Pueblo, Colo. — “I’ve never been politically active before,” Victor Head, the man behind Pueblo Freedom and Rights, tells me. “I’ve never done anything beyond voting. I never went to rallies, never went to protests, never wrote a letter to a senator or anything like that. But as soon as these gun-control laws started being talked about, my brother and I were like, ‘we should do something.’”
Head is not only surprised that he is involved in local politics, he’s surprised that he’s back in his hometown of Pueblo. Now, he and his brother run his father’s local plumbing business. Last year, however, things were different. “We had to take over the business because my Dad got cancer,” he tells me. “At first it was like, ‘Stage 4, you have three months to live.’ Well, that was three years ago. Now he’s fine.”
“I just had my own little life in Wyoming, and my own job, and my house, and my own dog,” he says. “But when my dad got sick, I moved back here to help my brother with the business — which he had taken over — and I kind of prepared for my dad to die.” Thankfully, however, his father didn’t die. So, Head says, he found himself in “this little limbo” in his life. “I was 29 years old and living at home again. I didn’t know what to do,” he says.
“Guns are our hobby,” Head explains. His brother, “an HVAC tech who got laid off when the housing market crashed and then got in with [his] father as a plumber,” is a keen hunter. “But we don’t have a business in guns or anything,” he adds. “My dad was a plumber his whole life. I was an auto-mechanic, and my right-hand man is an electrician — after he was in the 82nd Airborne. We’re all just regular people.”
Regular people, perhaps. But people who have nonetheless found themselves running a state-senate recall campaign that has received national attention. “People keep saying it has ‘national implications,’” he tells me, “but it really started with me trying to get to a town-hall meeting.” When rumors started circulating about new gun-control legislation, Head recalls, “we said, ‘hey we should try to tell all our gun-friends about the town hall. We can go talk to the senator and see how she might vote if gun bills are introduced.’”
Nervous about what he suspected was coming, Head printed up some flyers and handed them around in local gun stores. The flyers made a considerable difference. About 80 people showed up to the town hall. “The woman at the library — they’re held at the library — said that ‘usually these are just about a dozen people or so,’” Head remembers. “I said to [state senator Angela Giron, currently being recalled], ‘it’s pretty obvious why everyone was here,’ because everyone had NRA hats and camouflage on. So they broke up the whole meeting into groups. But we didn’t get very far and the meeting just kind of dispersed and disbanded.”
After a bill was introduced in Denver, Head planned to repeat the performance at a second town hall — this time with more success. But three days before the event was held, Giron inexplicably decided that the topic would be mortgages. “At this point I was driving around the Walmart parking lot trying to look for anyone with an NRA sticker or ‘Don’t Tread on Me’ flag so that I could put a flyer on their windshield and let them know about the town hall,” Head tells me. “I thought that it was important to get a good crowd, because the proposals had been introduced and I wanted to see how she was going to vote — or at least to try and change her mind.”
But when Head and his brother arrived at the library, Giron told them that they could only come in if they wanted to talk about mortgages, a move that Head describes as a “clear excuse to kick us out.” Luckily, however, the persistence had paid off. “About 50 or 60 other people showed up,” he remembers. “Some people left when they heard it was about mortgages, but I waited and, as she went in, and I said, ‘look you work for us. If we want to talk about gun control then that’s what we should talk about. It’s our town and this is our town hall.’” Giron was having none of it. “She said, ‘No, it’s my town hall, I run this, and we’re going to talk about what I want.’ At that moment there, I knew how she was going to vote.”
Then the senator closed the door in his face.
Angry but undeterred, Head and many members of the crowd waited. An hour and a half passed. “When Giron came out,” he remembers, “I asked her to confirm how she was going to vote. She just said that we would have another town hall next month and tried to walk away. I said, ‘but the bill is going to be law by that time! You’re going to hear us.’” Head was forceful enough to convince her to set a new town hall specifically on the question of gun control.
