In The Glare Of The Spotlight
What do you do when a high-profile person attempts to make an anti-gun statement by purchasing a firearm at your store? What do you do when suddenly the eyes of international media are upon you? How do you respond?
That’s the situation Douglas MacKinlay, owner of Diamondback Police Supply, faced in March 2013, when Mark Kelly, husband of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, purchased a modern sporting rifle.
What normally would have been an everyday, business-as-usual transaction turned into a media frenzy. Kelly, a retired astronaut and Navy captain, had become — and continues to be — a high-profile spokesperson for increased gun restrictions. His purchase of the AR-platform rifle fixed the glare of the international media spotlight on MacKinlay and Diamondback Police Supply.
I visited the Tucson gun shop, in business since 1998 and currently with 19 full- and part-time employees, to learn how MacKinlay dealt with this incident.
“There has been a lot of misinformation about what really happened,” he said, “especially in the local media.”
Point Number One: No matter how well you present information, the media will often it get wrong, especially if they’re rushing to grab headlines, or want to push an anti-gun agenda, or both.
“Mr. Kelly originally wanted to buy a SIG 1911 .45,” MacKinlay explains. “He did not have enough identification and we explained we couldn’t sell it to him. He returned two weeks later with the proper ID, went through the appropriate paperwork and background check and bought the pistol. As he was leaving, he saw a SIG M400, a 5.56mm AR-15.”
Even though Kelly had just passed a NICS background check, he wasn’t allowed to take possession of the rifle.
“The City of Tucson has an ordinance requiring a 20-day hold on any gun that comes in secondhand; this was a used rifle that we had purchased the day before. We explained that to Mr. Kelly. He paid for the rifle in full and left,” MacKinlay said.
Up to that point, it was just a normal, busy day at Diamondback Police Supply. But that was about to change.
“There were a couple of Air Force PJs (Pararescue Jumpers) in the store who recognized him,” MacKinlay said. “Their cell phones came out, they took pictures and the pictures were posted to the Internet and went viral.”
Kelly, who was appearing on national media news programs about the need for additional firearm restrictions, was questioned about the purchase.
“When Mr. Kelly became aware of that [Internet posting], he publicly announced that he was buying the gun to make a statement about how easy it was to purchase an ‘assault rifle,’ and that he intended all along to donate the gun to a local law enforcement agency thereafter,” MacKinlay said.
Facing An Explosive Response
Diamondback Police Supply was quickly flooded with emails and phone calls, many from pro-gun people who were outraged that the shop would sell a gun to someone who had publicly taken an anti-gun stance.
“Mr. Kelly was an Arizona resident, a decorated combat vet and had just passed the background check [to buy the 1911 .45]. After he announced he intended to turn the rifle over to the police all along, we were urged to deny the sale because that made him a ‘straw man.’ We had to explain that, no, it didn’t. Purchasing a gun as a gift for another person or entity is legal,” MacKinlay said.
For “gift guns,” Diamondback’s long-time policy is the store issues a gift certificate in the name of the recipient, who must come into the store and personally fill out Form 4473 and undergo the background check before taking physical possession of the firearm. In the meantime, Kelly continued to address the purchase of the rifle, including posting on his Facebook, “Scary to think of people buying guns like these without a background check at a gun show or the Internet.”
“He had been making more hay out of it, statements that were negative to our citizens, to our industry and to our Second Amendment rights,” MacKinlay said.
On March 19, 2013, MacKinlay sent a letter to Kelly, which included the full refund for the price of the rifle.
“Based on your recent statements in the media that your intent in purchasing this rifle was not for your personal use, I’ve determined that it’s in my company’s best interest to terminate this transaction. Thank you for your consideration and understanding,” MacKinlay concluded his letter.
Be Prepared, Stay Logical
Within 24 hours of his announcement that he was canceling the rifle sale, MacKinlay said he received about 400 emails and over 150 phone calls related to the matter.
“About 98 percent of the responses were positive and supportive of our position,” he said. “We were contacted by Reuters, Associated Press, CNN and so on. We allowed no cameras or live interviews. You just don’t know how they’ll edit it.”
What advice does he have for other gun dealers who suddenly — unwillingly — find themselves in the heat of the media spotlight?
“Be cautious in what you relate, face-to-face or over the phone. Have a lawyer or media specialist review any statements you release. Have your facts documentable, confirmed, stay logical and don’t let anyone goad you. We belong to FFLGuard, a group of lawyers who specialize in ATF regulations and firearms litigation. They have vast experience in this, and many retired former high-ranking ATF agents on staff. They help dealers navigate the law and avoid mistakes.”
What about the firearm in question? Many gun collectors wanted to own the rifle.
“We had been offered $5,000 for that rifle,” MacKinlay said. “Instead, we donated it to ATOA (Arizona Tactical Officers Association) for a fund-raising raffle. I heard ATOA got thousands of emails from people wanting to buy that gun. It was won by a SWAT team member on the Scottsdale Police Department. We also donated the price of the rifle, $1,295, to the NRA’s Eddie Eagle GunSafe Program, which teaches firearms safety to young children.”
MacKinlay cannot assess the effect his decision had on his business. The incident occurred during the mad buying rush of first quarter 2013, when customers were desperate for product on the one hand, and dealers were desperately short of product on the other.
But there can be no doubt that Diamondback Police Supply’s customer base remains convinced that MacKinlay and his company did the right thing.
By Massad Ayoob
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