RICHMOND — One of Virginia’s top gun-rights lobbyists drew criticism from his own supporters Monday after he was duped into promoting guns for children as young as 3 and hawking toys such as a teddy bear with a concealed pistol on a television show.
Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, was among numerous public figures pranked by Sacha Baron Cohen on his new series “Who Is America?” The creator of Borat and Ali G, characters who conduct outrageous interviews with unsuspecting politicians, burned up social media on Sunday with footage of current and former members of Congress speaking enthusiastically of arming children.
But no one went further than Van Cleave, who appeared with Cohen — who was disguised as an Israeli security expert named Col. Erran Morad — in a Nickelodeon-style segment called “Kinderguardians.”
Holding a “Puppy Pistol” toy, which looks like a pistol inserted into a stuffed dog, Van Cleave explains how to load an ammunition clip: “To feed him, take his lunch box and push it into his tummy like this. Just remember to point Puppy Pistol’s mouth right at the middle of the bad man. If he has a big fat tummy, point at that.”
That’s one of several “Gunimals” toys that Van Cleave and the stone-faced Cohen tout for youngsters, along with “Gunny Rabbit” — “He’s ready to put the naughty man on a very long timeout,” Van Cleave says — and “Dino-gun,” which, Van Cleave warns, “eats and spits his candy really, really fast.”
Van Cleave holds a pink teddy bear called BFF — for Best Firearm Forever — which contains a handgun with a string attached to the trigger. “Pull the string on a bad guy,” Van Cleave says. “Make bang bang.”
Cohen’s character advocates arming kids as young as 3, and Van Cleave doesn’t disagree.
Van Cleave and the VCDL did not respond to requests for comment Monday. Formed in 1994, the organization has donated nearly $100,000 to Virginia candidates over the past 15 years. It holds an annual rally during General Assembly sessions — Van Cleave led the event this year to promote concealed-carry laws and testified against a proposed ban on bump stocks, devices that make guns fire faster.
On the VCDL Facebook page, the group posted a long letter that it said Van Cleave had distributed in February, immediately after the segment was filmed. The letter says that Van Cleave realized “something wasn’t right,” but that producers of the film had used “luxury accommodations, limousine service” and a “generous monetary allowance . . . to reel me in and to try to make me feel beholden to them.”
Once on the set, “they use psychological manipulation, as well as lies and tricks to put their victim into comedic situations that subject them to public shame,” he wrote, according to the letter on the VCDL Facebook page.
He said he began to get suspicious only five minutes into the interview when the “Israeli” host insisted that schools in that country train children as young as age 4 to use guns. Although Van Cleave said in the letter that he “balked” at that, the video shows him appearing to sympathize with the suggestion.
At one point, Van Cleave complains that Virginia’s General Assembly considered a bill this year that would have prohibited children as young as 4 from handling guns. When Cohen’s character expresses indignation, Van Cleave reassures him: “We killed the bill.”
In the letter, Van Cleave says he wants to sound the alarm to prevent others from being duped by the mysterious filmmakers. While it could just be “a comedy which would only play in Israel,” he said in the letter, it could also be a stunt by filmmaker Michael Moore “or, even worse, a Sacha Baron Cohen-esq ‘Borat’-type of shock comedy meant to be devastatingly embarrassing.”
After the first episode of “Who Is America?” made the rounds online Sunday and then aired on Showtime, Virginia politicians were quick to distance themselves from Van Cleave.
“I grew up in and now represent a community where people care a lot about their gun rights, but the idea of arming children is ridiculous,” said state Sen. Jill Vogel (R-Fauquier), who received $16,000 last year from Van Cleave’s group in her unsuccessful bid for lieutenant governor.
“What a buffoon,” said state Sen. Bryce Reeves (R-Spotsylvania), who received $5,000 from the group for his 2015 Senate bid. “Apparently common sense wasn’t issued with his concealed-carry permit. Come on, dude, really?”
One of the legislature’s staunchest supporters of gun rights, Reeves said the episode will hurt Van Cleave’s image but won’t discredit the VCDL.
Hunting traditions and the gun lobby loom large in Virginia, which boasts both rural expanses and the National Rifle Association headquarters. Gun-control advocates have been unable to get much traction in Richmond, even in the wake of a massacre in 2007 that left 32 victims dead at Virginia Tech. Guns are allowed inside the state Capitol and even in the gallery of the House of Delegates.
On the VCDL Facebook page, the Van Cleave letter had drawn scores of scathing comments from followers.
“How can one be so naive? This was the most ridiculous thing I’ve seen in a long time, and leadership fell for it hook line & sinker,” one follower wrote.
A few came to Van Cleave’s defense. “The point of this attack is to humiliate and shame the 2nd Amendment supporters,” one follower wrote. “It’s a massive confidence scheme. It’s fraudulent and unethical. . . . Stop feeling embarrassed.”
One political figure familiar with both the Virginia Citizens Defense League and the use of publicity stunts dismissed the whole folderol. Corey Stewart, the Republican nominee trying to unseat Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), put the blame on Sacha Baron Cohen.
“I think it’s just disgusting and we shouldn’t pay him [Cohen] any attention,” said Stewart, who received $11,000 from the VCDL last year in his failed bid for the GOP nomination for governor. He said he had not watched the video.