As conservatives battle to wrest control of Congress back from the left, liberal news organs like The Washington Post, National Public Radio and even “The Gray Lady” herself have cheered the NRA as it endorses Democrats across the country.
And rest assured the NRA’s efforts are systematic. Take, for example, an e-mail I got yesterday from “Marge”:
“Isn’t it strange that the NRA has supported Shuler, but you, based only on the answers to a survey can support some one [sic] else. Perhaps you should do your ‘due diligence’ and look at the voting record of the incumbent. Or, is that too much trouble. Anyone can say anything in a survey — voting record stands for all to see. Organizations like yours do nothing but dilute the effectiveness of the ‘real’ gun support activists. Get your act together!!!!”
This was in response to a multi-thousand-piece postcard mailing done into North Carolina’s 11th Congressional District against incumbent Democrat Heath Shuler and for opponent Jeff Miller. I explained to Marge that Shuler’s low marks weren’t based on just a survey and that he didn’t really have a voting record on a strictly gun-related bill, but had brokered House passage of HR 5175, the misnamed “DISCLOSE Act,” a piece of legislation designed to muzzle gun groups by requiring them to disclose membership information if they so much as mention a candidate prior to an election.
I also explained that Shuler cut language to exempt the NRA – and only the NRA – while leaving other gun groups to hang, after which the NRA sat on its hands and cheerfully withdrew opposition to the bill. But I doubt I made much impression: The “NRA do or die” crowd is not often swayed by logic.
THE ROOTS OF NRA COMPROMISE
In recent weeks, pro-gun forums have buzzed with complaints about NRA endorsements. Fellow Gun Rights Examiner David Codrea questioned how the NRA could endorse California’s Dan Lundgren, despite his having been the architect of one of the original “assault weapon” bans. David also wrote, “Gun owners must consider more than NRA grades,” while Jews for the Preservation of Gun Ownership branded NRA ratings as “illogical.”
And although flawed NRA ratings are just now becoming a common topic of concern, they have been lamented among hardened gun rights activists for years. Indeed, an entire site, called NRAWOL, on which you can find an excellent (albeit dated) piece by former NRA board member Russ Howard called “Sleeping with the enemy? No more A grades for gun-grabbers.”
In my sixteen years of gun rights leadership, I can cite myriad examples. Misleading NRA ratings were, in fact, the reason my organization, Grass Roots North Carolina, created its “Remember in November” system of objective candidate evaluations. I’ve been nose-to-nose with Tanya Metaksa at the Velvet Cloak Inn in Raleigh when she came to North Carolina to tell (yes, tell) gun rights leaders to support anti-gun Governor Jim Hunt. (I think her words were, “Do you want a war? Is that what you want?”)
And then, of course, we had the endorsement of incumbent NC Governor Mike Easley. Having been promised by then-NRA state and local representative Jeff Freeman that the NRA would never support Easley, he did indeed get an “F” on his first run. Once elected, however, he signed a bill for (get this) NRA commemorative license plates and his “F” magically morphed into an “A” and endorsement, even against proven gun rights defender (and eventual Congressman) Robin Hayes.
[Writer’s correction: Memory failed me. Hayes ran against Hunt in Hun’t second term, precpitating the split between NC activists and the NRA which brought Metaksa to Raleigh. It was state senator Patrick Ballantine (100% pro-gun voting record) who ran against Easley in Easley’s second term. The NRA supported Easley, causing yet another split with state activists. The NRA commemorative license plate bill was SB 464, which passed in 2004, just prior to Easley being upgraded from “F” to “A.”]
FOUR REASONS THE NRA ENDORSES ANTI-GUN CANDIDATES
Larry Kissell and the ‘Friendly Incumbent Policy’
Despite touting grassroots support, the NRA relies principally upon access-based lobbying which, of course, depends on access. If one alienates the host politician, one quickly finds himself out of the loop. The net result is that access-based lobbyists are forced to constantly curry favor with the politicians whose behavior they should, in theory, be controlling. In the end, the lobbyist ends up telling constituents what they must accept rather than telling the politician what he must do.
