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Caught in the Crossfire

The NRA has its opponents outgunned but suddenly finds itself in a shooting match with fellow conservatives.

By From the September 2010 issue

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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.

THE MCCAIN AND STRICKLAND decisions bothered some conservatives, but the biggest bombshell was yet to come: the news that the NRA was seriously considering an endorsement of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid later in the fall. The Nevada Democrat's seat is one of the GOP's best pickup opportunities this year. His challenger, Sharron Angle, was a Second Amendment stalwart who won the Republican nomination with heavy grassroots conservative support. An NRA endorsement had the potential to counteract Reid's party-line liberal image and blow the race wide open.

Reid has a better record on guns than the average Democrat and is certainly less hostile to the Second Amendment than just about anyone in his party's leadership. But his NRA ratings have fluctuated from year to year, ranging all the way from A+ to F. Reid played a major role in passing the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Firearms Act, which shielded gun manufacturers from abusive lawsuits. Yet he also voted for the Brady bill and the 1994 crime bill containing the original federal assault weapons ban. Gun Owners of America has catalogued more than 40 anti-gun votes he has cast during his Senate career.

"He's like Arlen Specter," Gun Owners' Pratt says of Reid. "He's usually with us when we don't need him." Another conservative activist fumed, "Are we supposed to be thankful that he hasn't screwed us lately? That's only because he hasn't had a chance to." Conservative reactions grew even more hostile when it became known that Reid secured a $61 million earmark for the Clark County Shooting Park. At the ribbon cutting for the 2,9000-square foot park, the NRA's Wayne LaPierre lavished Reid with praise: "I also want to thank you, Senator, for your support every day for the Second Amendment and for the rights of American gun owners."

NRA spokesmen have also advanced the argument that if Reid goes down, he will be replaced as Senate Democratic leader by either Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) or Dick Durbin (D-IL)-both liberals with far worse records on gun rights than Reid. Pratt argues that even if the NRA declines to endorse Reid, the damage has already been done. "I don't know if he needs a piece of paper saying, 'We hereby officially endorse you,'" he says. "They've already said more than enough that Reid could send out in targeted mailings to gun owners if he wanted to."

The rumored Reid endorsement hasn't played well with the NRA's rank and file. Some launched a website called NRA Members for Angle, urging the organization to back the Republican challenger instead. A conservative organization commissioned a poll of Nevada NRA members, which found that nearly 70 percent would be "upset" if the group endorsed Reid and 59 percent said they would cancel their memberships.

One source close to the NRA told TAS that 95 percent of endorsement decisions are easy, because one candidate is clearly superior to the others. The problem, says another conservative activist, is the remaining 5 percent: "The right-to-life groups have a three-point test where you're either going to get the endorsement or you're not. With Americans for Tax for Reform, you either take the pledge or you don't. But in this situation, there is a judgment call."

While some conservatives have the NRA in their crosshairs, many others think the group's critics are shooting blanks. "There's this misconception that 'NRA' stands for 'National Republican Association,'" Independence Institute firearms policy expert David Kopel told TAS. "It doesn't. The NRA is a pro-Second Amendment organization. When they can advance that cause by working with Republicans, they do. When they can advance it by working with Democrats, they do that too." Consequently, Kopel argues, "They'd be nuts not to consider an endorsement of Harry Reid."

SO FAR THIS YEAR, the NRA has given 71 percent of its political action committee's contributions to Republicans. Usually, that percentage is even higher. And there are good reasons for many of the Democratic exceptions. Consider Ted Strickland in Ohio. Although he is a liberal on most other issues, when he was in Congress he represented a rural district and consistently supported gun rights. Similarly, Kasich is a conservative but he represented the kind of suburban district where the conventional wisdom of the time held gun control was popular-so he voted for the Brady bill and supplied the winning margin for the assault weapons ban.

"That was the first significant federal gun ban in the nation's history," says Kopel. "So [Strickland vs. Kasich] was a pretty easy choice if you care about gun rights rather than the Republican Party." And NRA leaders make no secret about their priorities. "We are part of the conservative movement, but the Second Amendment is unique because it transcends politics; it transcends race, gender, socioeconomic, and certainly partisan lines," Chris W. Cox, the NRA's chief lobbyist, told Politico. "I may have strong personal views on a lot of things -- whether it's health care, immigration, the bank bailouts, taking over car companies, all those things -- but that's not my job. My job and my fiduciary responsibility is to get up every day and protect the Second Amendment."

