Late-night TV personality Jay Leno found himself in the sticky political web of the gun lobby this week when he abruptly canceled his upcoming appearance at a Las Vegas gun show. Leno, a hobby enthusiast who's most known outside your TV set for his love of classic cars, was slated to appear at the 2015 Shooting, Hunting, Outdoor Trade Show, a popular, annual conference put on by the National Shooting Sports Foundation. However, Leno canceled his performance at the pro-gun rights show when he learned that the organization is based in Newtown, Connecticut — the site of the gruesome 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting that killed 20 students and six adults.
Leno told Mother Jones in a brief interview Wednesday night that he was backing out of January's Shooting, Hunting, Outdoor Trade Show after speaking with pro-gun control lobbyists, including the Newtown Action Alliance. "I understand it's Newtown, and of course I get it," the entertainer told Mother Jones. He added that "sometimes, mistakes get made."
What was the mistake this time? According to Leno and his team, the entertainer believed the gun show was solely about hunting. To be fair, it's an easy mistake to make — the National Shooting Sports Foundation bills itself as a "trade association for the firearms industry" on its website, with a mission to "promote, protect and preserve hunting and the shooting sports."
However, the National Shooting Sports Foundation is a pretty big — if clandestine — special interest lobby, spending nearly $2.4 million in 2014 alone on gun rights advocacy, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. It's also worth highlighting that the foundation's lobbying expenditures increased significantly following the 2012 Newtown shooting — which was the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history — spending almost $2.5 million on gun rights in 2013, compared to $810,000 in 2012.
On Tuesday, a coalition of pro-gun control groups — Newtown Action Alliance, Campaign to Unload and Coalition to Stop Gun Violence — launched a petition demanding Leno to cancel his appearance at the gun show. The petition criticized Leno for legitimizing "a crass commercialism which values profit over human lives" and doled out some fighting words to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, attacking the organization's little-known yet considerable lobbying efforts:
Since the shooting, which claimed the lives of six adults and 20 first-grade children, the NSSF has opposed any and all attempts to strengthen U.S. gun laws to prevent future tragedies. The association has accused gun violence prevention advocates of “seeking to destroy the Second Amendment” and lobbied against even the most modest proposals, such as universal background checks for all gun sales, a reform which is supported by 92% of gun owners nationally. Equally unsettling is the fact that the NSSF has done nothing to reach out to the families whose children were killed in the tragedy, despite the fact that the association is headquartered in Newtown.
Less than 24 hours later, Leno backed down. A spokesperson for Leno told MSNBC on Wednesday: "When it came to his attention that this was actually a pro-gun lobby show, [Leno] immediately cancelled his appearance."
Gun control activists subsequently celebrated Leno's decision. Newtown Action Alliance chairperson Po Murray, who received a personal phone call from Leno on Wednesday, said in a statement:
I’m not at all surprised that Jay didn’t understand that the NSSF is part of the gun lobby. Before the Sandy Hook shootings, I had no idea they existed, and they’re right here in my community.
While gun control supporters are elated, the pro-gun rights lobby is more than a little miffed at Leno bending to what they believe is political — and very public — pressure. In a statement released on the organization's blog, the National Shooting Sports Foundation lambasted the gun control groups for their "bullying political tactics," and claimed Leno was misled by false statements (though the organization did not specify which statements were false and why):
We are clearly disappointed by Jay Leno’s decision not to perform at the 2015 SHOT Show State of the Industry Dinner. He unilaterally cancelled his promised appearance due to pressure from the anti-gun lobby, which included false statements about our industry and its commitment to genuine firearms safety, which we attempted to personally correct with him, but to no avail. ... We will not allow the lawful commerce in firearms nor our industry to be demonized and we will continue to speak out for the Second Amendment rights of the millions of law-abiding citizens who are our customers.Images: Getty Images (2)