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Gunning for the NRA

The non-profit National Rifle Association, founded in 1871, describes itself as “America’s longest-standing civil rights organization.” With nearly five million members, the NRA is also one of the nation’s largest and most influential organizations, promoting the safe ownership and use of firearms. Through its affiliated foundation (a tax-exempt entity formed in 1990), political advocacy arm (the Institute for Legislative Action), publications, and programs, the NRA is widely regarded as the leading champion of the rights of gun owners. The NRA’s mission is “preserving the right of all law-abiding individuals to purchase, possess and use firearms for legitimate purposes as guaranteed by the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.” Disclosure: I am a Life Member of the NRA.

Opponents of gun ownership tend to be quite vociferous, and the topic of gun rights is highly polarized and contentious, on both sides. Because of its fierce—and effective—defense of the Second Amendment, proponents of gun control view the NRA as a prime enemy. The latest attack on the NRA, via lawfare, is an apparent attempt to tie up the group’s financial resources—earmarked for pro-Trump ads—by forcing the organization to incur massive legal fees fighting a blatantly partisan lawsuit filed by an ambitious ideologue from New York. First, a bit of backstory is necessary to fully understand the significance of the New York Attorney General’s unprecedented attack on the NRA.

The Left’s native antipathy toward the NRA is heightened by the fact that the group endorsed Donald Trump for President in 2016 and again this year. In 2016, the NRA reportedly spent over $30 million on behalf of the Trump campaign, including a hard-hitting television ad buy in battleground states that many Democrats blame for Trump’s upset victory. Thus, the NRA has come to symbolize the Left’s hatred of guns, Donald Trump, and the “deplorables” they imagine comprise NRA members. (In 2008, then-Senator Barack Obama tellingly referred to working-class voters in decimated industrial towns as embittered losers who “cling to guns or religion” as a way “to explain their frustrations.”)

It is not surprising, therefore, that the NRA has become a target this election year. Politicians routinely identify “whipping boys” to energize the partisan base, in order to generate campaign contributions, increase voter turnout, and the like. By any objective measure, however, the Democrats’ anti-NRA rhetoric is over the top. In 2019, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously declared the NRA to be a “domestic terrorist organization,” such as the Ku Klux Klan. Does that make Justice Antonin Scalia and his colleagues, who held in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008) that the Second Amendment affords an individual right to own and use firearms, terrorists also? Or the NRA’s five million members? Or the owners of the estimated 393 million civilian-held guns in the U.S.? Of course not. But the demagogic rhetoric, baseless as it is, inflames passions, sows division, and invites ever-increasing escalation.

In the current political climate—a woke fever swamp in which leftist activists routinely resort to extreme measures in the name of Resistance—the last thing we need is escalation. Here we return to our main theme. Not to be outdone by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, newly-elected Democratic New York Attorney General Letitia James, who as a candidate called the NRA a “terrorist organization,” recently filed a lawsuit seeking the utter dissolution of the NRA. The lawsuit was announced days after the NRA publicly revealed that it intended to spend “tens of millions of dollars” in swing states to help re-elect President Trump. If James is successful, the NRA would cease to exist. Shuttered. Kaput. And, James warned, the NRA should not even think about relocating to another state: “To be clear, no charity registered in New York state, including the NRA, can dissolve and relocate to another state without approval of my office or of the Supreme Court of New York. As long as our lawsuit continues, the NRA must stay right where it is….”

Railing against guns is a winning strategy for pols in New York City, and James is no novice at the game. Her vendetta against the firearm industry is well-rehearsed. As a candidate for AG, she vowed  to “target the NRA,” condemning the organization as “an organ of deadly propaganda masquerading as a charity for public good.” In 2016, when she served as New York City Public Advocate prior to her election as AG, James unsuccessfully attempted to pressure six financial institutions into discontinuing their practice of providing financial services to gun manufacturers.

James’s widely-publicized lawsuit contends that self-dealing and mismanagement by a handful of high-level NRA executives—consisting of excessive salaries, lavish travel arrangements and other perks, and the lack of proper financial controls—constituted a breach of fiduciary duty by diverting millions of dollars away from the NRA’s charitable mission for personal use. For these (alleged) individual misdeeds, James proposes to eliminate the entire organization. This is akin to revoking a major corporation’s charter if a few officers engaged in securities fraud or embezzlement. The individual malefactors should be punished, not the entire enterprise. In the case of a non-profit membership organization, the affected parties—stakeholders, if you will—are the individual members. James’s lawsuit is directly contrary to their interests. Dissolving the NRA would leave its five million members without a meaningful voice—and is obviously calculated to do so.