Here, the movement went supernova. Between 750 and 1,000 people turned up at the event. “Nobody knows how many exactly,” Head tells me. “They had to shut the whole library down. People were spilling outside — they went all down the stairs and into the main lobby. The room itself only held 250, so they had to open the doors to help them hear. Ninety-nine percent of the people there were against the gun-control bill; you could tell because they were wearing ‘I vote pro-gun’ stickers.”
Try as the crowd might to get an answer out of her, however, Giron would not say how she intended to vote. Before long, the idea of a recall came up. It appealed, Head said, because the senator couldn’t ignore it: “If we get enough signatures, well, you’re up for election again whether you like it or not! You don’t have a choice, you have to pay attention to us!” Head’s grandmother loaned him $4,000 to hire the lawyer to get the ball rolling, and he arranged with his brother to reduce his plumbing hours but retain his usual paycheck. “We joke that we have a Communist business now,” he says. “One of us works, we both get paid!”
Even after Head had filed paperwork, Giron continued to ignore him. “They didn’t pay attention during the first three-quarters of the petition process,” Head tells me. “In the press it was all, ‘local gun group files petition.’ And the local Democrats said that it was laughable and we might get plus or minus 3,000 signatures. They called us ‘amateur hour’ and ‘peons.’ Well, lo and behold, look at where we are! We got 13,000 signatures.”
Before he knew what had happened, Head had become the de facto leader of a movement. “We were the guys passing out the flyers; we were the guys hanging out in the gun shops saying, ‘hey, here’s where the rally is,’ or ‘here’s where the town hall is,’ and then we ran carpools for the committee hearings.” Slowly but surely, it had evolved into being a full-time job. “I haven’t had a plumber’s wrench in my hand for months,” he laughs.
For the last couple of months, Pueblo Freedom and Rights has been running itself out of a former daycare center on the outskirts of the city. Typically, such properties are not available for short-term leases, but the owner liked what the group was doing so much that he agreed to rent it to them for a couple of months.
PFR are practicing a form of guerrilla politics. Flags fly from every window on the property: Some say “Liberty or Death,” others “Join or Die” or “Keep New York Politics in New York.” One particularly striking flag has a stylized picture of an AR-15 with the words, “Come and Take It” underneath. Inside the door sits a bank of cardboard yard signs that feature “Vote Yes: Recall Giron” in tall letters that have been haphazardly spray-painted through stencils. When the group learned that the building adjacent to Senator Giron’s office was vacant, they rented it and filled the large windows full of pro-recall material, drowning her out and forcing her to move. In a world full of prepared statements and slick flacks, PFR’s approach is refreshingly brash.
Inside, it is a quieter story. The six- or seven-person phone bank is almost exclusively staffed by retired women, each working from a cell phone. Running methodically down the lists of recall signatories, the callers politely ensure that each and every one has voted — and, if not, that they know where to go. “Hello, I’m from Pueblo Freedom and Rights,” they say. “I wonder if you’ve been able to vote. Oh, you have. Great! Have a nice day!”
“All signs are pointing to really good,” Head tells me. “It looks like Giron is starting to get pretty desperate, and doing things would point to her being scared. And our turnout appears to be good. But either way, it doesn’t matter. I mean, best-case scenario, we yank out two legislators who put in these ridiculous laws and didn’t listen to the people, and that changes the senate to one vote and makes all of them realize, ‘hey, we can be recalled,’ even in a district like this where a Democrat has won for 60 years and this time won by ten points.’“ And if they lose? “If we lose,” Head tells me, phlegmatically, “I still think it’s a huge victory. They didn’t think we could do any of it. We will have had such an effect. They don’t think that regular people can do this — in fact, they still say that. They say that it is the NRA behind it, or the GOP. All of it is completely and provably false. Maybe they believe their own lies, but I know that Giron doesn’t because she knew me from that very first town hall. She knows I wasn’t planning a secret recall eight months in advance. She knows I’m a regular person. She knows all of us.”
“And even if we don’t win,” Head says, “it’s going to scare them. They should be scared.”
“I want them to be scared.”