Members of Va. gun rights group call for leader’s resignation after he was tricked into recording training video for toddlers

Sasha Baron Cohen convinced Virginia Citizens Defense League President Philip Van Cleave to appear in a video teaching toddlers how to use guns. Van Cleave's group has donated more than $100,000 to state politicians.

Philip Van Cleave says he suspected he was being set up just five minutes into a multi-hour interview earlier this year with a supposed Israeli anti-terrorism expert.

But the president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, the state’s top gun advocacy group, said he pressed on, ultimately agreeing to record a firearms-training video for toddlers in which he explains how to use a “puppy pistol” to make bad guys take “long naps.”

His goal, he said in a recent Facebook post, was to find out who was really behind the interview and warn other gun activists who might be targeted.

“They use psychological manipulation, as well as lies and tricks to put their victim into comedic situations that subject them to public shame, embarrassment and ridicule. I believe the intent is to destroy reputations and even lives,” he wrote.

This week, Van Cleave found out along with the rest of the country that the security expert was Sasha Baron Cohen, of “Borat” fame, and his interview with Van Cleave figures prominently in the Sunday premier of the comedian’s new Showtime series, “Who is America?” Other, more prominent, marks include Dick Cheney, Sarah Palin and a handful of sitting congressmen.

Some members of the Virginia Citizen’s Defense League aren’t buying Van Cleave’s explanation.
“I’m a VCDL member but Phillip if you are so damn dumb to fall into this trap I think you need to find a new gig. Just how could you do more harm to the Second Amendment and Virginia gun rights,” wrote Howard Cook on VCDL’s Facebook page.

“I’m not sure I feel comfortable renewing my membership in a couple months without a more serious response from leadership, possibly including Phil stepping down,” wrote Michael J. Banning.

“How are we gonna just gonna be mad at the leftist media when our own guy walked into this one? This is hilariously terrible,” wrote Khoa Pham.

Other members were more forgiving. “As a supporter…I trust you received the VCDL email about this weeks ago explaining how he was duped and why he stayed. Your self-inflated ego comments are rather lame. Go start your own organization and do better. Who needs friends like you?” wrote Wayne Smith.

Van Cleave did not respond to an email seeking comment. In his Facebook post, which says it’s the text of a February email he wrote warning others, he wrote that by getting the word out, he was able to save others similar embarrassment.

“In the end we played each other and I confirmed what I feared this was all about” Van Cleave said. “Sadly for me, I’m sure I’m going to be in whatever crazy film finally comes out, looking really stupid.”

Van Cleave is no stranger to controversy. Two days after the 2013 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, he made national news when he compared the assault rifle used in the attack to driving a Ferrari – both are just fun, he said.

More recently he made national news when he sued Katie Couric, accusing her of making him and other gun rights activists look like idiots through deceptive editing that made it appear they could not answer a basic question about background checks.

A judge dismissed the case, a ruling VCDL is currently appealing.

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Ned Oliver
Ned, a Lexington native, has a decade’s worth of experience in journalism, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He also has the awards to show for it, including taking a pair of first-place honors at the Virginia Press Association awards earlier this year for investigative reporting and feature writing. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass.