The NRA has its opponents outgunned but suddenly finds itself in a shooting match with fellow conservatives.
In a ritual as predictable as hunting season, it’s another election year and people are once again gunning for the National Rifle Association. Only this time the powerful gun-rights group and bête noire of the left is taking friendly fire — from activists on the right who are growing increasingly impatient with the NRA for taking stands at odds with the rest of the conservative movement.
“I’m beside myself,” veteran conservative leader Richard Viguerie told TAS. “It’s really sad. The NRA’s leadership has become part of the problem in Washington.” While Viguerie’s tone is more in sorrow than in anger, Erick Erickson of the popular conservative blog RedState has emerged as scathing critic of the NRA, calling it “a weak little girl of an organization.”
“There are few organizations purportedly on the side of freedom that aggravate me more than the National Rifle Association,” Erickson wrote in June. “In fact, these days I cringe when I see good conservatives with their lifetime member sticker from the NRA on the back of their cars.” During the confirmation process for Elena Kagan, Curt Levey of the Committee for Justice complained to the Washington Times, “The NRA has misunderstood what the fight is about.”
What irks these conservatives is the sense that the mighty NRA — a 4 million-member, $307 million organization — has become too pragmatic in the use of its power: too willing to compromise with Democrats, too cautious in its approach to Second Amendment litigation, too slow to oppose liberal judicial nominees, and too willing to settle for a place at the table in liberal-occupied Washington.
AT FIRST THE GRUMBLING was muted. Why didn’t the NRA oppose Eric Holder for attorney general? Why did it take so long to come out against President Obama’s Supreme Court nominees? Then an issue not directly related to guns brought conservative discontent out into the open. In June, Congress was debating a campaign-finance reform bill called the Disclose Act, which imposed disclosure requirements so onerous that many nonprofits and activist groups felt it would prevent them from engaging in any effective campaign season political activity whatsoever.
House Democratic leaders granted the NRA and a handful of other groups a carefully crafted exemption from the Disclose Act’s requirements, causing the gun-rights group to drop its opposition to the bill entirely. This freed up additional Blue Dog Democrats, fearful of alienating the NRA so close to an election, to vote for it. The bill ultimately passed the House, though at this writing it remains stalled in the Senate.
Conservative reaction to the carve-out was fast and furious. Spokesmen for economic, social, and national-security groups still battered by the Disclose Act complained they were being “thrown under the bus.” The Wall Street Journal blasted the NRA for being “arrogant and hypocritical” in an editorial headlined, “The NRA sells out to Democrats on the First Amendment.” The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other groups tried to dissuade the NRA from accepting the Democrats’ offer, which Chamber spokesmen Bruce Josten told Politico “undercut not only our [position] but another 100,000 other nonprofits.”
NRA board member Cleta Mitchell took the unprecedented step of penning an op-ed for the Washington Post dissenting from this decision, though her most direct criticisms were of the House Democrats. “This is not just ‘disclosure.’ It is a scheme hatched by political insiders to eradicate disfavored speech,” Mitchell wrote. “There is no room under the First Amendment for Congress to make deals on political speech, whether with the NRA or anyone else.”
Alan Gura, a Second Amendment lawyer with a history of clashes with the NRA, asked TAS, “Would they trade a hereditary monarchy with the Obama administration in exchange for better gun laws?” Says Viguerie, “This is not ‘all for one.’ This is ‘all for ourselves.’” Erickson mocked the Disclose deal by reproducing an NRA press release in which Wayne LaPierre called the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision “a defeat for arrogant elitists who wanted to carve out free speech as a privilege for themselves and deny it to the rest of us.”
CRITICISM OF THE NRA from other, smaller gun-rights groups is nothing new. These organizations have long felt more combative tactics were needed to protect the Second Amendment. Larry Pratt, the longtime executive director of Gun Owners of America, told TAS that the NRA “is resigned to working within the system as it is when instead it needs to be restored to what it should be.” Aaron Zelman of Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership agreed. “Our members, many of whom are former NRA members, believe the NRA doesn’t want the problem of gun control to go away,” Zelman says. “If the problem goes away, then so do their six-figure salaries.”
What is new is public criticism of the NRA from other organizations in the conservative movement. “We’ve talked a lot about what the NRA is doing,” says one conservative activist. “But not a lot of us have wanted to come out and attack them.” That changed when conservatives ranging from the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins to climate change skeptic Myron Ebell expressed their unhappiness with the NRA’s behavior concerning the Disclose Act. House Minority Leader John Boehner was particularly blunt.
“Now the NRA are the big defenders of the Second Amendment of the Constitution, the right to bear arms,” the Ohio Republican said in a House floor speech after the gun lobby backed the Disclose Act. “But yet they think it’s all right to throw everybody else under the table so they can get a special deal, while requiring everyone else to comply with all the rules outlined in this bill, and frankly, I think it’s disappointing.”
Endorsements have also become a point of contention. Last year, liberal Republican Dede Scozzafava-the liberal Republican who eventually dropped out and endorsed the Democratic candidate-was the NRA endorsee in the special election for New York’s 23rd Congressional District. This year, in one of the most closely watched gubernatorial races in the country, the NRA endorsed Ohio’s Democratic governor Ted Strickland over Republican former congressman John Kasich. A Republican pickup in the Buckeye State would greatly help the GOP’s national fortunes and would be an important bellwether for 2012.
The NRA also threw its support behind Sen. John McCain in Arizona as he was trying to fend off a conservative primary challenge from former Congressman J. D. Hayworth. Both Republicans had generally pro-gun voting records, but there were glaring blemishes on McCain’s. McCain led the charge to close the so-called “gun show loophole,” touting legislation that would have effectively banned private sales at gun shows and licensed promoters.
In 2004, McCain voted for a bill that contained both his gun show measure and an amendment by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) that would have extended the federal assault weapons bans. McCain had initially voted against Feinstein but continued to support the whole legislative package after her amendment passed. Finally, McCain-Feingold was bitterly opposed by the NRA and almost every other conservative group for more than a decade. Hayworth won the Gun Owners of America endorsement.