Tom Diaz & I—My NRA Experience

Picking up from Tuesday’s post, Tom Diaz & I—The 94th & 103rd Congresses, and Now


By far, the strongest impressions left on me by the whole experience came from our interactions with representatives of the NRA and their allies:

  • This is not your father’s organization.  The chief counsel and I were invited to visit the NRA’s headquarters on DuPont Circle in northwest D.C., which have since relocated to suburban northern Virginia.  We were escorted to the top-floor office of the late Ashley Halsey, Jr., who’d edited the American Rifleman for nine years.  First, we were asked if we’d like to adjourn to the basement firing range to “fire off a few.”  From the raised eyebrows, winks, and expectant looks, we formed the impression that they thought, once we got our hands around a real gun, boy Howdy…  I don’t know if my boss had ever fired a long or handgun, but I’d been immunized.  A friend’s father, a World War II Marine veteran—likely either amused by or fed up with our SGT Rock bravado in the front yard—took us out for a session with his .45 caliber Colt sidearm.  Even through sprawled across the hood of his car, I remember being sore from the armpits forward and my ears ringing for a week.  At any rate, we declined, politely.  Next, Halsey took his own Colt .45—1911 bright nickel with faux ivory grips, as I recall—out of a bottom desk drawer to wave around.  It had a magazine aboard and he didn’t show us whether the chamber was clear or not.  Lots of hormonal rhetoric about the gun’s place in American life followed.  (I do remember thinking: If I’d behaved this way in front of an adult back home, I’d have gotten my ass kicked.)  I came to learn, from study, additional meetings, and correspondence, that the great majority of the NRA’s members lived in the Northeastern U.S.  While on reflection this made sense, from a pure, general population distribution standpoint, it called into question how much of their agenda was driven by the Life Member sportsmen I came up around.
  • Hard right turn The NRA had a long history of unquestioned favorable treatment in procuring military-surplus and retired weapons and ammunition—until it was learned that Lee Harvey Oswald had ordered the rifle with which he assassinated President Kennedy from the pages of the American Rifleman.  Two more political assassinations resulted in the Gun Control Act of 1968, and persisting federal interest in the public safety consequences of virtually unrestricted access to firearms and lack of accountability for ownership alarmed the organization.  The year of our inquiry, they created a distinct lobbying arm called the Institute for Legislative Action and put Harlon B. Carter in charge.  Carter, a Texan and retired head of the U.S. Border Patrol, was an unabashed opponent of any further firearms controls and immediate challenged the “Old Guard’s” patrician, sport-oriented zeitgeist.  Two years later, he fomented the “Cincinnati Revolution” at the annual meeting and took control of the organization.  Before the decade was out, the NRA tripled its membership and budget—on paper, at least—under his leadership, and it was beyond question what their overarching mission was.
  • Unbound by the facts—or rules.  In my four decades of experience in political and public policy debate, there has never been an organization whose leaders and members are as skilled at creating and hewing to a fundamental position and accompanying message—damn the details or evidence to the contrary.  Data and logic mean nothing to them, and every conceivable suggestion to reduce gun violence constitutes the same Draconian level of attack on the Second Amendment and “law-abiding gun owners.”  (In 1975, Robert Sherrill described their vision for America as “a phantasmagoria of roscoes,” in which everyone vertical and breathing packs a piece.  Given their record on state “conceal and carry” laws, as described by Diaz, and Wayne LaPierre’s solutions for future Sandy Hook-style massacres, that hasn’t changed.)  Exponents of a contrary opinion are threatened with execution by ballot, if elected, and some other kind of dark retribution, if not.  As legislative staff, we fielded threatening telephone calls and received hate mail routinely.  As we finished the advance work for our first televised hearing at WTTW, the PBS affiliate in Chicago, the station began receiving letters and calls from self-identified NRA members, threatening to surround the place with “tens of thousands of law-abiding gun owners”–armed or otherwise. (They didn’t, but our poor producer began signing all his communications to us as “Perry Noid.”)
  • “Grass roots”or “AstroTurf?”  Anyone who works in or around any legislative body learns quickly to respect the power of a well-turned personal communication from a constituent voter.  The NRA was an early pioneer of and remains enviable at mobilizing their members to fashion and deliver their message strategically.  In those cruder days, we would receive 30 to 50,000 postcards addressed to subcommittee members at key stages in the process—identical, but targeted.  It wasn’t a lot of fun for us because we had to sort those suckers.  Personal correspondence was more entertaining, and sometimes frightening.  A model letter would be distributed through the Rifleman or by mail, which the members would personalize—or copy verbatim—and send, as instructed.  I remember seeing a letter that had been sweated over by a constituent unaccustomed to regular correspondence.  The shaky scrawl ran out about halfway down the page, followed by a firm, feminine hand, which had added: “My husband says to tell you that you make him sick!  Respectfully yours…”
  • “The paranoid five percent.”  The fear of being turned out at the next election is a time-honored tradition among incumbents and often defies reason.  One of our members, a long-time Republican Representative from Orange County (California), whom I admired for his intelligence and eloquence, was sweating over supporting the bill, so his chief of staff asked for a meeting to talk about it.  We reminded him that (1) he’d won his last election with 76 percent of the vote; (2) he had no opponent in the 1976 party primary; and (3) the Democrat he would face in the fall had already admitted—cheerfully—that he was running for  public office on the advice of his therapist.  He looked at us and said, “You just never know, boys.  There’s a paranoid five percent out there that can always swing an election, depending on turnout.”
  • Political “paper tiger.”  The NRA has always been known for overstating its likely and actual effect on elections, frequently and at high volume.  (See “The paranoid five percent,” above.)  Their record has never matched their claims.  Take the 2012 federal elections, for example.  If you compare the NRA-ILA’s  post-election post mortem with, say, the Houston Chronicle’s,  you wouldn’t think they were reporting from the same planet.  Their single-mindedness has paid off over time, though; through sheer repetition and constant reinforcement by lazy media, their purported power over incumbents and candidates for the Congress has become an unquestioned part of Capitol Hill lore and calculus.  This phenomenon was on display in John Oliver’s Daily Show piece Tuesday night:



Thus, political reality has been replaced by a self-fulfilling prophecy: All things being equal, and given their reputation and utter lack of interest in any kind of  modus vivendi, why go out of one’s way to tweak the NRA tiger’s tail—even if the evidence suggests it’s old and mostly toothless?

This phenomenon is the product of the political “triangulation” of which Tom Diaz complains and—as I said—he’s right, up to a point.  Merely calling out individual incumbents for failing to stand up to an established, single-issue lobby isn’t enough.  The NRA has been smart enough to marry its own marketable skills—primarily grass-roots organization mobilization and, to a lesser extent, fundraising—with those of like-minded organizations on the right, like ALEC and those marching under the Koch banner.  The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision hasn’t hurt them, either.  (Mother Jones provides an easily-digested summary here.)

In the near term, those of us who want to win reasonable firearms regulation, as in other developed cultures (Socialism!), will have to re-enlist as politically-active citizens and provide sufficient counterweight to NRA’s four million members and their allies.  This requires not just making your opinions known to your own elected representatives and organizing to persuade the like-minded to do the same, where it will make a difference in the outcome, but also investing the time and treasure to protect at election time those incumbents and candidates whose support you demand, on this and any other issue.

Long-term, we must insist on a serious national discussion about electoral, media, and—possibly—constitutional reforms that will take the profit motive and existing incentives to skew voting for advantage out of politics altogether.


Skip to comment form

  1. Greg Alterton

    E.G., interesting reflection on the history and current standing of the NRA. As an NRA member myself, I can’t help but comment.

    I have to admit that I don’t pay tremendous attention to the NRA’s lobbying efforts. Regarding the debate in this go-around of federal gun control legislation, I think there is fault on both sides: I’ve never considered registration of any firearm, or background checks, to be violations of 2nd Amendment rights. We all register our cars, and no one feels particularly threatened by that. And if we all are agreed that guns should stay out of the hands of people with criminal records, or the mentally compromised, background checks are a reasonable way to do that. Also, because I’ve purchased two handguns and a long gun under California laws, I don’t consider a waiting period, a background check, and registration as onerous or an invasion of my right to own firearms. So, I fault the right and the NRA for being over-the-top on what were actually, for the most part, reasonable proposals.

    However, the left, starting with Pres. Obama and down through Democratic members of congress, were also disingenuous to trot out kids and use the families of Newtown, CT, victims to promote their legislation and suggest their proposals are required to end the kind of violence we all saw in Newtown. That argument was over-the-top as well, as anyone familiar with the kind of “controls” being discussed by the Administration knows that they wouldn’t have prevented the Newtown shootings. I haven’t researched it, but I’d be willing to bet that CT has as tough a body of state laws as was being proposed by the Administration, and they didn’t prevent the Newtown shootings. So, I think the Administration was engaged in hyperbole at best, demogoguery at worse, in the gun control debate.

    I have friends and family who are ardently pro-gun control, and talking with them, while they of course favored the Administration’s proposals, what they really want, when you press them, is confiscation of firearms. If I understand the decisions in Dist. of Columbia v. Heller and McDonald v. Chicago, the 2nd Amendment establishes an individual right to possess firearms for any lawful purpose, including self-defense — a right that cannot be abridged by either federal or state law. Confiscation isn’t an option. But that’s what many would like to see. What concerns me about many on the left is that they are so cavalier about running roughshod over an enumerated right in the constitution — and not simply a right in the constitution, but a right most of them don’t take advantage of, one that they’d like to deny people they disagree with.

