WASHINGTON -- Montana gunsmith Dan Cooper has been ousted as chief executive of the rifle company that bears his name after pressure from gun owners who are angry that he is supporting Democrat Barack Obama.
Cooper, founder and part owner of Cooper Firearms, told USA TODAY in a story published Tuesday that he has voted for Republicans for most of his life, but he is backing Obama "probably because of the war. And also because the Republican Party has moved so far right in recent years." Cooper said he was attracted to the Democrat's message about "the retooling of America, which involves the building of middle-class jobs and helping American small business be competitive with those overseas."
Cooper contributed $3,300 to Obama's presidential campaign, according to election records complied by the non-partisan CQ MoneyLine.
The USA TODAY article sparked outrage from some gun owners and bloggers, including an open letter on a blog called Firearms and Freedom, urging people to boycott the company's products. Many gun enthusiasts believe Obama will try to restrict their right to bear arms, although he has said he respects the Second Amendment.
In a portion of the interview that was not included in Tuesday's story, Cooper said, "I don't believe that what's being said about Obama and his policies about guns are accurate. I have had a conversation with the senator … he is a stanch supporter of the right to hunt and the right to bear arms."
The company posted a statement Wednesday night on its website that said:
"The employees, shareholders and board of directors of Cooper Firearms of Montana do not share the personal political views of Dan Cooper. Although we all believe everyone has a right to vote and donate as they see fit, it has become apparent that the fallout may affect more than just Mr. Cooper. It may also affect the employees and the shareholders of Cooper Firearms. The board of directors has asked Mr. Cooper to resign as President."
Cooper Firearms employs 38 people, Cooper said Monday. Cooper started the company with two partners in 1990. It manufactures wood-stock bolt-action hunting rifles that start at around $1,600. In October 1992, Cooper presented a rifle to then-President George H.W. Bush at a Montana campaign event.
In a statement Thursday to USA TODAY, Cooper said, "There is nothing on this earth I will not do for my employees … we have fought through 20 years of building what I believe to be the finest rifles built in America …When the internet anger turned on these innocent people, I felt it was important to distance myself from the company so as not to cause any further harm."
He said he had resigned the company. He did not address whether he will maintain an ownership stake — except to say, "stronger measures may be forthcoming."
"It's a really McCarthyism at its worst," said Bob Ricker, executive director of the American Hunters and Shooters Association, which has endorsed Obama. "That's really why our organization was formed, was to deal with this craziness. If you're a gun owner, but you have a contrary view to some of these wackos, they will go out and try to destroy you."
Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat, said in a phone interview that he was disturbed by the backlash against Cooper.
"It's the silly season," Schweitzer said. "There are people who have partisan interests here, and they are using the gun issue. Three weeks from now these bloggers are going to wake up, look under their bed and see that their gun is still there."
The governor, who once described himself as a "gun-toting. .. kind of Democrat," said he is a "big supporter of Cooper Arms."
"I'll go anywhere in the country to help them sell their product," he said.
Representatives for the campaigns of Obama and Republican John McCain did not respond to requests for comment.
Some gun bloggers, such as one who blogs on snowflakesinhell.com, had posted the company's e-mail address and telephone number, encouraging gun owners to boycott Cooper Firearms the company and contact its top executives.
"This needs to get around," wrote the blogger who identifies himself only as "Sebastian, a thirty something, self professed 'gun nut' living somewhere in Pennsylvania." He added: "Gun owners need to know which companies sell their interests down the river. Here's contact info for Cooper Firearms. I would talk to them, and be sure they know Obama's record, why you're not voting for him, and why you'll never buy one of their products."
The company said in a statement to USA TODAY that it had received more than a thousand emails over the controversy.
When the USA TODAY story was first published, Cooper Firearms posted a statement saying that Dan Cooper had only given money to Obama in order to "to help defeat Hillary Clinton" in the Democratic primaries and to protest the shifting of American jobs overseas. The statement said Cooper had then given money to the McCain and the Republican National Committee. Election records show no Cooper donations to McCain or the RNC, and the statement was later taken down.
Last year, a similar outpouring of outrage derailed the career of Wyoming outdoorsman Jim Zumbo after he denounced the use of assault rifles for hunting. Zumbo was a staff writer for Outdoor Life magazine and the host of a television show on the Outdoor Channel.
"Excuse me, maybe I'm a traditionalist, but I see no place for these weapons among our hunting fraternity," Zumbo wrote in his blog on outdoorlife.com. "I'll go so far as to call them 'terrorist' rifles."
"Within a few days, I was radioactive in the industry," Zumbo writes on his website, jimzumbo.com. The magazine "asked me for my resignation, and I was suddenly without employment. I was done writing, and my TV show was on hiatus. Many of the companies that supported me in the past issued severance statements with me on their websites, as did shooting and firearms organizations," including the National Rifle Association.
Zumbo was able to save his career by publicly embracing assault rifles. He wrote a mea culpa entitled, "I was wrong, big time." And he "went on to work with the Second Amendment Foundation … and attended a three-day assault rifle course, which I immensely enjoyed," he writes on his website.
"It's very simple supporting the second amendment is like being pregnant. Either you do or you don't,," said Jim Shepherd, who publishes the Outdoor Wire and other newsletters. "Is it right? It just is. It's the way it works. It's absolutism. Dan Cooper laughed at his customers. If that company does not take Cooper out of its name, they're dead."
Andrew Arulanandam, spokesman for the National Rifle Association, said the Cooper Firearms controversy is "an indication of how voters and gun owners feel about Barack Obama. He has a lifetime record of opposing their rights."
Obama has been trying to assure voters otherwise.
Earlier this month in Lebanon, Ohio, he said, "I believe in the Second Amendment. I believe in people's lawful right to bear arms. I will not take your shotgun away. I will not take your rifle away. I won't take your handgun away."