James’s allegations are not new, reprising details publicized in a highly-visible internal feud last year between NRA chief executive Wayne LaPierre and the group’s former president, Oliver North, regarding wasteful spending of NRA resources. The charges, if true, are of concern to NRA members and may support lesser remedies enforced by the New York Attorney General, such as restitution by or removal of the offending officials. If charitable assets were misused, NRA members—far from passive—may decline to renew, suspend their financial support, or demand leadership changes to rectify the questioned practices. James’s charges, while serious, manifestly do not warrant the death penalty for a high-profile advocate in one of the nation’s most hotly-contested public policy issues. The NRA is not a sham organization, Ponzi scheme, or boiler room fundraising scam; it is the most prominent, and successful, advocate for gun rights in the world. Seeking dissolution of the NRA for the transgressions of a few officials is an egregious—and transparently vindictive—overreach.

Kneecapping an organization with an enterprise-threatening lawsuit in order to divert its substantial campaign war chest into legal fees is more than an odious act of lawfare; it is election interference—an assault on democracy.

Many large corporations grossly overpay their senior executives. Without defending the alleged practices, nepotism, private air travel, extravagant expense reimbursement, and cozy oversight are not unusual features of executive life, both on Wall Street and in the non-profit world. Nor are labor unions, religious organizations, hospitals, and universities exempt from cupidity on the part of key officials. One suspects that allegations similar to those lodged against the NRA could be made against other high-profile charities (including some based in New York, such as the Clinton Foundation or Al Sharpton’s National Action Network), although James has targeted only the NRA.

Seeking abolition of an organization that represents America’s gun owners, in a lawsuit filed three months before a presidential election, smacks of brazen politics. Is it only a coincidence that an activist state official (the initials AG, some have suggested, really stand for “aspiring governor”) has decided to commence a costly lawsuit on the eve of an election, against an organization associated with the Left’s most hated adversary, President Trump? Here’s a thought experiment: Imagine the reaction if a Republican state attorney general brought an action to dissolve Planned Parenthood, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the American Civil Liberties Union, or George Soros’s Open Societies Foundations, just as the campaign season kicked off. Would observers be justified in questioning the motives of the attorney general? As Manhattan Institute senior fellow Howard Husock has stated, such a move “would rightly be understood as an attack on civil rights.” 

The NRA has branded Democratic nominee Joe Biden “100 percent anti-gun.” If unmolested, the NRA intended to disseminate that message in its characteristically effective manner to voters in battleground states, where the election will likely be decided. Kneecapping an organization with an enterprise-threatening lawsuit in order to divert its substantial campaign war chest into legal fees is more than an odious act of lawfare; it is election interference—an assault on democracy.

James’s stunt has deservedly been denounced by voices across the political spectrum, including the Wall Street Journal, City Journal, law professors Jonathan Turley and William Jacobson, and the National Shooting Sports Foundation. National Review called James’s lawsuit a “partisan vendetta,” a “plainly partisan political attack,” and “pure political score-settling.” NRA President Carolyn Meadows described James’s lawsuit as “a baseless, premeditated attack on our organization and the Second Amendment freedoms it fights to defend,” and “a power grab by a political opportunist.”

It is all those things, and more. As Howard Husock observed in City Journal, James’s outrageous lawsuit is an “affront to civil society”; “it is not up to the government to decide how citizens associate or participate in political life.”

James attempted to justify the lawsuit on the grounds that “no one is above the law,” not even powerful groups such as the NRA. She declined to note that the NRA has power only because it represents millions of Americans who support the Second Amendment. James’s lawless action punishes those citizens for transparently partisan reasons.

Reader Discussion

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on August 14, 2020 at 08:11:48 am

As a Life Member I have a few problems with certain actions of senior leaders, I still feel Ms James' lawsuit to dissolve the corporation is out of line. New York has figured large in American history which may be why the former Union officers chose New York for their meeting place to found the organization--the reason was there were rumors that, with the end of reconstruction, the South would rise again and Yankee riflery--or more specifically, the lack thereof, was a definite liability facing a part of the country that took the militia clause more seriously and had a lot more squirrel hunters. i see the issues here as political.

I see the issue here as a political issue rather than judicial. While the organization would probably be better off incorporated in a mainstream state like Kansas, where we have a fairly loose code for corporations. But the fact is the charter is in New York and will have to be fought in New York's courts. The NRA has access to counsel and if a change of venue to a federal court may seem like a good idea, i do not see a case. The timing here is political--this distraction may pull the fundraising efforts away from the presidential campaign.

Trump was a friend of gun rights in 2016 and he will be until he wins or loses the electoral college,

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Earl Haehl
on August 14, 2020 at 12:12:08 pm

The problem with this essay is not a criticism of the merits of the law suit brought by Letitia James aimed at the NRA--or the linkages in the current political season. All of that is possible, and given the history of the NRA--totally fair (politics as in 'love and war'). The NRA itself has been operating along dark and shadowy political lines for decades, punching down like bullies at straw men and "liberal peccadillos." The problem is with the sadly intemperate, ideological tone set by Pulliam. The piece borders closely to propaganda--albeit of an acceptable sort--in a political season. So I say--proclaim the truth. Admit that this opinion is also a brand of "long-form" conservative propaganda. That also would be fair. (Pulliam mentioned 393 million guns without needing a pause for breath).

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Anthony Raymond Brunello
on August 14, 2020 at 14:31:27 pm

"Annie get your gun"

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grungis-the wicked warlock of the north
on August 14, 2020 at 15:24:22 pm

The problem with this comment is not that it disagrees with the essay, it is that the comment's criticism of the essay is completely ad hominem.

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Daniel Fish
on August 14, 2020 at 14:46:18 pm

I am an NRA member and I could not care less what they do with my donation on the side.

If they want to take a junket to Phuket, then wine, dine, and 69 the sky waitresses upon landing, I could not care less, as long as they defend the 2nd Amendment from leftist Attorneys General and other assorted communist scum when they are in America.

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MJ
on August 14, 2020 at 15:34:49 pm

The statement that "James’s stunt has deservedly been denounced by voices across the political spectrum" is not well supported. The Wall Street Journal and City Journal are both "right of center" in the current political context, as is William Jacobson. Jonathan Turley, I understand, self-identifies as a Democrat and a "liberal" (in the 20th century sense), but his published views on controversial legal issues routinely align with those of conservatives and classical liberals. Maybe the National Shooting Sports Foundation (which I've never heard of) is on the left, but I doubt it.

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Daniel Fish
on August 18, 2020 at 20:07:05 pm
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Anna Marie YL
on August 14, 2020 at 18:41:33 pm

From the first paragraph: "Disclosure: I am a Life Member of the NRA." After disclosing that the piece will be a biased piece, Brunello whines that the piece is bad because the author wrote a biased piece. wft? That's the mentality attacking the NRA.

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Scott Amorian
on August 14, 2020 at 18:59:30 pm

"James attempted to justify the lawsuit on the grounds that “no one is above the law,” not even powerful groups such as the NRA. She declined to note that the NRA has power only because it represents millions of Americans who support the Second Amendment. James’s lawless action punishes those citizens for transparently partisan reasons."

No one is above the law. Good to know, Letitia. But of course this goes well beyond mere and simple hypocrisy, orders of magnitude beyond. This is full blown Pharisaical trumpery and a wholly unfounded, wholesale arrogation based on nothing more than a sniffing disdain for the law itself, indeed the law in its most elemental - Constitutional - form. And thus as well an arrogated, sniffing disdain for the most elemental principle that subserves the Constitution, the law that "no one [including Ms. James or any office holder] is above" - i.e. the consent of the governed together with their inalienable rights.

But, tisk, tisk, and harrumph, harrumph. Details, details. Bludgeoning the Constitution and its most basic, undergirding principles is fair game when raw power-seeking can be masked via the pretense and facade of upholding those same principles. The insidious word games of yet another prestidigitating political predator. Scoundrel. Malformed, malignant, utterly reprehensible.

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Michael Bond
on August 14, 2020 at 19:25:13 pm

"Shucks, Andy," if wasteful, extravagant, lavish, unnecessary or lavish spending constitutes a criminal enterprise then Congress, the President's Cabinet, and most governors and state legislatures, most certainly those of New York State, are engaged in criminal enterprise.

It is highly probable, because of the lawsuit intended to harm the NRA and Trump, that the NRA and Trump will raise far more money because of AG James' lawsuit than the NRA will spend on it. The lawsuit will certainly help drive Trump's base before and on election day.

BTW: just a quick mental review of my historical knowledge turns up a very short list of Alexander Hamilton, TR and Al Smith as the only nationally-prominent New York politicians not of Aaron Burr character. (And, yes, I did remember FDR but excluded him for many reasons, not least of which was his multi-year abuse of the powers of the IRS and the DOJ to hound the charitable Andrew Mellon on a trumped-up tax fraud charge, Mellon's only "crime" being his economic policies under Coolidge and Hoover, which were sharply at odds with and critical of those of FDR. Seems a New York pattern!)

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paladin
on August 14, 2020 at 19:44:12 pm

And Rudy Giuliani.

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paladin
on August 15, 2020 at 16:18:55 pm

I would point out that Martin Van Buren was President of the United States. That he had less name recognition in an election with a war hero from before the war of 1812 is a factor of the communications of the time.