It's an approach that has paid dividends. While nearly every other conservative cause has suffered setbacks under the Obama administration, gun-rights supporters have continued to score legislative victories despite Democratic supermajorities. They were able to get the health care bill to include a ban on higher medical insurance premiums for gun-owning households. A bill cracking down on credit card companies was amended to allow people to carry loaded weapons in national parks. The judiciary has been even more congenial, with two Supreme Court decisions since 2008 ruling that the Second Amendment does indeed confer an individual right to own guns. "The last two years have been a disaster for us," anti-gun Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY) confided to the New York Times. "A lot of members are just afraid of the NRA."

The NRA has struck this fear into the political class's hearts by being tough on opponents -- and tougher still on erstwhile allies caught curtailing Second Amendment rights. They declined to endorse President George H. W. Bush, an NRA life member, for reelection in 1992 because he signed an executive order banning the import of some semiautomatic firearms and was insufficiently resolute in opposition to the Brady bill. In 1994, they helped defeat longtime supporters Congressman Jack Brooks (D-TX) and House Speaker Tom Foley (D-WA) because of their support for the crime bill containing the assault weapons ban.

"The NRA was an unforgiving master: one strike and you're out," Bill Clinton later recalled in his memoirs. "The gun lobby claimed to have defeated nineteen of the twenty-four members on its hit list. They did at least that much damage and could rightly claim to have made Gingrich the House Speaker." Robert Spitzer, the SUNY Cortland political science professor who wrote The Politics of Gun Control, told TAS, "Very few advocacy groups would turn on onetime allies like that, but that's part of what makes the NRA so effective."

All this makes the NRA's dalliance with Reid puzzling to those who've admired the gun lobby's hardball politics. "They're mad at Kasich for the same votes Reid cast," says one conservative activist, who thinks any Reid endorsement should be contingent on a major legislative concession like the passage of Sen. John Thune's (R-SD) concealed-carry reciprocity bill or the defeat of the Disclose Act. "A shooting range is nice, but not good enough."

OTHERS ARGUE THAT THE NRA gets too much credit for recent Second Amendment triumphs. Consider the example of Alan Gura, the lawyer who won D.C. v. Heller and McDonald v. Chicago, two important cases affirming an individual right to keep and bear arms. Gura points out that the NRA, fearing a loss, was slow to back Heller. He also claims they made his job more difficult in McDonald. The Supreme Court granted the NRA's request to gobble up 10 of Gura's 30 minutes for oral argument time. The NRA said it was concerned about Gura's decision to go beyond traditional due process arguments. The libertarian attorney shoots back, "They were so obsessed with getting themselves back into the story and getting credit for the outcome that they actually interfered with my presentation of the case."

Gura maintains that he was never going to give short shrift to the arguments favored by the NRA but that there was also a need for "substantial argument" based on the 14th Amendment's Privileges or Immunities Clause. He contends that this emphasis helped ensure that Justice Clarence Thomas "voted with the originalist side." "I was right and they were wrong," Gura says of the NRA. "There were not five votes for due process incorporation." The Cato Institute's Ilya Shapiro agreed, writing at the time, "If the NRA were concerned about the final outcome of the case, it would be unlikely to attack Alan's strategy or question his preparation (an odd way to be ‘helpful' to one's side)."

The NRA has weathered tactical disagreements before, including arguments between pragmatists and hardliners within its own ranks. "For much of its history, the NRA was mainly concerned with hunting and marksmanship," says Spitzer. "It wasn't until the 1930s that it really got involved in the politics of gun control and the more ideological faction didn't take over until the 'Cincinnati revolution' in the 1970s." Although he doesn't believe it will have much long-term impact, Spitzer says this is the most significant infighting between the NRA and other conservatives he's seen in years.

"There's a well-established tradition of taking the NRA for granted," says Kopel. "But whatever is going on with other issues and organizations, they still have to protect gun rights and their own ability to participate in the next election." That's fine, says Viguerie, but the NRA "shouldn't take conservatives for granted" either. With November fast approaching, it might be a good time for a ceasefire.

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About the Author

W. James Antle III, author of the new book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?, is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and a senior editor of The American Spectator. You can follow him on Twitter @jimantle.