By CHRIS POTTER | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

PITTSBURGH (AP) — No one has ever accused Kim Stolfer of bringing a knife to a gunfight.

His sidearm of choice, in fact, is a Kimber Ultra CPD II, a .45 automatic. “I'm one of those guys who thinks a self-defense handgun isn't effective unless it starts with a `4',” said Stolfer, of McDonald.

That's not the only source of his firepower: He's the president of Firearm Owners Against Crime, a gun-rights political action committee whose statewide influence arguably ranks alongside that of the National Rifle Association.

“I call FOAC the Praetorian Guard of the Second Amendment,” said state Rep. Rick Saccone, R-Elizabeth, one of the group's chief allies. Stolfer, he said, is “one of the best-kept secrets in the Second Amendment arsenal,” and helped pass some of the state's most hotly contested gun laws.

While gun-control activists often accuse the NRA of going too far, Stolfer represents a movement that sometimes pushes even further than the NRA wants to go. And even his critics acknowledge the effectiveness of his movement.

“You've got to be impressed by what gun advocates have accomplished,” said state Rep. Dan Frankel, a Squirrel Hill Democrat who opposes much of Stolfer's agenda. “It ought to be a lesson to those of us who support progressive causes.”

Some gun-control advocates say that Stolfer's Second Amendment absolutism risks backfiring. But if such warnings give Stolfer pause, it's only to reload.

“In the Marine Corps,” he said, “I was taught to never allow your opponent a safe haven.”

‘I call Kim Stolfer’

It's not that Stolfer, 60, grew up with guns. Raised in Carnegie, he was more interested in football and other sports. “Most of my time spent around guns was at Kennywood,” he said.

But Stolfer enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1972, where he was a helicopter mechanic and then a crew chief. He saw enough of Vietnam, he said, to determine that “we were failing in our commitments to that country. It's the same thing that happened in Iraq.”

After returning to civilian life in 1976, he worked as a mechanic for a car dealership and, later, for the Postal Service. “I liked the idea of a definite type of retirement,” said Stolfer, who retired five years ago.

But by the early 1980s, Stolfer “had an epiphany that the country was going down the wrong road,” a concern that coincided with a growing interest in firearms.

He co-founded Firearm Owners Against Crime in 1994, shortly after gun enthusiasts failed to prevent the city of Pittsburgh from passing a ban on assault weapons.

The goal, Stolfer said, was “to educate legislators about these issues.”

FOAC is resolutely grass-roots, said Paul Fedorka, one of Stolfer's closest friends and allies. “We drive to Harrisburg on our own time. We don't want to spend time soliciting money: We want to spend it going out and shooting.”

Unlike many political committees, FOAC contributes little money to politicians, less than $15,000 since 2010, and has no paid lobbyists. Stolfer is a volunteer, though he is reimbursed for expenses incurred by traveling to speak with legislators and gun owners.

(In those travels, Stolfer said, he's only once needed to take more direct action against crime, and it didn't require the firearm worn on his hip. A would-be mugger approached, just across the street from the state Capitol building, eyeing Stolfer's laptop. “I was a bigger guy then,” Stolfer recalled. “When he walked into me, it was a bad experience for him.”)

Stolfer said the group has 1,700 core members who help raise money and lobby politicians. It reaches another 78,000 people through mailing lists.

FOAC's allies laud its grass-roots intensity, and Stolfer's expertise.

“I love that guy,” said state Rep. Jeff Pyle, R-Ford City. “I helped push Castle Doctrine,” a 2011 measure expanding a gun owner's ability to shoot in self-defense, “and he was there every step of the way.”

While the NRA and FOAC “hew to the same issues,” said Pyle, “FOAC guys will come out to Harrisburg and work the doors (of legislators' offices). The NRA doesn't have that.”

Stolfer “has a lot of influence with legislators,” said Saccone. “He's helped write a lot of these laws, and he knows more about Pennsylvania gun law than anyone in the state.”

Stolfer, who attended North Carolina State University for a time but didn't graduate, said his expertise is “all self-taught,” with help from friends who are lawyers.

But even law enforcement sometimes defers to Stolfer's expertise.

“The county solicitor and sheriff's solicitor are both very capable and intelligent,” said Butler County Sheriff Mike Slupe. “But on firearms law, I call Kim Stolfer.”

Over a barrel

Not everyone is as impressed. Stolfer “is a true believer in his cause, but his dedication is overshadowed by his bullying tactics,” said CeaseFire PA executive director Shira Goodman, whose organization is the state's leading gun-control advocacy group.

That accusation stems in no small part from FOAC's support for a controversial state gun law. Act 192 of 2014 allows groups like FOAC to sue municipalities over gun ordinances like Pittsburgh's assault-gun ban _ and to collect legal fees from the governments if a court rules that the ordinances are invalid. The NRA has sued Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Lancaster; FOAC has filed a suit against the city of Harrisburg.

“People in cities face the consequences of people being able to get these guns,” said state Senator Daylin Leach, a Montgomery County Democrat spearheading a lawsuit challenging Act 192. “I don't know why folks in more rural areas oppose (local gun rules), when they wouldn't come to Philadelphia on a bet.”

Stolfer points out that state law has barred local officials from passing gun ordinances since the early 1970s. The real bullies, he said, are those who seek to use, or bend, the law to restrict gun rights.

“There are law-abiding people who lose their jobs or go to jail for this,” he said.

But FOAC's legislative agenda has moved well beyond Act 192. It now includes this year's House Bill 230, which would allow Pennsylvanians to carry a concealed firearm without the license currently required by law. Another priority is the Firearms Freedom Act, which purports to bar federal regulations from applying to firearms manufactured and sold within Pennsylvania.

Such measures can exceed even the NRA's comfort level. In 2009, as other states weighed Firearms Freedom bills, the NRA issued a statement asserting that such legislation “faces major obstacles.” Anyone making firearms commercially without obeying federal law “is likely to be prosecuted,” the NRA added. “(N)o one who puts himself in that situation should expect support from the NRA.”

“For people in Kim's group, (gun rights) is probably their single issue,” said Goodman. “They can call and write every day about it.” By contrast, gun-control backers “have a lot of issues they care about, and I can't ask somebody, `Don't write about immigration.”'

“Gun politics is the classic case where an intense minority is better than a lukewarm majority,” said Matthew Grossman, a Michigan State University associate professor of political science who has studied the movement.

Grossman noted, however, that some surveys suggest the rate of American gun ownership is ebbing. “While there are more guns owned and sold,” he said, “they are being sold to a smaller number of people.”

Such trends trouble Fedorka. Gun-control advocates “are very patient,” he said. “If people like Kim and I go by the wayside and no one steps into our shoes, they'll be ready.”

Decades of gun-rights advocacy may be having an effect, however. In the late 1990s, polling from the Pew Research Center suggests, two-thirds of Americans said it was more important to control gun ownership than to protect gun rights; by late 2014, more than half said gun rights were more important.

Stolfer, for one, won't be laying down arms anytime soon.

“This isn't about guns,” he said. “It's about freedom.”

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Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, http://www.post-gazette.com