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Earl Haehl
on August 16, 2020 at 09:53:01 am

Yes, I forgot "Keep the Ball Rolling" Martin.
And I also forgot Charles Evans Hughes who taught us that the constitution is what he and four others say it is. Turns out, Hughes was cynical but right. Marty was unable to keep the ball rolling, to the Whig's last delight. This probably led to the Mexican War when Tippecanoe Harrison died, a southerner, Tyler, became President and threw his political support to the annexation of Texas, which Harrison and Van Buren would probably have opposed.

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paladin
on August 15, 2020 at 23:55:23 pm

"It is highly probable, because of the lawsuit intended to harm the NRA and Trump, that the NRA and Trump will raise far more money because of AG James' lawsuit than the NRA will spend on it."
I had the same thought as I read this essay. When will people learn to let sleeping dogs lie and not to swat at hornets nests?

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R2L
on August 16, 2020 at 00:35:22 am

This lawsuit is clearly reprehensible for its intended impact on NRA election spending/ support, regardless of the NRA's 2nd Amendment related agenda. But can one of the legal experts here explain how she can claim that the NRA cannot just disband or relinquish its charter in NY and set up elsewhere? Nominally the "harm" addressed by the suit is being directed against NY citizens, so if the NRA is no longer harming NY'ers, the harm and purpose of the suit disappears. Or what has to happen to enable or justify transferring this action to a federal court venue, where a more promising and possibly quicker outcome might be expected? I am sure it cannot be that simple, but what am I missing?

Articles on the number of guns and gun owners in America often emphasize the 300 million plus total quantity, implying that every citizen/ household has at least one gun and thus that Americans are gun crazy zealots. But they are less inclined to bring up "that 3 percent of American adults (individuals in this case, not households) own half the nation's firearms", as stated in Mr. Palliam's WaPo citation. Thus gun ownership is really concentrated in the 10 million or so citizens who own 150 million guns, or or more realistically a few to a few dozen per owner, depending on enthusiasms, inheritance, purposes, etc.

From the standpoint of self defense and for resistance to tyranny, it might well be desired that each household possessed and was competent to use two or three suitable weapons. This thought led me to the idea that we should promote wider appreciation for the 2nd Amendment by incentivizing the states to demonstrate "adequate militia preparedness", beyond that already provided by the National Guard units in each state. Withhold federal funding (as a negative) or provide grants (as a positive) until the governor of a given state can certify that at least 50% of the militia eligible males and 25% of the eligible females (e.g., competent citizens between the ages of 18 and 58, or even 68) [OK, make it 50% of females, too, I don't mind and the Feminists should not either] have had suitable training and demonstrated capability in using a rifle and a hand gun. Law enforcement and military personnel in the state could be counted in the applicable percentage. The participants would use state owned weapons and not have to actually become gun owners themselves, just be prepared to use them well and properly if/when needed. Such training might be required every two or three years to maintain certification.

For anyone who wants to read up on the history of this right, I would recommend To Keep and Bear Arms by Joyce Lee Malcom (1998).

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R2L
on August 16, 2020 at 10:04:16 am

I'm a lawyer with the same question, which I cannot answer except to say that AG Dingbat probably legally confused and failed to say what she meant. I speculate that what the Dingbat meant to say (remember Archie Bunker always having to explain what Edith meant to say but garbled?) is that even if the NRA incorporates elsewhere (which it can and should) the criminal suit in NY will go forward (which, have no doubt, it will.) That's correct as to any civil or criminal lawsuit once jurisdiction over the parties and venue are established.

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paladin
on August 16, 2020 at 15:32:19 pm

But if they did relocated to, say, Kansas, is it the fact that they were previously in NY that still gives her a jurisdictional authority to bring suit, possibly trying to address "alleged past harms" during the time the NRA was chartered in NY? And that that authority would hold legitimately until some statute of limitations was over? That is the only rationale I can see as applying.

And I would think this suit would cause many organizations currently incorporated in NY to reconsider that situation and incorporate somewhere else. Strange that the AG and her leftist compatriots could not or would not look beyond the NRA and check for other possible adverse results. The internet promotes dis-aggregation of businesses since you no longer have to be near your customers, bankers, or suppliers; talent pools are dispersing, too; and the indignity of higher than required taxes is pushing many firms away.

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R2L
on August 17, 2020 at 17:55:25 pm

Once a plaintiff in state or federal court has sued in a court which jurisdiction over a defendant that party cannot avoid litigation simply by moving to another jurisdiction. While I am not a corporate lawyer, I am aware of no legal barrier to the NRA incorporating in another state after terminating its NY incorporation. New York's permission to terminate the incorporation is necessary and would be withheld pending the outcome of the litigation. But the NRA can be incorporated in any state in which it does business. There would be political obstacles in Blue States to such a move, but most Red States would welcome the NRA.

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paladin
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