In the NRA’s case, this includes inflating the ratings of allegedly “friendly” incumbents, many of which are not so friendly – the apparent mechanism of NRA support for incumbent Larry Kissell in North Carolina’s 8th Congressional District. Kissell has exactly zero gun votes under his belt, and not only voted for the DICSLOSE Act described above, but actually cosponsored it. Thus, the NRA gives Kissell an “A” and endorsement, supporting him against a better candidate, Harold Johnson.
The NRA penchant for bad deals
I have seen the NRA merge the entirety of legislation designed to shutter gun shows into its own bill in a “Jekyll and Hyde” bid to get a committee hearing. (See “Strange bedfellows and the ‘gun show loophole’”.) I have seen the organization endorse the very politician who gutted NRA-supported legislation in return for a bone thrown at them by said legislator.
In short, I have seen the NRA cut very bad deals, often because they fear losing a particular battle and therefore, appearing weak. (See items 3 and 4 below). Perhaps you think Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid love the Second Amendment. I don’t. When you factor in statements by both Mr. Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder favoring reinstatement of the “assault weapon” ban, one begins to wonder what sort of deal the NRA cut to avoid a committee hearing on that and other gun control legislation. In this Congress, you see, if those bills got hearings, the NRA would lose. Most recently, they seem to have struck a deal with Congressman Heath Shuler, who cut the deal to exempt the NRA from DISCLOSE.
While some might argue that such are good deals because they avoid passage of gun control, a deal which perpetuates anti-gun politicians willing to endure delay of gratification also perpetuates future gun control. At legislative seminars, I tell students: “Bad bills are better.” The worse a piece of legislation (or in this case, the politicians in Congress), the more people will join you in opposition. The worst thing you can do is to weaken an anti-gun bill – or in this case, endorse anti-gun politicians. Rewarding bad behavior only encourages more of the same.
The NRA expects to lose
During one of her visits to quell local rebellion, Tanya Metaksa once told me she expected to lose. Her vision for defending the Second Amendment was akin to the doctrine of flexible defense, ceding territory where necessary to prolong the fight. Even if Metaksa was right (which I doubt, particularly in light of recent Supreme Court decisions), I would be loath to adopt a policy of preemptive surrender.
Success is not an option
If gun laws were suddenly declared unconstitutional or otherwise repealed, the NRA would be unnecessary. Given the salary and benefits accrued by NRA chief executives, overwhelming success (and obscurity) is not an option.
According to the 2008 IRS Form 990 for the NRA1, Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre raked in $1,263,101 per year; NRA Institute for Legislative Action EVP Chris Cox made $661,059; Treasurer Wilson Phillips made $649,463; General Operations Executive Director Kayne Robinson benefitted to the tune of $602,608; and last, Secretary Edward Land, Jr. trails the pack with a measly $509,186.
Hmm. Worth remembering the next time you get that desperate appeal for money, no?
WHAT TO DO?
If you answered “reform the NRA,” rest assured that the best have tried — including former NRA vice president Neal Knox, who made the organization the legislative juggernaut it is today.
One obvious answer is “don’t use NRA ratings,” of course. But that is more easily said than done.
Our organization has created an objective candidate evaluation system we encourage others to emulate (see “Remember in November”) plus the means to reach more gun-owning voters than the NRA can. Right now in North Carolina, the GRNC Political Victory Fund is outnumbering the NRA in terms of election alerts mailed in 15 political districts, including one US House district. Radio spots are running in NC House 81 against NRA-endorsed Hugh Holliman, and will air shortly in another as-yet announced district.
We are covering only our own, limited territory. Hopefully, you will do the same in other states. It won’t be easy, but it is the only way to change NRA behavior and elect candidates who will defend your rights. If you want help, let me know.
Editor’s Note: F. Paul Valone is the president of Grassroots North Carolina
- Compensation figures cited from 2008 NRA Form 990 are the sum of Column D (“Reportable Compensation”) and Column F (“Estimated Amount of Other Compensation”).