Updated at: 04/19/2013 9:05 AM
By NICHOLAS RICCARDI
(AP) DENVER - Gaspar Perricone got a child-size .22-caliber rifle for his first birthday. In high school, he went duck hunting before class and stowed his shotgun in his pickup. Then he went to work for a Democratic U.S. senator and formed a group to promote hunting and fishing issues. Now he has landed in the wide-open space between the two poles in the national gun debate.
The group Perricone co-founded with another former aide to Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado, The Bull Moose Sportsmen’s Alliance, took the unusual step this month of releasing a poll that showed wide support among hunters for universal background checks. Most public polls have shown about 90 percent of all voters support such a measure. Perricone followed up with a piece in the Washington-based publication Politico arguing for such a plan. And he met with President Barack Obama during the Democrat’s trip to Denver this month to promote Colorado’s state-level gun-control initiatives.
"We are pro-gun, there’s no two ways about that," Perricone, 29, said recently in an interview, stressing that his group opposes bans on assault weapons or high-capacity magazines. "But we’re also mothers and fathers. ... We don’t want to see another Newtown."
As is often the case in politics, the loudest voices in the gun-control debate that resurfaced after the massacre in December at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., have come from the opposite ends of the ideological spectrum.
The National Rifle Association and other gun-rights groups have strongly objected to the White House’s gun-control package, and pressure from them led to the defeat of a series of Senate measures this week. Gun-control groups have countered with the body counts from Sandy Hook, the elementary school in Newtown, Conn., where 20 children and six adults were killed after the gunman killed his own mother, and Aurora, Colo., where 12 people died in a movie theater shooting in July.
In the middle are groups like Bull Moose, which says its membership includes about 5,000 hunters and anglers across the country. Before Sandy Hook, the group’s main foray into Second Amendment issues was to support federal legislation that made it easier for the government to help fund shooting ranges.
Dave Workman, editor of The GunMag, has worked for hunting and gun-rights publications for decades, and he distinguishes between hunters and strong gun-rights activists. "A lot of hunters are not really political animals," Workman said. "They just want to go out and kill a deer, shoot a duck or whatever."
But Workman said increasing numbers of hunters are alarmed at new gun-control proposals and are becoming more active in the fight for firearms rights. "You have a crossover bunch, and it’s growing," he said.
Jonathan Cooper, a former director of South Dakota’s Department of Game, Fish and Parks, said that most hunters he knows worry about gun violence and favor regulations that are frowned upon by groups like the NRA. The issue came up at a recent dinner of a duck-hunting group in Pierre, S.D.
"Those guys said, `If there’s a chance that we can do something to stop another Sandy Hook from happening, it is our responsibility as sportsmen,’" said Cooper, a gun collector and former firearms dealer. "That’s where we start to get out from underneath the porch, in the mind of some of those NRA people, and they think you’re a dirty, rotten communist."
As the White House has pushed to expand gun restrictions after Sandy Hook, it has reached out to gun enthusiasts like Cooper and Perricone, both of whom met with Vice President Joe Biden’s task force on gun violence. "As responsible gun owners, we just thought it was important for us to be part of that conversation," said Tim Mauck, Bull Moose’s other co-director and a county commissioner in rural Clear Creek County, west of Denver.
Individual sporting groups historically have stayed relatively quiet on firearms issues, deferring to shooting organizations like the NRA. One vivid example of why came in January, when a Pennsylvania gun show announced it would not sell assault rifles in the wake of the Newtown shooting. The NRA helped organize a boycott that led to organizers canceling the show.
American Wildlife Conservation Partners, a coalition of 42 outdoor-oriented groups that includes the NRA and many hunters organizations, sent a letter this month to senators warning against "unnecessary restrictions of our ability to attain and possess legal firearms." It supported increased school security and mental health screening but was silent on firearms restrictions or universal background checks.
Perricone and Mauck founded Bull Moose in February 2010. Within months, its political wing spent $117,000 to help Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet in Colorado fend off a Republican challenger in November, according to federal campaign finance reports. The group spent $17,000 helping Democrat Martin Heinrich win a Senate seat in New Mexico last year. The organization raised $354,000 in 2011, according to its most recently available tax returns.
Some gun enthusiasts have speculated that Bull Moose is simply a well-funded outfit that pretends to represent grass roots while pushing an agenda favored by its financial backers. Perricone says Bull Moose’s money has come in the form of donations from members and other conservation or outdoors groups. He said the group has endorsed Republicans as well as Democrats, even though it has only spent on Democratic campaigns.
In an interview in a Denver coffee shop, Perricone, who also sits on Colorado’s Parks and Wildlife Commission, spent more time worrying about overzealous gun-control efforts than discussing tighter restrictions on firearms. He said that when he and others met with Obama during the president’s Colorado swing, he went out of his way to remind Obama that many people like him have only had positive associations with guns.
Bull Moose did not get involved in the high-profile debate in the Colorado Legislature over firearms. The state’s Democratic governor last month signed bills requiring universal background checks and banning high-capacity gun magazines, leading to boycotts by some hunting groups. Perricone said Bull Moose focuses on federal issues. He noted that Colorado required background checks at gun shows after the 1999 Columbine High School massacre and said that hasn’t slowed his collection of more than two dozen guns.
Perricone said one of his greatest fears is that any sensible gun restrictions are blocked, and then another tragedy like Sandy Hook sparks calls for more severe regulations. "I don’t want to see the nation get to the point where they feel nobody should have guns," he said.
Follow Nicholas Riccardi on Twitter at https://twitter.com/NickRiccardi.
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)