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Eliot Spitzer and Debra Maggart Talk Gun Control and the NRA

Aired December 21, 2012 - 15:00:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Hello, everyone, I'm Christiane Amanpour, and welcome to the special weekend edition of our program. There has been only one story that we've covered this week, the story of the 20 small children and their six teachers who were mowed down by an assault weapon at a Connecticut school last Friday.

Words of grief, of sorrow and of rage have poured out of America and from around the world. And questions why. And a question about what can be done to make sure that this never happens again.

"This time those words need to lead to action." That was the clarion call from President Barack Obama as late this week he gave his vice president, Joe Biden, orders to come up with meaningful proposals to reform America's liberal gun laws. And he wants those proposals on his desk by next month.


AMANPOUR (voice-over): But vast amounts of money are at stake. And look at the marketing of these rapid-fire machines; buy a semi-automatic and win a car. Look at the culture around this crisis, with the threat of new gun laws on the horizon, CNN's David Mattingly talked to one gun buyer in the state of Georgia.


RUDY ORLANDO, GUN OWNER: Me and my brother collect weapons and we have plenty of hand guns and shotguns and only one assault rifle. With all this -- all the new, you know, talk of new legislation going on to assault rifles, I really, you know, I definitely want to get a few more before, you know, something may happen.

DAVID MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: What's the largest clip that you can put in there?


AMANPOUR: Assault rifles, high-capacity ammunition clips, these are all on the table in these meaningful reforms that the president is calling for, as well as strict background checks that cannot drop through legal loopholes.

There is another powerful way to stop a billion-dollar business, and that is by following the money. And that is what Eliot Spitzer did.

He is the former governor of New York and he went after an investment firm that owns gun companies and he got action. I spoke to him about all of this right after President Obama made his call for action.


AMANPOUR: Former Governor Spitzer, thank you for joining me. Welcome again to the program.

SPITZER: Thank you for having me.

AMANPOUR: The president was quite strong today. He said that this is not just going to be another Washington commission; I want reform and I want answers now.

What did you read from the president's speech on guns?

ELIOT SPITZER, FORMER GOVERNOR OF NEW YORK: I thought it was a wonderful presentation. He said we need to resolve this now. There is an emotional and a political will to act right now; I want answers. The vice president will be in charge of this group, and not a commission, not a typical Washington commission.

By the end of January, in time, we think, for the State of the Union. So we will continue to carry this message and force action quickly.

AMANPOUR: Now he didn't give specific proposals, but he talked about a national consensus growing on three things, that military-style assault rifles, semi-automatics, should be banned; that high-capacity ammunition clips and the like should also be banned or regulated; and that there is a growing consensus on background checks that cannot slip through any legal loopholes.

SPITZER: Exactly. And he said not only do most Americans believe in this but most gun owners believe in this, which is exactly correct. And so he's saying to the NRA, come on, guys; your own membership supports common sense gun control. Around these principles we can agree. Let's move forward.

AMANPOUR: Well, let's talk about that, because the NRA has kept very silent; it's taken down its Facebook page. Yet they say that they're going to have a press conference this Friday and they're going to make, quote, "a meaningful contribution."

What do you think that they could say that's meaningful right now?

SPITZER: Well, they can take one of two paths, really, that I see. They can either revert to their normal posture, which is to say we have 2nd Amendment right; they can be rabid, theological and refuse to compromise, which I think would be a disaster for us as a nation, for them politically as well.

I think the more sensible path would be for Wayne LaPierre, who's been the voice of opposition on this issue, to say we all must reconsider. My membership and I have looked at this tragedy; we are ready to work with you, Mr. President. We can understand and support these three principles that the president just articulated.

I think people would embrace Wayne LaPierre at that point and say, thank you. We would move forward.

Politically, he would also probably be stopping a much more aggressive push that will gain steam if he goes into opposition mode. So it would be smart substantively, smart politically for him. It would permit us to get some forward movement.

AMANPOUR: Do you think Mr. LaPierre, the head of the NRA, who said a while ago, "Everything we love about America; all the freedoms our forefathers fought for, all of it is under attack by Barack Obama. But the media won't tell you that -- so pass this story along, then join the NRA.

