Silicon Valley Libertarians Cling to Their Guns: “Gun Control is Technology Control”
Gene Hoffman is standing in the middle of his sunny corner office in Belmont, California, and he’s showing me his AR-15.
If California State Senator Leland Yee had his way, Hoffman could get arrested for this. In 1989, the California legislature passed a law banning semi-automatic rifles like the AR-15 on the basis of a combination of features such as pistol grips and telescoping lenses. But Hoffman and some other gun enthusiasts scrutinized state regulations and found a way around the legal code in 2007 by creating a button that fixes magazines in place. That theoretically renders a rifle legal because its magazine could then not be detached without using a tool, as required by state law. Gun owners could still rapidly reload with this button in place, because all they have to do is poke it with the tip of a bullet to unlock empty magazines. Last year, Yee floated a bill that would add button-equipped guns to a list of banned weapons.
So when I asked Hoffman to explain the device — a controversial add-on called the “bullet button” — he didn’t have to close his office door before pulling the seven-pound Lauer LCW-15, unloaded, from a large rectangular case on the floor. He did anyway — “Just so I don’t alarm anyone,” he said.
Hoffman, an affable Silicon Valley entrepreneur, speaks rapidly and logically, and his hands whiz expertly around the weapon as he attaches the lower receiver into the rest of the gun. At 38, he is the CEO of Vindicia, a digital subscription payments processing firm. But he’s also chairman of the non-profit Calguns Foundation, which is part of a national network of gun-rights activists that are defending Second Amendment rights in court and fighting legislative battles in statehouses.
At first, this does not compute. In the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy in Newtown, Conn., gun control is emerging as a presidential priority. This push could be a successful one for progressives — perhaps one of the last battles of the culture wars. Silicon Valley money filled President Barack Obama’s campaign coffers last year. San Francisco is an epicenter for progressive social causes, and there’s an effort there to bring technology types into the gun control fight on the side of increased regulation . Yet here’s Hoffman, in the offices of his tech company, describing Second Amendment issues in libertarian terms of a piece with copyright and encryption. His allies have been scoring incremental victories against gun control for years. Meanwhile, people who say they’re for gun control are not giving as much money, not engaging as much with their lawmakers, and generally not taking as much action to push for new gun control legislation, according to a recent report from the Sunlight Foundation and a survey from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.
I am in Hoffman’s office to understand how he, and Calguns, have come to sit at the center of a network of activists that are baffling efforts to roll back the nation’s gun culture and stem the spread of deadly assault weapons. Here is what I found out.