the media’s insistence that the Colorado recalls were the first skirmish in a new proxy war between the National Rifle Association and New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, the simple truth is that Tuesday’s stunning elections were prompted and won by forces on the ground. At the Stargazers Theatre last night, I sat with those forces as a famous victory unfolded. Speaking after Senator Morse conceded, the recall’s founder, Tim Knight, told the crowd that “you must own your freedom in order to protect and pass it on to your children.” He has spent the last few months doing just that.
Guns are a notoriously touchy subject in America — a supercharged third rail, if you will. But so too is the notion of accountability. The country was founded, after all, by men with guns grumbling about the nature of their political representation. It was in this proud tradition that the disgruntled banded together in Colorado to try to recall two sitting state senators who had not just voted to pass new restrictions on the right to keep and bear arms, but had steadfastly refused to listen to the opposition. The new gun laws, locals in both Colorado Springs and Pueblo told me repeatedly, were “the straw that broke the camel’s back.” Their more fundamental message: “Listen to me, goddamnit!”
Recall advocates in Colorado Springs were lucky that John Morse elected to make himself unpopular with almost every conceivable group. “There’s something for everyone with John Morse,” Luke Wagner of the Basic Freedom Defense Fund told me. Indeed. Morse irritated not just gun owners, but also the legalize-marijuana movement, rural Coloradans, independent taxpayers, and women’s advocacy groups. To his surprise, Morse’s imperious behavior awoke a parade of formerly apolitical Coloradans, many of whom were dismayed by the manner in which they had been treated by a group of politicians who had, in the words of Victor Head, the 29-year-old plumber and political novice who beat Michael Bloomberg’s machine, “made their minds up already.”
The national implications of this are significant. When Bill Clinton signed the 1994 “assault weapons” ban, he didn’t just lose the House, he also lost the argument for 20 years. Colorado was supposed to be the blueprint for other “purple” states. If gun control could be done here, then why not in Pennsylvania, or Nevada — or even Texas? Now, it will presumably be difficult to convince state legislatures in other parts of the country to touch the question of guns. Privately, defenders of Morse have shared with me that, while they wanted their man to win, they wish he hadn’t put the Democratic party in this position. This is wise. Gun control rarely works out well for the party.
What the voters’ decision didn’t do was to repeal the laws that spurred the recall. Those remain on the books, although the legislature is now unlikely to add to them in a hurry. (Democrats now enjoy only a one-vote advantage in the senate.) Meanwhile, the measures are subject to a legal challenge initiated by the 55 of the state’s 64 elected sheriffs and filed by the Independence Institute, a local conservative think tank. Conservatives quietly hope that the laws will eventually find themselves being judged by the Supreme Court.
“We’ve gained notoriety and caused much anxiety,” sang Tom Lehrer in “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park.” “They call it impiety, and lack of propriety, and quite a variety of unpleasant names.” So too maligned were the parade of little groups that sprung up to fight the government. Women who testified — some of them, like Kimberly Weeks and Amanda Collins, victims of rape — were cruelly rebuffed; genuine advocates, like the six men who founded the Basic Freedom Defense Fund, were dismissed erroneously as “AstroTurf”; and the plucky little guerrilla group, Pueblo Freedom and Rights, which was started by three formerly apolitical blue-collar twentysomethings, was described variously, its founder, Victor Head told me, as being made up of “peons” and “nuts,” and guilty of representing “amateur hour.”
Nevertheless, by the end of the process, so anxious were the opponents of the recall that they felt compelled to rely heavily on Michael Bloomberg, who sent $350,000 to Colorado to fight the threat; members of Obama’s ground team were brought in to boost turnout, and even former president Bill Clinton was wheeled in at the last minute to try to tip the scales.
None of it worked. This was the recall that never supposed to happen — let alone be successful. The nine men who set the ball rolling weren’t supposed to be capable of organizing a town hall, let alone taking down the state-senate president. And yet they did it. Victor Head, a plumber who had never been politically active, took down a senator in a district that went Democratic in 2012 by ten points; a group of six concerned men from the AR15.com chat room removed the state’s top-ranking legislator. “We are a quiet people,” recall founder Tim Knight told his victorious friends when the results became known at the Stargazers Theater. “You may be tempted to ignore us. Clearly, that would be a mistake.”
Critics of what is colloquially described as the “gun lobby” have imagined a bogeyman that doesn’t exist, imputed false motives to earnest forces, and worried about the influence of outside money that was more than outmatched by opponents. Many were the headlines that set up yesterday’s vote as a “test of the strength of the NRA.” But the truth remains that the power that the defenders of the Second Amendment enjoy lies in the appeal of the Second Amendment itself — and, too, in that peculiar American genius for liberty and democracy. “Join or Die” says the famous flag. Here, enough people did to make a difference. The cheers that erupted around the theatre when Morse and Giron conceded were, as much as anything, cheers of relief. “People keep saying to me that it doesn’t matter if we lose,” one woman told me. “But I’ve lost my husband for the last two months. It matters!”
“Amateur hour?” Perhaps. But, as is proper in a republic, the amateurs were victorious.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer for National Review.