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Last month a series of ads sporting a heart emblazoned with the words “Guns Save Lives” and copy promoting gun training started appearing on freeway billboards and city-owned bus shelters around Phoenix, Ariz.

After about a week, and without process or notice, the city ordered the bus shelter ads to be torn down.

The ads, funded by a consortium of gun trainers, commercial ranges and interested groups, were too much like a public service announcement and, according to the city, did not “propose a commercial transaction.” This despite the fact that a majority of the members of the consortium are commercial operations including trainers, ranges and retail stores.

TrainMeAZ, the group behind the advertising campaign, formed in the wake of Arizona’s constitutional carry law, which makes the state permit and training process for carrying a concealed weapon optional. Even though lifting government-mandated training requirements might be seen as detrimental to the training industry, the majority of Arizona’s firearms trainers supported it. In an effort to maintain their businesses, many of them banded together to form TrainMeAZ and promote proper firearms training as a civic obligation and right thing to do.

Our friend Alan Korwin, the force behind GunLaws.com and the “Gun Owner’s Guide” book series, and a key player in the project, was livid.

“The Phoenix attorney’s office claimed these were public service announcements, and those are banned,” Korwin wrote in a fired-up press release.

“It’s a bogus excuse,” he continued. “They know full well we’re an LLC and not a non-profit. The commercial sponsors, shooting ranges and trainers on the website expect to attract customers. The ads are aimed at parents, so they can teach gun safety and the values of marksmanship to their kids. … We’re promoting a culture of marksmanship, where everyone learns to shoot and understands gun safety.”

Assistant Phoenix city attorney Ted Mariscal claimed in a conference call with Mr. Korwin and CBS Outdoor, the city’s advertising contractor, that the billboards weren’t commercial enough, the message was too vague, and then demanded the message be changed to his satisfaction. When pressed for a definition of what is either sufficiently commercial or what defines a public service ad, he declined to respond, referring instead to a 12-year-old 9th Circuit court case concerning a religious group (Children of the Rosary) and abortion ads. CBS is designing new art to please the city, but without guidelines of what’s acceptable, there’s no way to predict the result, and the TrainMeAZ campaign isn’t exactly keen on this approach.

The banned ads attracted attention from Arizona Republic and AZCentral.com columnist Laurie Roberts, who compared the ads to another – unbanned – campaign publicizing a suicide prevention hotline run by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Columnist Roberts quoted city spokesperson Marie Chapple who said that the VA ads were commercial, soldiers being “employees of the Veterans Administration (sic).”

I called the city and also talked with Ms. Chapple, who gave a somewhat more refined version of the same argument. Ms. Chapple said that bus and bus shelter advertising has to make a commercial appeal.

I questioned whether the tagline “Not all wounds are visible” on suicide prevention ads was commercial. She asserted it was since the service was only open to veterans and was a benefit arising from employment.

Ms. Chapple insisted that the city is not staking out an anti-gun position, pointing out that city buses routinely carry gun show ads. She says it is city policy not to accept public service announcements or political advertising and that the city is not censoring the ads on the basis of gun rights.

That may be, but the city has behaved poorly on at least three points. First, the take-down order was sudden by any standard. Second, interpretation of the “no public service announcements” rule of the contract is broad and arbitrary. Finally, the city accepted the ads in the first place. The order to take the ads down came after a member of the public (allegedly) complained. Some members of the public seem to have an impressive grasp of the fine points of city advertising policies.

The city had a choice when they received the complaint. They could have defended their customer and suggested that the complaining individual get a life. They could have gone to TrainMeAZ to discuss the ads. Instead, they ordered CBS to take down the signs in the wee hours with no notice.

As we were wrapping up this column, I checked in with Alan Korwin for late-breaking developments. Korwin said that the city is to get back to him with revised ad copy that meets the approval of the city government. He was seething at the idea that anything he wrote should need the approval of a government employee prior to publication.

The good news is that the heart logo and the slogan “Guns Save Lives” will stay. CBS Outdoor, the advertising contractor, is absorbing the cost of replacing the signage. The city may be attempting to climb down from its position as the imperious censor. That’s probably a good idea. At least three liberty-minded public interest law firms have expressed an interest in the issue.

Whatever the result of this fuss, the city has handed a public relations plum to TrainMeAZ. The over-reaction has called broad attention to the TrainMeAZ.com campaign, which can only help the group further its larger goal of establishing in Arizona, the leading state in gun-freedom, a culture of responsibility to go along with our culture of freedom.

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