"Update your membership or donate."

Is that the kind of man who's going to come to the table?

SPITZER: No. The fellow who made those statements was in campaign mode. Look, Wayne LaPierre and I are oil and water on this issue and on many, many things. But if he doesn't move beyond what he was when he was out there campaigning against President Obama, then he will render his own organization, in time, obsolete, because his membership will drift away from him.

If he looks back at that comment and says, OK; I said it. Now I've got to pivot and change to a new reality, he makes himself relevant in part of this ongoing conversation.

AMANPOUR: You talk about the membership. There are some 4 million, as he says, moms, dads, sons and daughters belonging to the NRA. Many people out in the world look at this gun community and they say, hold on. Are they all fundamentalists on this?

But they're not, right? When you go to specific elements of gun control, the majority are quite willing to move.

SPITZER: Absolutely. NRA members -- and, look, when I was attorney general, we sued the gun companies. We were as aggressive as could be because we thought it was a criminal justice issue and I stand by all the things we did.

I also dealt a great deal with the gun companies because of the litigation with gun owners. Most of them, they are moms and dads. Wayne LaPierre's statement there is correct. They are real normal people you want to sit around and have a conversation with.

So they say, yes, I don't mind having a background check before somebody buys a gun. I don't mind the limiting of magazines to 10 bullets rather than 100 bullets. There is common ground there if you can break through the rabid leadership that was playing to its fringe. And that's why this can happen.

AMANPOUR: So as an elected politician, you were, the president is, all the Congress people who have to deal with this are. How do you move this debate in that direction? Or are you still afraid in the post-Sandy Hook era, of being NRAd, being primaried, being run out of office?

SPITZER: Look, you've got to hope that this really was that emotional galvanizing moment. Joe Manchin, a Democratic senator from West Virginia, who had been 100 percent with the NRA, when he stands up and says enough, we've got to do something, things have shifted.

So the president, who has the biggest megaphone in the universe, he can speak to our heartstrings, as he just did. I thought that was a very well-stated presentation. He speaks to the emotional; he speaks to the rational; he speaks to the data points. Then he says to Joe Biden, "Get back to me in short order before we forget."

AMANPOUR: And he takes on this issue of the 2nd Amendment, which the fundamentalists, if we can say, or the extremists in this regard, will tell you, hang on; if we make one move, we're destroying our entire freedoms.

But the president addressed that.

SPITZER: He did. And let me just say something. I'm a pretty decent lawyer, I think. There's no way limiting magazine sales so you have 10 bullets, not 30, is going to be struck down by the Supreme Court. It isn't going to happen. The Supreme Court, those are nine real people as well. They understand something's got to be done.

They don't want cannon to be sold under the rubric of the 2nd Amendment, grenade launchers. They understand this is all sensible, constitutional stuff.

AMANPOUR: Let's get to the other issue. There is legislation. There's also ownership and money, and the big story, obviously, in the wake of this tragedy, is that some of the biggest investors, some of the owners of these -- of these gun manufacturers have stopped. And you were instrumental in pushing that.

Tell me about it. How did it happen?

SPITZER: Well, kind of you to say. I don't know if it was in -- I wrote an article which said ownership can trump regulation. What I mean by that is Cerberus, which is the private equity entity that owned the company that produced the AR-15 itself is owned by the pension funds and endowments that you and I own. What do I mean by that?

Pension funds that represent workers across the country have invested with Cerberus. University endowments have invested with Cerberus. Cerberus then owns the gun companies.

So what I said and what some of these CalSTRS, the California teacher's pension did, was pick up the phone and say, hey, wait a minute. We don't want our money invested in a company that is producing assault weapons.

And so Cerberus, responsive to its investors, the money behind them, said, you know what? We're going to sell these companies.

Now the power of money used that way is enormous, through shareholder activism, controllers, elected controllers around the state, treasurers, pension funds that go to the companies that really own these companies and say, change your behavior; you're using our money.

