A GUN LOBBYIST'S LAMENT
The NRA's Main Target? Its Members' Checkbooks.
The bulletin came over the radio as I was driving home on Dec. 5: "Nine dead, five wounded in shooting massacre at an Omaha mall."
It was tragic news. But even as I lamented the lives lost, I was hearing the questions I knew would immediately arise as the two sides in the endless debate on guns in America squared off once again. "Why don't we ban all military-style rifles?", one side would ask, while the other would demand, "Why did the mall prevent law-abiding citizens from carrying guns for self-protection?"
I've been down this road more times than I care to count. But the truth is that much of the public debate over gun rights and gun control is disingenuous. Gun owners of every stripe -- liberal, moderate, conservative -- and non-owners alike can and do agree that violent criminals, juveniles, terrorists and mental incompetents have no right to firearms. Federal and state laws, despite poor enforcement by the courts, underscore that. Further, there's no significant debate -- nor should there be -- over private ownership of guns for lawful purposes such as target shooting, hunting, self-protection and collecting.
What we do have, though, is an organization whose senior leadership is dedicated to keeping the gun debate alive and burning in the American consciousness, for its own self-serving and self-preserving reasons. That organization is the National Rifle Association.
Unfortunately for American gun owners, the nation and the NRA itself, this major lobbying group has become intoxicated with money and privilege. The leadership has lost sight of its mission. Safeguarding the rights of gun owners has become secondary to keeping the fundraising machinery well greased and the group's senior staff handsomely compensated.
I know, because I once worked for it.
In 1984, I landed my dream job as Northeast regional representative of the NRA. I was a young lawyer, keen on politics and the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms. This post promised to indulge both passions, and for a time it did. But soon enough, I was watching with growing dismay as the NRA morphed from a reasonable, responsible voice of sportsmen and firearms owners into a giant money machine that provides more benefits to its insiders than to its 3 million-plus members.
During my tenure at the NRA, the theme was "We're not in the business of fundraising; we fundraise to stay in business." The "business" of the NRA then was defending the Second Amendment rights of a considerable number of Americans (if pollsters are correct that guns are kept in almost one of every two American homes). But today, the association's primary business is fundraising. And nothing keeps the fundraising machine whirring more effectively than convincing the faithful that they're a pro-gun David facing down an invincible anti-gun Goliath.
In the NRA's lexicon, "compromise" is a dirty word, code for gun owners' surrendering their rights while getting nothing in return from gun-control advocates. Compromise is all give and no get. That definition echoes and re-echoes in the NRA's fundraising letters, which whip the membership into the check-writing frenzy that built the association into the impressive grass-roots political juggernaut it is today.
It stands to reason that cooperation among parties is the way to find solutions to deep-seated societal problems. Given its size, resources and influence, the NRA could and should be a force in solving firearms-related problems. But it is not leading such efforts even when Second Amendment protections are being denied.
Take the case of District of Columbia v. Heller, now pending before the Supreme Court. It was the libertarian Cato Institute, not the NRA, that took up the plight of D.C. residents who seek firearms for personal protection. Before the case reached the high court, the NRA did its best to derail it. Why? Because the District gun ban is one of the reddest flags the organization could wave to inflame its membership. If the NRA were to "solve" the D.C. gun-ban problem, it would lose some powerful talking points for getting the check-writing machinery rolling. Now that the case looks like a winner, the association has climbed aboard the bandwagon and will be asking for "emergency" donations to defray its legal costs.
The NRA needs dragons to slay. It's a heady feeling, striding off to battle the bad guys, whether they're Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), Rosie O'Donnell or the anti-gun groups that clamored for the hide of Bernhard Goetz, the geeky New York subway rider who used a pistol to fend off what he believed to be a threat to his life in 1984. I used to love it myself. I never dreamed that one day I'd be one of the dragons.
In 1997, after I'd left the NRA, I was running a legislative trade association for the firearms industry (Colt, Glock, Remington et al.). That's when I did the unforgivable, at least in the NRA's eyes: I found a workable solution to the problematic issue of child-safety locks on guns.
I shortstopped proposed gun-lock legislation predicted to be another slam dunk for the anti-gun movement by offering an option that made everyone happy. Well, almost everyone. In the White House Rose Garden -- standing before the NRA's bete noire, President Bill Clinton -- I announced that the firearms industry was instituting a voluntary program to include a gun lock with every handgun sold. As the television news cameras rolled, Clinton announced that he was satisfied and that no mandatory gun-lock law was needed. But NRA commanders were up in arms. They denounced me as a traitor to the sacred cause of the Second Amendment. Compromise was not good for fundraising, the NRA's lifeblood.
H arlon B. Carter, who created the modern NRA in the 1970s, earned about $70,000 a year (about $200,000 in today's dollars) as executive vice president and was driven to meetings in the company Chevrolet. Wayne LaPierre, who currently sits upon the executive vice president throne, pocketed about $950,000 in 2005. The parking lot at the association's twin-glass-towered headquarters off Interstate 66 in Virginia is filled with shiny new BMWs and Mercedes-Benzes.
What's unseemly about the stratospheric six-figure salaries flowing into NRA leadership wallets is that the cash comes from hundreds of thousands of members who are hard pressed to write $35 annual membership renewal checks or send an extra $10 or $20 to the NRA Political Victory Fund to protect their guns.
Then there's the question of the millions paid to outside lobbyists (including an ex-employee and personal friend of LaPierre's). And the millions more doled out to LaPierre's friends at the Mercury Group ad agency. Who knows how much cash, thanks to the NRA, has found its way to the company that arranges the association's travel tours, allows members to buy a home through NRA real estate brokers, finance it via an NRA mortgage, save with NRA banking services, take out NRA insurance, get laser eye surgery and shoes resoled by an NRA-affiliated vendor, then pay for everything with an NRA credit card. The association claims it was only coincidence, but LaPierre's wife happened to be the vice president for marketing for the firm that set up that bonanza of member-discount services.
The media and anti-gun politicians make a mistake by engaging with the NRA, penning inflammatory headlines, threatening to crush the organization and salt the earth beneath its headquarters. They are just reminding the NRA faithful that they're surrounded by enemies who threaten to batter down their doors and snatch their firearms. And all it results in is the constant "ka-ching" of cash rolling into NRA coffers.
If the threat to honest citizens' right to own firearms ever dipped below the radar, so too would the association's political might. That's why the NRA leadership will never tolerate the give-and-take that makes up real problem-solving. It would be bad for business.
Richard Feldman is a public affairs lawyer and the author of "Ricochet: Confessions of a Gun Lobbyist."