Gun-rights advocates managed to push permitless gun-carry through the Pennsylvania legislature late last year only to see it killed by the governor. So, why does one of the top gun lobbyists in the state still view it as a big win?
As the debate over who deserves the most credit for the bill making it out of the House of Representatives and state Senate rages on, it’s important to understand why so much effort was put into a bill everyone knew Governor Tom Wolf (D.) wouldn’t sign. Twisting arms and calling in favors to push a bill with no chance of becoming law may be seen by some as a fool’s errand. Val Finnell, Pennsylvania Director for Gun Owners of America (GOA), sees it differently.
“From a strategic standpoint, it’s always good to push bills, even when they can’t get signed in the law,” he told The Reload. “That’s because you get a recorded vote, and that recorded vote is very valuable. And people don’t understand this. I have to explain it to them all the time on social media; this is not a waste of time.”
He argued the recorded vote can be used in multiple ways. First and foremost, Finnell said forcing the Democratic governor to veto the bill provides motivation for gun voters to turn out in the 2022 gubernatorial race.
“It gives us more fuel for the fire to get a pro-gun Governor,” he said. “We’ve just got to get one more step.”
Another key role the permitless carry vote plays is identifying which Republicans won’t vote for GOA’s priorities. Finnell said the group will use that information to decide who to try and replace in future elections.
“We know the eight Republicans who voted against us,” Finnell said. “Now we can look at that list and say, ‘well, who here can be changed out?’ And that’s what we’re looking at right now. Who’s just paying lip service to the Second Amendment? Who’s really a true believer? That’s what these recorded votes do. That gives us a target list for the primary coming up.”
He singled out Republican representative Bob Brooks, who represents parts of Westmoreland and Allegheny County, as a prime example of somebody the group plans to go after over the vote.
“At the end of the day, we connect the legislative season to election season,” Finnel said. “And guys like Bob Brooks, who voted against constitutional carry, we’re gonna hold them accountable.”
Finnell said the vote provides ammunition for GOA’s confrontational approach to lobbying. Instead of influencing politicians through friendly interactions, the group looks for opportunities to show their support or opposition.
“It’s sort of like training a dog, right?” he said. “It’s reward and punishment. With access-based politics, it’s all about being liked, going in there and schmoozing, and never offending anyone. What happens over time is that you end up being part of the political class yourself. You end up representing the legislators to your members rather than your members to the legislators.”
The confrontational stance isn’t intended to annoy or pester, though critics argue it does precisely that. Instead, Finnell said the goal is to send lawmakers clear signals and not allow them to become complacent.
“It’s not about being rude to people,” he said. “It’s more about, ‘okay, here’s our expectations, and it really comes down to this give us your vote or give us your seat. That’s it. That’s what really works.”
Naturally, though, this kind of confrontation often leads to animosity from lawmakers or even other gun-rights groups who argue it does more harm than good. Finnell said he expects backlash. He said it comes down to the way GOA’s advocacy intentionally tries to push politicians out of their comfort zones.
“We’re mobilization, confrontation, and direct constituent engagement,” Finnell said. “That makes a difference. Because, at the end of the day, these legislators, when they feel the heat from their district, they get things done. Access-based organizations don’t like that approach because a group like ours threatens their access to the politicians. So, there’s a lot of infighting that happens because of that.”
Finnell said the passage of permitless gun-carry is evidence their approach is working.
“We had to kick [Pennsylvania Senate President Pro Tempore] Jake Corman and [Majority Leader] Kim Ward in the teeth, but they moved the bill,” he said. “And that’s the bottom line.”
He’s confident GOA will leverage the vote and the group’s lobbying approach to bring permitless carry to Pennsylvania eventually.
“As time goes on, our approach will be vindicated,” Finnell said. “There’s no question.”