AMANPOUR: I mean, I suppose the biggest and the best example of divestment was South Africa under apartheid.

SPITZER: Absolutely.

AMANPOUR: Is this something that could have that kind of momentum? Because obviously it's the money that's going to talk and this is going to hit these manufacturers right in the pocketbook.

SPITZER: I think it can work. I mean, you hearken back to when I was in college, university students protested on college campuses, saying to universities, sell your endowment stock in companies that make money in an apartheid South Africa. It contributed enormously to ending apartheid.

AMANPOUR: Do you worry, when you're obviously very energized, like so many people in this country, about this, you know, again, as an elected politician, a former elected politician, can people like yourself duck the bullets, so to speak, because media attention will drop off?

SPITZER: Yes. (Inaudible) which had been the -- what the NRA has done. The NRA has had multiple strategies. One was to become a possum: roll up, curl up; wait till the wave washes over them and then pop back up and be rabid.

The other is to organize their base and run primaries against anybody who deviates from their line, as we saw the Tea Party do in the movement of the Republican Party right.

So, yes, they're -- the politics that maintains rigidity is still there. On the other hand, there are moments when public opinion does fundamentally change and it leads to good stuff.

AMANPOUR: Do you think in terms of leadership -- because people seem to be crying out for leadership; President Obama has now gone on national television to say he's going to do something about it -- do you think it's a top-down kind of change that's going to come? Or is it a grassroots up?

Hearken back to Mothers Against Drunk Driving; even Mayor Bloomberg's famous campaign against smoking or the other things that he's campaigned against.

SPITZER: Well, I've always believed it's bottom up, that grassroots activism is what leads the major transformational movements in our country, the labor movement, the peace movement, the women's rights movement, anti- war movement in Vietnam all began bottom up.

On the other hand, at the end, at a certain point, you need somebody at the top who helps galvanize it. Barack Obama right now is doing that. This was not his agenda three weeks ago.

But stuff happens, as they say, and the agenda is changed right now; I think he's saying not only is it right, you see it in his heart and you hear it when he speaks. But also he's saying, you know what? This is an important issue. If he adds this to the litany of things he's done, he will be proud of this. And so I think he's ready to grab this and maybe do something important.

AMANPOUR: So I was going to ask you for your prediction, knowing the politics of it, knowing the difficulties of getting things through Congress and legislation and different states and various different laws, and still some resistance. And we've heard some Republican governors say actually we need concealed weapon permits for people in schools; we need all these kinds of things.

Do you think this is going to be a juggernaut? Or is it going to be really tough?

SPITZER: It's going to be a juggernaut. I predict at the State of the Union, he makes gun violence a centerpiece, makes it kid safety, taking care of our kids. He will get everybody in that chamber standing up. It will be emotional. And by June of this year, there will be fundamental laws passed.

AMANPOUR: Well, that is an ending statement. So --

SPITZER: If I'm back here in July defending it, I'll -- I hope I'm right.

AMANPOUR: Well, let's -- let me just ask you, because we said the same thing about Aurora, about Gabby Giffords, about all the other things that have happened this year.

So, again, really?

SPITZER: Yes. Kids are different. This is -- you know, I said the other day in a different context, we've said this is different over and over again. This one really is different.

AMANPOUR: You're right.

SPITZER: I hope.

AMANPOUR: Thank you very much.

SPITZER: My pleasure.


AMANPOUR: And so again, just how powerful is America's gun lobby? When we come back, you'll meet a lawmaker who consistently voted the NRA party line with an A-plus rating until she dared to disagree and they made her a target.

But before we take a break, another look at the insidious connection between guns and American culture: that there is an advertisement for Remington, makers of the classic American rifle. But with its sharpshooter scope and its not-so-subtle message, it put politicians on notice. Beware of us, it seemed to say. We'll be right back.




AMANPOUR: Welcome back to the program. And now to a personal story that illustrates the incredible power of America's main gun lobby, the National Rifle Association.

Tennessee lawmaker Debra Maggart, was a lifetime member of the NRA with an A-plus rating. She even supported allowing guns in bars.


