By Chris Knox
Phoenix, Arizona, the capital city of arguably the most "gun-friendly" state in the nation, played host last week to the country's largest annual gathering of organizations and individuals committed to defense of the Second Amendment: the 30th Annual Gun Rights Policy Conference. As brother Jeff mentioned in his presentation, somebody named Knox has spoken at almost every one of these conferences for the past 30 years, beginning with our father, Neal Knox, at the first one, in 1985. Jeff joined Dad on the speaker roster 10 years later, and I have been honored to present or serve in other capacities in recent years.
One highlight of this year's event was when Republican presidential candidate former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore addressed the crowd during the luncheon. Gov. Gilmore spent the whole morning at the conference, listening to presentations and mingling with attendees in the front hall. What's particularly noteworthy about this is that there were no uniformed police or security guards to be found anywhere around the conference, aside from the regular hotel guys, but there were hundreds of armed citizens, some carrying openly, some carrying discreetly. Arizona is a "Constitutional Carry" state, meaning that anyone who is not prohibited from possessing a gun is free to carry it, openly or concealed, just about anywhere they choose – no license, permit, or government permission slip required. Hundreds of the GRPC attendees were freely exercising that right, and it was refreshing to see this candidate for president of the United States standing in their midst shaking hands and chatting with strangers who had Glocks, Kimbers and Colts visible on their hips.
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Sponsored by the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms and its sister organization the Second Amendment Foundation, the conference is a great event that has earned significant stature within the rights movement. Even though the Internet has sped up the communication of ideas, there's nothing like getting face-to-face with other activists to build rapport and cooperation. It is an energizing exercise in using the First Amendment to defend the Second, and anyone involved or interested in this fight should make it a point to attend. The GRPC is held every year in a different city during the last weekend in September. Next year's event will be held in Tampa, Florida.
In addition to being a networking, idea-sharing and cross-pollination venue, GRPC is also an opportunity to take the temperature of the movement. It's an opportunity not only to hear what people and organizations from around the country have to say, but also to see who they are and what they do, and to meet and chat with the real "gun lobby," the guys who pay their membership dues, write the $20 checks, work the recruiting and information booths at gun shows and take their neighbors out to the range. Unlike the Astroturf activists hired or created by Mike Bloomberg and the Brady Bunch, the "gun lobby" is a true grass-roots movement made up of millions of dedicated volunteers. Even most of the leaders of the movement are volunteers who do their lobbying and organizing on a part-time basis during their off-hours from regular jobs. Among those who do get a paycheck, most, including brother Jeff, are earning well below their potential because they are deeply committed to the cause.
There was little evidence of the much-reviled "corporate gun lobby" at the event. While the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the trade association for the industry, sent a speaker, as did the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers Institute, and some companies helped underwrite the event by sponsoring coffee and snacks, no one could realistically accuse the gathering of shilling for the gun industry. Alan Gottlieb, founder and president of SAF and CCRKBA respectively, and Larry Pratt, executive director of Gun Owners of America, both spoke and were well-received, but the National Rifle Association, which was a regular participant in the conference for its first two decades, had no official presence this year. NRA has tended to skip the conference completely in recent years amid criticism from attendees about what they considered NRA's wishy-washy approach. Those who think NRA is hard-line have never been to a GRPC.
Another group that was conspicuous by its absence was the National Association for Gun Rights, or NAGR. This organization has been frustrating rights activists for the past decade with their heavy, direct-mail, "the sky is falling" fundraising tactics, raising millions of dollars from gun owners, while doing little of note in the actual fight. Several of the more than 70 presenters at the conference took an opportunity to take a swipe at the group, and those jabs received applause from the attendees.
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Finally, it's worth mentioning another absence at this year's GRPC. Absent was the idea of "pre-emptive concession." Last year's GRPC exposed a significant divide between Second Amendment supporters, some of whom suggested that we couldn't win fights against state-level bans on private firearm transfers and should therefore get a seat at the table to have some say in the crafting of the inevitable legislation. Others (brother Jeff and myself included) saw that approach as an abandonment of principle. As our late father, Neal Knox often said, "Never give away what the other side is not big enough to take." The controversy was reported in the lamestream media as though fistfights had broken out during the GRPC, when in reality it was a civil, if sometimes heated discussion among friends. There was none of that at this year's conference. The unifying strategy is to meet force with force, and if we lose, to make it cost the other side enough that they think twice before "winning" again.
In 2015, with a presidential election and disturbing ballot initiatives to criminalize person-to-person firearm transfers in several states pending, serious concerns remain, but the GRPC as a body presented a remarkably united front. Hopefully, as we continue to 2016, the gun rights movement will be able to capitalize on this unity.
Media wishing to interview Jeff Knox, please contact [email protected].