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San Diego County Gun Owners: Fighting For 2A

CALIFORNIA HAS ALWAYS BEEN KNOWN FOR BEING ANTI-2A, BUT ONE GROUP OF SAN DIEGANS ARE FIGHTING BACK

Advocating for the Second Amendment is never a simple job. Your opponents have easy, emotionally driven arguments that appeal to people who have no interest in the topic beyond the fear generated by highly sensationalized events that are rare in practice, but horrible and terrifying enough to leave a mark on the public psyche. 

Meanwhile, the people you’re advocating for often understand the situation better from a technical perspective, but their arguments are often just as emotionally driven, but coming from the other end of the gun. 

If your focus is outreach, or raising funds, this can be a benefit; emotional arguments are the easy button for getting attention and donations, as plenty of gun-control groups can attest. 

However, if your only goal is advancing the 2A through legislation and elections, within a county that’s fairly evenly split between red and blue … you find yourself in an interesting position. 

This is where we find Michael Schwartz, executive director of San Diego County Gun Owners PAC, trying to thread the needle of big-tent gun advocacy in the southern end of a state so famously anti-gun that it’s a cliché. 

Whether it’s helping to defeat local anti-gun legislation, representing gun owners as regular folks in media appearances, or bringing the exhilaration of recreational shooting to people for the first time, SDCGO is out there putting in work, and we recently sat down with Michael to find out how they get it done.

Monthly Shooting Socials help SDCGO reach out to the public and take the mystery out of gun ownership.

RECOIL: Who are you, and what is SDCGO?

Michael Schwartz: I’m the executive director of SDCGO, which is a political organization, a 527 PAC focused only on 2A issues, and only in San Diego County. We endorse candidates based on their view of the 2A. We are nonpartisan; we don’t care who they align with, we just care that they respect our right to keep and bear arms. We are local, which means we only endorse candidates for the local boards and councils within the county — school board, city council, mayor, county board of supervisors, sheriff, etc. 

We don’t endorse on the state or federal level because there’s an alphabet soup of organizations that already have this covered. 

We saw a huge hole in the front line of this war. If you look at the folks who are at the state and federal level, most of them started on a local board or council somewhere. It’s much easier to win a campaign on the local level than at the state or federal one.

 If you look at the author of an anti-gun bill, they probably served on a city council or school board somewhere, and their political career could have been influenced or stopped long before they got to the state or federal level. 

The basic idea is that we’re here to vet candidates, gather enough resources to get them elected, and provide a voter guide to unify the 2A community in San Diego. Beyond that, we represent the RTKBA community in San Diego in local media; we’ve started a women-centric program for help in first-time buying, training, and acquiring a concealed carry permit. 

We have new shooter programs for everyone, a radio show, and this all has spawned Orange County Gun Owners and Inland Empire Gun Owners organizations. 

Gun Owners Radio is a two-hour weekly radio show that features nationally known guests and local Southern California Second Amendment talk.

Honestly, it turns out that the very simple, very American idea of “find the right people, work within the system to elect them” is popular, and it has grown so much beyond what we intended, I believe, because it works. We’re very proud of that.

Indeed. 

RECOIL: So, the question then is why is it so successful? How is SDCGO different from other 2A groups out there?

MS: We have more in common with political organizations than most gun orgs, because we are one — we just have chosen to focus entirely on the 2A. We can directly and unapologetically get involved in politics. 

A lot of orgs endorse candidates, which we do too, but we get involved in getting those candidates to the election, and through it. We obviously reach out to voters, but we also directly engage with the elected officials after they’re in office. 

Some orgs have to limit the amount of politics and activities they get involved in; some of them focus on education. But we wanted to roll up our sleeves, jump in the trenches, and be involved in the business of politics. What really differentiates us from most other political orgs is that we are purely local, laser focused only on San Diego County.

We are also extremely dedicated to the idea of being nonpartisan. There are a lot of groups that are partisan, and many who claim not to be, but are truly just an extension of the Republican party. Our two top candidates right now — one is a Democrat for Sheriff, the other for district attorney declines to claim a party. Both are also women, which leads me to the other thing that I think makes us very different from a lot of other groups: a better track record when it comes to membership regarding women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ than most political orgs, and I’d say every gun organization. We aren’t focused on these demographics; we’re focused on the 2A, but we’ve represented the message in such a way that those groups have gravitated to us organically.

SDCGO is family friendly and does a lot of outreach.

RECOIL: That’s impressive. A lot of groups can have trouble doing this with a dedicated marketing focus. Often the ham-fisted attempt to attract non-traditional demographics illustrates why they’re having to recruit in the first place. 

MS: I agree; we’re quite proud of that. Honestly, our organization is run by women; I’m actually the only guy.

RECOIL: What would you say is the biggest difference between the organization now and when you started?

MS: Well, the obvious answer is size, but if I can, I’d like to start with what hasn’t changed. Our mission statement still guides us — we’re 2A-focused, nonpartisan, local only. The basic idea is still the same, which is important, because we stay in our lane.

There’s no mission creep when it comes to SDCGO. What has changed though is the sophistication involved in accomplishing those goals. 

Our training and sexual assault/domestic violence programs, radio show, educational and voter outreach at gun stores, the YouTube channel, Instagram, and Facebook — they all allow us to be more effective at what we do and are instrumental in how we organize, communicate, and gather. That by far is the biggest change.

Certainly, if you don’t have a social presence these days you don’t exist. Traditional spaces are still important, but you’ll never achieve the same level of reach if that’s the only place you are. 

RECOIL: So, as you’ve grown and adapted into these spaces, how are you using them for the 2A?

MS: We do a lot; there’s no one thing we hang our hat on, but by far, our biggest victory is the fact that you can get a California CCW in San Diego for the first time in decades. California gives the sheriff a huge level of input on who can and can’t get a CCW, by requiring applicants have “proof of good cause,” which is left up to each sheriff or CLEO that’s issuing the permit. 

For decades, the bar for that was very high, and local sheriffs were not fans of CCW. In a county of 3.5 million people (that’s more than some states), there were 1,100 CCWs issued. It was functionally impossible for the average citizen to get one, and if we’d been like the average U.S. county, we would have had 150,000 permits. 

SDCGO’s Second Amendment Celebration Dinner or “Gun Prom” is their annual showcase fundraiser.

RECOIL: That’s crazy. What moved the needle?

MS: We simply got involved in the system, told our story, and made sure everyone knew the sheriff could issue permits if he wanted to. We told radio, TV, and print media. We told his supporters and donors; we told the GOP who had endorsed him previously, until we convinced them not to. 

One of the most effective pieces of that was we authored a resolution in Santee, California (a city that contracted the sheriff’s department to function as their police force to the tune of $20 million a year), that said that the city of Santee disagreed with the Sheriff’s stance on CCWs and requested he change it. 

And in the end, that was enough to get him to change his stance. We then began outreach to make sure that county residents knew they could apply and have a chance at approval.

RECOIL: Well, we’d say “that’s all?” but it sounds like a lot of work. 

MS: It was, but keep in mind, that sheriff was sued by the NRA in federal court about his CCW stance for eight years, and not only did that not change his mind, but he won. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals sided with him. We educated the public and applied some political pressure and now you can carry concealed in San Diego.

SDCGO staff delivers flowers to first responders.

RECOIL: Lawsuits are the hammer everyone expects, but not everything is a nail.

MS: Absolutely, and it’s proof our model works and should be expanded elsewhere.

RECOIL: How has dealing with COVID-19 the last two years impacted your approach? Guns, in general, seem to be more popular, but does that help your cause or is it more complicated than that?

MS: COVID and the response to it was the biggest thing to happen in our lifetime, probably since WWII. Not just in numbers of dead, but the cultural, political, and sociological impact. 

We weathered it well, from making sure our employees were taken care of and not forced into any decisions they didn’t want, and that they were financially taken care of. Outside of that, early on, a reporter asked a council member if gun stores should be open, and they said no. SDCGO saw that live and immediately jumped into action. 

We contacted friendly local government, gun stores, and the sheriff to sort this out. We made sure the gun stores were following necessary protocol with masking and sanitizing, so that base was covered. 

We talked to representatives to push messaging the other direction, that the rogue council member in question was wrong, and we convinced the sheriff, who was in charge of enforcement, that this was not an idea worth supporting. We kept those gun shops open long enough for the Trump administration to get involved and come out with guidance that gun stores were essential.

Like everywhere else, there was a massive influx of new gun owners. We did a ton of outreach to make sure they were trained and educated, as well as engaged, when it comes to politics. This is California, so there’s a 10-day waiting period to get a gun, and people were showing up at gun shops (I heard this personally over and over again), who voted for politicians who were in favor of waiting periods, complaining about the waiting period and asking if they could pay an extra fee to get the gun today. 

Activities are a secret to SDCGO’s success. The group has events and meetings every month and with a variety of activities.

RECOIL: That must have drawn some laughs.

MS: There was an awakening to the realities of gun control laws among non-traditional gun owners for sure. The stereotypical vegan yoga instructors were showing up to buy a gun and getting a political education instead, over and over, for days on end. 

We actually started a website to help them find basic firearms safety training near them.

RECOIL: That’s a lot more helpful than “I told you so,” however hard it must have been not to say that. We’ve probably all learned a bit about outreach due to similar experiences recently. For those who discovered that they enjoy it, how does someone go about becoming a 2A advocate for a living?

MS: It’s got to be a passion. This is a huge topic that requires constant work. I was a volunteer from 2008 to 2015 when we started SDCGO. I had a job with a bank to pay the bills — a good, high paying, cushy, safe job, 40 to 50 hours a week. On top of that, I was putting in another full-time job’s worth of work on 2A volunteering. So, you have to be unapologetically passionate in order to survive that.

There’s this attitude on the right-of-center that this has to be a benevolent, all-volunteer effort. Meanwhile on the anti-gun side, they pay people to work professionally on taking away your gun rights. We really need to shift toward that model. 

If you have a volunteer with no professional guidance and support versus a pro, you’re not betting on the volunteers, are you? You’ve got to find people who are detail-oriented, and those who are people-oriented, who can do their part of the job effectively, and if you aren’t paying them, you’re just not going to get the most out of them, ever. 

RECOIL: That makes a lot of sense. So, what’s next for SDCGO?

MS: L.A. County Gun Owners, Bay Area Gun Owners, we’re even talking about Maricopa County, Nevada, Michigan, Texas, and Virginia. 

The only thing preventing us from taking our model everywhere is bandwidth and finances. Our “Not Me” domestic violence program is becoming its own 501(c)(3) charity and will be expanding. 

SDCGO has a successful women’s program called #NotMeSD where women can help women succeed with gun ownership and training.

We’re plaintiffs in five different lawsuits in partnership with Firearms Policy Coalition. 

RECOIL: Sounds like you guys really are ready for the next step. So how can someone get in touch with you if they like what they’ve read and want to reach out?

MS: You can reach us at SDCGO.org, our website. 

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