AMANPOUR (voice-over): But when Maggart decided not to back a bill allowing guns in parking lots, which the NRA had written, the NRA took aim at her and did everything in its power to ensure her election defeat. They succeeded. Debra Maggart joins me right now in the studio.


AMANPOUR: How did they succeed? What did they do to you?

DEBRA MAGGART, FORMER TENN. LAWMAKER: Well, first of all, the bill in question put a very important right against another very important right, talking rights versus gun rights. And so we tried to work out a compromise with the NRA. This was a bill that they had written. It applied to all property in Tennessee and it trampled on the rights of all Tennesseans.

Well, we kept moving the bill and talking to them, trying to compromise. They wouldn't do it. So we sent the bill to summer study (ph) to continue to work on it. After that, they came after me because I was the caucus leader and I was the only person in leadership who had a primary.

AMANPOUR: What did coming after you entail? Was it ads? Was it calls? Was it money? What was it?

MAGGART: Well, it was everything. They did robocalls, radio ads. They had a website called Their main lobbyist was featured on YouTube videos about me. There are five billboards in my hometown, and three of them had a picture of me with Barack Obama.

AMANPOUR: (Inaudible) we have that, in fact, and they're basically saying he wants to take away your rights and you do, too.


MAGGART: (Inaudible), exactly. They did nine mail pieces. They did 12 full-page ads. They poured over $150,000 into my small House district. That's a lot of money in a House district race. And so they convinced the people where I'm from that I was for all these things, that I was actually going to put your family in danger because of this bill.

AMANPOUR: And let's be clear. You have been a lifetime member; you're a strong supporter; you're in A-plus standing. And then they made you, what, a D? They gave you a failing grade?

MAGGART: They gave me a D. They gave me a D. And if you go and look at their website, all the things that earned you a D I had never done. And so they did this --


AMANPOUR: But it was --

MAGGART: -- (inaudible) example.

AMANPOUR: -- an example of just daring to even have a question about anything?

MAGGART: Absolutely. What it boils down to is this is about money. They have to have a reason for their members to write them a check.

And so I believe they create phantom issues and they put bills like this into place in Tennessee. They did it in Alabama. They did it in Georgia, creating an issue.

I had never had anyone in my district tell me they had to take their gun and lock it in their car at work, never. I never had anyone tell me that until they created this issue. So.

AMANPOUR: So just to be clear, the bill was they said every car should be able to have the gun put in it and it could be anywhere.

MAGGART: Anywhere.

AMANPOUR: And the person on whose property that car was had no option and no say?

MAGGART: (Inaudible). Right. This is a mandate. Now what we're talking about is the government mandating to all property owners in our state that they would have to allow someone to bring a gun on their property whether they wanted that gun there or not. And so we tried to come up with some compromises and they simply refused.

And when we realized they would not work with us, we sent the bill to be continued, to be worked on, because it simply was a bad piece of legislation and wasn't ready to be passed.

AMANPOUR: And they NRAd you.

Were you surprised?

MAGGART: Well, yes, I was. Actually, back home, the local gun lobby, the Tennessee Firearms Association, they call it being Maggartized. They've taken my last name and they say now we're going to Maggartize you.

So, yes, I was surprised, because I had always been supportive of gun legislation. I'm a pro-2nd Amendment person. My family owned a business at one time that sold guns. I have a gun permit. I sponsor a skeet shoot every year in my hometown.

So, you know, I had a great record on promoting the 2nd Amendment. And they just, you know, it didn't matter to them.

AMANPOUR: So do you think this same NRA that did that to you is likely to come to the table? For instance, as you know, they've called for a press conference; they want to say, as they have said, make meaningful contributions to the post-Sandy Hook reality that we all live in right now.

What do you think they're going to say?

MAGGART: Well, I can tell you, in Tennessee, the way the NRA operated, they made it to where no policymaker, no lawmaker could have an honest, meaningful discussion about any gun rights legislation, because everyone was afraid of them.

Now that they've done this to me, everyone's even more afraid of them, I'm sure. I'd like to think they aren't, but I know I'm dealing with humans here. So I'm sure they are, (inaudible).


