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There's Something About Mary: Unmasking a Gun Lobby Mole

Mary McFate was a prominent gun control activist. Mary Lou Sapone was a freelance spy with an NRA connection. They are the same person. A Mother Jones investigation.

| Wed Jul. 30, 2008 2:00 AM EDT

This is the story of two Marys. Both are in their early 60s, heavyset, with curly reddish hair. But for years they have worked on opposite ends of the same issues. Mary McFate is an advocate of environmental causes and a prominent activist within the gun control movement. For more than a decade, she volunteered for various gun violence prevention organizations, serving on the boards of anti-gun outfits, helping state groups coordinate their activities, lobbying in Washington for gun control legislation, and regularly attending strategy and organizing meetings.

Mary Lou Sapone, by contrast, is a self-described "research consultant," who for decades has covertly infiltrated citizens groups for private security firms hired by corporations that are targeted by activist campaigns. For some time, Sapone also worked for the National Rifle Association.

But these two Marys share a lot in common—a Mother Jones investigation has found that McFate and Sapone are, in fact, the same person. And this discovery has caused the leaders of gun violence prevention organizations to conclude that for years they have been penetrated—at the highest levels—by the NRA or other pro-gun parties. "It raises the question," says Paul Helmke, the president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, "of what did she find out and what did they want her to find out."

Using her maiden name, McFate, Sapone began posing as a gun control activist in the mid-1990s. Bryan Miller, the executive director of Ceasefire New Jersey, a grassroots gun control group, recalls first meeting her in the summer of 1998. The NRA was holding its annual convention in downtown Philadelphia, and the event drew the usual bevy of protesters. Among them was a middle-aged woman then living in Pennsylvania who made a point of introducing herself to Miller. In the following years, Miller would remember this encounter well, as he watched McFate rise from a street protester to a figure known nationally within his movement. She became a leader of Pennsylvanians Against Handgun Violence and later a board member of Ceasefire Pennsylvania. According to staffers at several gun violence prevention groups, she worked on the Million Mom March in 2000, when hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated in Washington, DC, to demand stricter gun laws. She joined the board of Freedom States Alliance, a network of nine state-based gun control organizations. At States United to Prevent Gun Violence, a nationwide coalition of anti-gun groups, she was the director of federal legislation, an unpaid position that placed her in charge of the outfit's lobbying efforts in Washington. In that role, she collaborated with national organizations including the Brady Campaign and the Violence Policy Center.

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In 2005, McFate ran for a board position at the Brady Campaign, which would have placed her in the inner sanctum of the nation's most prominent gun control group. On her ballot statement, she described herself as a "community activist and motivational speaker," "a former presidential scholar," and a recipient of the "Public Service Council's Community Champion Award in 1999." And she pitched her credentials for the position: "I believe my volunteerism over 30 years to nonprofit organizations with disparate program goals has given me practical insights on what strategies are most effective…My experience with broad coalitions working together for societal change has proven to me that our organization is on the right track to make our neighborhoods safer and to give our children their full life potential."

McFate lost the election, but she did not give up. Several months ago, she told Paul Helmke that she was interested in an appointed board position for the Brady Campaign. (Helmke recalls that he was concerned about placing her on his board because she was already deeply connected to other groups. "I didn't push the idea," he says.) In 2007, she attended a summit convened by the International Association of Chiefs of Police that aimed to develop a strategy for reducing gun violence. As an advocate working with both state and national groups, she was privy to the gun control movement's community's internal deliberations and in a position to know what was happening throughout the movement. "She's been active in everything and involved in every single major gun violence prevention organization," says Barbara Hohlt, executive director of States United to Prevent Gun Violence.

Despite her supposed commitment to the cause, her friends and colleagues in the gun control community considered McFate something of a curiosity. Among other things, she had a tendency to drop in and out of contact, explaining away her absences by saying she had been vacationing aboard luxury cruise liners. When the Brady Campaign's communications director, Paul Hamm, occasionally asked her to talk to the media about gun issues, she adamantly refused. "I would say, 'Please, Mary.' She would say, 'No, no, no, I don't want to.'"

Looking back, gun control advocates who worked with McFate can now see what might have been faint warning signs. A few weeks ago, Hohlt says, she had what she considered an odd encounter with McFate when the pair was making preparations to take part in a conference call with other gun control advocates. Rather than face a long-distance charge for the call, McFate, who lives in Florida but was in New York City at the time, insisted on dropping by the offices of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence to participate in the discussion. Given that McFate appeared to be well off financially—she was always offering to travel to meetings and conferences, including NRA conferences, with no concern for cost—Hohlt couldn't understand why she was demanding to come to this office for the call just to save a few bucks. Nor could she fathom why McFate often pushed to share a hotel room with other gun control advocates at conferences and events when she seemed able to afford accommodations of her own. Hohlt also thought it unusual that McFate served on the boards of several organizations simultaneously, since there was, as Hohlt puts it, "a certain amount of competition between all the groups." But she never doubted McFate's devotion to gun control.

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