When the American Rifle and Pistol Association launched July 4, it hoped to attract gun owners across the political spectrum who were looking for a "sane" alternative to the NRA. So far, that effort doesn't appear to be going well.
On various gun forums and blogs, the reception has been anything but friendly. Instead of being depicted as the new and improved NRA, the group has been described alternately as a "false flag group," "astroturf phonies" and "frauds."
"Here we are again, not so far away from important 2014 elections, and we have another fraudulent pro-gun group for the people," wrote the gun blog Gunalizer. "If you disagree with us, fine. Stand up and be heard. But don't put on a mask and lie about your true intentions," wrote the site Ammoland.
To these gun owners, the American Rifle and Pistol Association (R+P) is a sheep in wolf's clothing, or more specifically, a Democratic gun control group parading as a right-wing and pro-gun organization.
R+P president Robert Gelinas laughs off that characterization. "I guess there's a few Democrats among us," he says. "But the whole idea behind this organization was to actually have a debate... The whole notion of firearms debate isn't a debate, though. The minute anyone tries to voice any ideas about public safety, it immediately gets shut down and they say: 'You guys are communist' and 'Go to Hell' and the whole nine yards."
R+P has made public safety related to gun ownership one of its top priorities. The group plans to spend members' money in part on "helping to identify and get treatment for the mentally ill to prevent firearms abuse."
The Pennsylvania Gun blog asked in response: "So are they a mental health organization with professionals on staff to identify mentally ill people?"
Gun owners also thought they found their smoking gun in the group when they dug up months-old social media posts by the group's chairman, Peter Vogt, an IT business executive, in which he expressed support of Mayors Against Illegal Guns and other gun control campaigns.
Gelinas said Vogt, who didn't return a call to Whispers, supported Mayors Against Illegal Guns at first but no longer backs the group – comparing it to several mayors who joined the group but later dropped out when they felt it veered away from its original mission.
Vogt, until recently, also lived in Newtown, Conn., the site of the deadly mass school shooting in December that launched a national gun debate. Gelinas says Vogt knew a family there that lost a child. That experience has helped shape the group's attempt at a more "sane" approach to gun ownership, Gelinas says.
But that adjective hasn't sat well with some of the gun community, either. "Who determines what is or is not sane? Since when do we need to demonstrate anything to exercise a right?" wrote Ammoland.
In response, R+P added an FAQ section on its website that poses the question: "Is SANE gun ownership a euphemism for promoting more gun control?" and answers: "Absolutely not." What "sane" means, R+P writes, is learning to be a safer shooter and better marksman.
Gelinas also insists that while much of the response online appears negative, the group is getting lots of positive feedback. And he says R+P plans to keep doing what it's doing. "If it works, then the proof is in the pudding," he says. "We don't have a dog in this fight."