AMANPOUR: And do you believe -- I mean, do you agree with all the polls that we're reading which says that the vast majority of the membership of the NRA, the 4 million moms, pops, brothers and sisters, actually are more responsible or have more room to move on issues of gun control when you break it down than the leadership?

MAGGART: I would say after what I saw them do to me, that's probably true, because when people in my hometown realized what they were doing to me, they would call the NRA and the NRA had operators ready at the phone with talking points about Debra Maggart.

They would actually argue with my friends, with constituents of mine, who would call them and say, I'm resigning; I don't appreciate what you're doing to her. And then the operators would argue with them and tell them what a terrible gun rights -- you know, I was against gun rights; I was against the 2nd Amendment. And so they were prepared for that.

AMANPOUR: Do you think that the time has changed now because of the terrible slaughter at Sandy Hook? You've seen what Senator Joe Manchin has said. He's like you, an upstanding member. And he said, though, that this has changed me and we need to have a full debate on this.

Do you think people like Manchin, people like President Obama, can make inroads?

MAGGART: Well, I think they can. But here's the thing: people have to be able to feel like they are in a safe place, where they can talk about these issues, no matter what side of the issue you find yourself on.

If you are a policymaker, if you are a lawmaker, you have to be able to sit down and have a grownup conversation about these things and not be afraid that they will use bully tactics, like they did on us, like they did on me. Using fear and intimidation stifles the discussion and that's what they have done.

AMANPOUR: Because anytime one talks about it -- and it's interesting, obviously, to talk to you because you are on their side -- or at least you were. You were part of that tribe, if I might be so bold as to say. They always say, oh, no; you know, this is about taking all our guns away. Well, it's not.

MAGGART: No. They -- again, they create phantom issues in order for people to write them a dues check. I mean, I am convinced of that. They frighten people and they have to have a bad guy. Somebody has to be the bad guy.

So in my hometown, in my state, they made me the bad guy because I dared to say to them this is not a good bill. This bill is not good for the people of Tennessee. This is not the right kind of policy. It's not good for property owners. Let's work something out. Maybe, maybe now, conversations can be had where there's a balance.

AMANPOUR: Did Sandy Hook change you?

MAGGART: Well, it has very much distressed me. I cried all day on Friday about it. I have a 3-year old granddaughter. And I have thought about her.

I have thought about her being in that school, and I just -- my heart breaks for these teachers, these parents, these grandparents, these families, this town, the responders, the first responders. And so, yes, I'm so glad that people are paying attention to what the NRA does and how they use fear and intimidation to bully people.

AMANPOUR: Thank you very much. It's hard to talk about it, and we really appreciate your unique insight.

MAGGART: Thank you.

AMANPOUR: Thank you very much.

MAGGART: (Inaudible). I appreciate it.

AMANPOUR: And we'll be back right after a break.



AMANPOUR: And finally tonight, if America's gun culture is going to change, it may have to come from the bottom up. But is a grassroots movement even possible?

It did happen here 30 years ago, when a grieving mother named Candy Lightner turned her anguish into action. In 1980, Candy's 13-year-old daughter, Cari, was killed by a hit-and-run drunk driver. Just days after the funeral, Candy created an organization called MADD, Mothers against Drunk Driving. Her first office was Cari's bedroom.

The year before, Cindy Lamb lost her child to another drunk driver. These two mothers joined forces, and they launched a movement that changed the way Americans and America's laws treat drunk driving. And it soon spread to the rest of the world.

In Britain, for instance, drunk driving deaths are at an all-time low. From its beginnings in Cari's bedroom, MADD now has 600 chapters in all 50 U.S. states. The result? Since 1991, drunk driving deaths have been cut by almost 40 percent. And for the first time on record, the number of alcohol-related traffic deaths dipped below 10,000.

The apologists say guns are part of American culture. But drinking and driving were once part of American culture, too. The loss of two little children helped change that. Will the loss of 20 young lives mark a sea change when it comes to tolerating military-style weapons on America's streets?

That's it for tonight's program. Thank you for watching and goodbye from New York.