SEATTLE — He takes them in stride, the nasty emails that come in three or four times a week.
They’re not that many, but they display the raw emotion that Alan Gottlieb generates with his gun rights message. A recent email begins, simply, “You are an idiot.”
It concludes with an emphatic, “I hope someone shoots you in the face with an AK-15 which you love so much. Poetic Justice, you (expletive)!” (The writer likely meant an AR-15, a type of assault rifle used in some mass shootings.)
Gottlieb, 66, is the bookish, balding guy with the bow tie and nerdy eyeglasses who founded the Second Amendment Foundation in Bellevue.
By his appearance, he does seem an unlikely spokesman for the pro-gun cause. The guys who star in “Duck Dynasty” would likely stare at Gottlieb in befuddlement.
Gottlieb doesn’t even hunt. This is a guy who earned a degree in nuclear engineering from the University of Tennessee.
But more and more, with 300 television and radio appearances a year, he’s becoming the national spokesman you see in the gun control battle.
It’s all helped Gottlieb’s foundation, which he created in 1974, grow to 650,000 members and contributors (members pay $15 a year; contributors give whatever they want).
Tax records show that last year they ponied up $3.7 million, and Gottlieb says this year’s contributions already have surpassed those of 2012.
“Something the other side doesn’t realize is that every time they attack us, we grow,” he says.
And he gives them plenty of reasons to attack. Take, for example, the foundation picking Dec. 14 — the anniversary of last year’s mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn. — as “Guns Save Lives Day.”
The idea quickly gained national attention, and after a spate of publicity, Gottlieb moved the date to Dec. 15, which is Bill of Rights Day.
Not long after that decision, CNN sent a limo to Bellevue to take Gottlieb to a TV studio in Seattle so he could take his pro-gun message to the network’s “Piers Morgan Live.”
Gottlieb knew Morgan would try to verbally skewer him, but Gottlieb says that unlike the NRA, which prefers friendly venues, he’ll take his message into hostile territory.
“Maybe I’m crazy going into the lion’s den,” he says. “If they ask me to appear, I’ll appear.”
Morgan went after Gottlieb, saying that timing the campaign for the first anniversary of Sandy Hook was disgusting, and that Gottlieb should be ashamed of himself.
Gottlieb said he had sympathy for the Sandy Hook families. “My heart goes out to them and I have children, grandchildren myself, but that doesn’t allow them to use that day, either, to attack my rights.”
Gottlieb works out of a two-story wood building that he named the James Madison Building, after the author of the Second Amendment.
Books and cardboard filing boxes fill his office, along with some special mementos.
Displayed on a bookcase is a large copy of a check from the treasurer of the city of Chicago to reimburse the foundation for legal fees it incurred in a case in which the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Chicago’s ban on handguns.
Dated Feb. 1, 2012, it is made out for $399,950 to the foundation, and one of the signatures is that of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
Gottlieb can’t help but smile as he points to the check, explaining that the odd amount was because Chicago took a stand and wouldn’t pay more than $400,000.
“OK, we said, make it $399,950,” says Gottlieb.
Those who do battle with Gottlieb acknowledge his skills.
Media Matters for America is a group that says its goal is “correcting conservative misinformation in the U.S. media.”
In an article it posted about Gottlieb, it says, “Though few Americans have ever heard of Alan Gottlieb, we live in a country he helped create. …Central to his plan was developing a legal brain trust to advance the pro-gun agenda in the courts.”
Media Matters has even posted a YouTube video, titled “Guns, Lies & Videotape,” excerpting various Gottlieb TV appearances, with a red stamp “LIE” on the screen after his statements.
Willing to sue
Gottlieb takes it all in stride, and always attacks back, which is probably one reason those 650,000 supporters give money.
“Media Matters would not be spending the money, time and effort attacking me if I were not being effective in stopping their anti-gun rights agenda that is being financed by billionaire George Soros,” he says.
Media Matters says that in 2010, it did get a one-time $1 million contribution from Soros, the billionaire known for supporting liberal causes.
“I wish we got $1 million donations,” Gottlieb says.
The foundation has such a reputation for its willingness to sue that sometimes all it takes is the threat of a lawsuit for cities to capitulate.
That happened in February, when the Oak Harbor City Council unanimously repealed an ordinance that bans guns from city parks and the marina.
This was after a letter from Gottlieb saying that the ordinance was at odds with state law allowing guns at those locations.
Says Rick Almberg, a retired contractor serving his second term on the Oak Harbor City Council:
“Well, of course we didn’t want a lawsuit on our hands. But is it common sense to allow people to carry loaded weapons in an area where our families are playing and celebrating? And in our legislative chambers?
“I’m not against guns. I’m a hunter. I’m a former Army Airborne officer. I don’t need a vigilante watching out for me, especially a vigilante who’d compound the problem rather than actually help.”
Gottlieb gets paid about $36,000 a year to run the foundation, plus an additional $11,000 for health and other benefits.
He says he doesn’t need the money.
That’s because housed in the same James Madison Building are offices for a couple of other gun rights groups that are affiliated with Gottlieb, but don’t have the prominence, and also a for-profit direct-mail company called Merril Associates.
The latter was founded by Gottlieb (Merril is his middle name) and now is run by his wife, Julianne Versnel. Gottlieb declines to reveal money figures but says the business does quite well. It sends out millions of letters a year on behalf of a variety of groups.
Merril Associates is contracted by the Second Amendment Foundation to distribute its direct-mail appeals, and, by the money coming in, has very successful campaigns. The foundation pays Merril around $300,000 a year, an amount that includes renting other people’s mailing lists.
Gottlieb can’t really pinpoint any special occurrence that molded his politics.
He was in college during the Vietnam War, and was in the National Guard from 1968 to 1974, and a member of the conservative Young Americans for Freedom.
He had come to Seattle in 1972 to work for the YAF, including doing fundraising for one of its pro-gun efforts. Gottlieb was so good at direct mail for the latter that, he says, the Student Committee to Keep and Bear Arms overshadowed other YAF efforts.
From there, Gottlieb founded the Second Amendment Foundation.
It was as if he had been born to the direct-mail business.
He explains the simple themes for successful direct-mail campaigns for advocacy groups, whether liberal or conservative: “Fear, hate and revenge.”
Gottlieb and Versnel have four grown children, three daughters and a son.
Gottlieb says they’re all familiar with guns; they grew up in a household in which he has a collection of five dozen mostly antique guns.
Gottlieb says he seldom packs heat at the office, although sometimes he does carry a gun when driving.
He’s had to pull out his handgun only once, he says, when he was visiting his dad at a hospital, and parked accidentally in a doctor’s spot.
“I came out rather late at night, and I was getting into the car, and I saw this man with a shiny knife. I’m guessing he thought I was a doctor and had drugs in my car. I took out my handgun, slammed the car door and drove away. One more step, and I’d have shot him. If it was going to be my life or his life, it was going to be his life,” Gottlieb says.
He had to petition to get back his right to own a firearm after serving just under nine months in 1984 in work-release for filing a false income tax return (he also paid $17,000 in back taxes plus a $5,000 fine).