    So, legally, and politically, we face a reality where private gun ownership will likely always be part of the society, unless the 2nd Amendment is repealed. We also face a reality that while modest gun control proposals do not abridge the right to gun ownership, they will not ultimately prevent the next mass shooting. Both sides of the debate are standing across a chasm, glaring at one another, and ignoring these two basic realities. The right needs to stop saying that background checks, registration, even limiting magazine capacity, are inherent threats to the 2nd Amendment. And the left needs to stop categorizing those modest proposals as vital to “protecting the children of America.” Neither of their arguments are true. Both sides need to work with the realities that are, and find better ways to reduce the likelihood of gun violence, if such ways can be found.

    1. E.G. Fabricant

      Greg: Thank you for your thoughtful comments. I agree with everything you wrote, with two exceptions. First, it’s not “disingenuous” to ask legislators to explain, up close and personal, to the loved ones of gun violence victims why they’re unable to support reasonable firearms regulation. Remember the Hinkley assassination attempt and Jim Brady? (God knows our inside-the-Beltway policymakers are cocooned enough already!) It’s the NRA leadership who should be called to account for what they say and do. In what informed and reasonable world would Wayne LaPierre be permitted to cry “mental health”–assuming he wasn’t just trying to change the subject–and, in the next breath, categorically oppose any legitimate system for pre-purchase checks that would identify at least those individuals who have been adjudicated in some fashion as mentally at-risk? Second, I believe you’re over-reading Heller and McDonald. In spite of the fact that Scalia’s sloppy, poorly-informed opinion ignored two centuries of precedent on the bridge between the right and “a well-regulated militia,” the door remains open to reasonable firearms regulation at every level of government–the NRA’s hysterics to the contrary.

      More than anything else, I agree that there has been no “middle” on this issue for four decades and I hold the NRA and their allies responsible. Read Diaz’ analysis and follow the money; if the NRA’s leadership and their industry donors truly cared about “law-abiding gun owners” and sport shooters as much as they say they do, they would support reasonable regulation of ownership in the manner you’ve suggested–and, I submit, they would be in the front rank of supporters for doing what Australia did in 1996. Anyone at either extreme on this issue should be required to put up or shut up. Data and reason should trump talking points and outright lies, every time.

      1. jdberger

        I’d be intereted in reviewing the two centuries of precedent on the bridge between the [indivdual] right and “a well-regulated militia, referred to by Mr. Fabricant. Because apparently not only Justice Scalia missed it – but all nine justices on the Court.

        The vote that the Second Amendment protects an individual right was 9 – zip. The vote that DC’s law infringed upon that right was 5-4.

        So, Mr. Fabricant, could you please list the precedential cases that Justices Scalia, Ginsburg, Kennedy, Souter, Stevens, Thomas, Roberts, Breyer and Alito ignored?

        1. E.G. Fabricant

          JDBerger – My apologies for not replying sooner. (I had a project deadline I was wrestling with.) My use of the term “precedent” was itself sloppy. I was referring not to specific case law but the long tradition of judicial restraint and non-action on the Second Amendment that Heller brought to an abrupt end. Two fairly conservative federal appellate judges–J. Harvie Wilkinson and Richard A. Posner–took issue with Justice Scalia’s majority opinion as a violation of the author’s self-professed fondness for judicial restraint. (Wilkinson went so far as to equate that opinion in infamy with Justice Blackmun’s in Roe v. Wade–pretty strong stuff, from one judicial conservative to another.) The point I attempted to make was that, using the pretense of “originalism,” Scalia went so far as to sell out both Blackstone and Marshall (as I remember studying them) in ignoring the notion that judges should decide cases according to not only the words, the context, and the subject-matter of the constitutional or statutory provision at issue, but also the effects and consequence, or the spirit and reason of the law. Posner, after taking Scalia to task for his manufacture of a ponderous, supportive “history” for his interpretation, makes the point this way:

          The statements that the majority opinion cited had little traction before Heller. For more than two centuries, the “right” to private possession of guns, supposedly created by the Second Amendment, had lain dormant. Constitutional rights often lie dormant, spectral subjects of theoretical speculation, until some change in the social environment creates a demand for their vivification and enforcement. But nothing has changed in the social environment to justify giving the Second Amendment a new life discontinuous with its old one: a new wine in a decidedly old wineskin. There is no greater urgency about allowing people to possess guns for self-defense or defense of property today than there was thirty years ago, when the prevalence of violent crime was greater, or for that matter one hundred years ago. Only the membership of the Supreme Court has changed.

          That’s the point I was trying to make. – EGF

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *