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Gut Questions for the NRA Board

by John G. Lankford

October 31, 2001

As the National Rifle Association (NRA) begins committee meetings, culminating in a Board of Directors meeting, this week, its ultimate authorities, the Board members, no doubt have many issues and questions to address.

But only two of them, at this time, present perils to the institutional integrity of the NRA itself. Those two occupy the table accompanied by indignant threats to quit, to decline to renew membership, to cease paying dues, heard from considerable numbers of members. Those are (1) equivocation, and (2) CARA.

Many NRA members, and many rival gun owners' and Second Amendment defenders' organizations have in the recent past faulted NRA for acquiescing in what some term "reasonable" restrictions on firearms rights, ones such as registration of guns or their owners, mandatory trigger locks or so-called smart-gun devices, passing another law for gun-show attendees already verging on lawbreaking by attending gun shows to break, and comparable equivocation on what many members see as an absolute, unquestionable, natural, Constitutionally-protected right, the right to keep and bear arms. Alternative gun organizations have filled their membership rolls with NRA members and others seeking representation of that adamant point of view.

The equivocation question became particularly compelling September 11, since which date the country has been in -- more or less -- a state of resolved if not declared war against enemies who infiltrate civil society and strike civilian targets. The cravenness and pusillanimity of those foes results in a domestic situation in which it is not possible to declare a single square foot of the United States of America proof against assault, thus one in which the military, National Guard, and police organizations are spread too thin to afford reliable security. Many gun owners' answer is the keeping and, more frequently, bearing of arms by responsible citizens. For them, any restrictions on citizen armament and access to arms and ammunition are now particularly unthinkable.

CARA is the Conservation and Reinvestment Act, H.R. 701, now past the House of Representatives Resources Committee and available to be called to the House floor, where it would arrive with a favorable committee recommendation, for a vote. The measure is also represented by two parallel bills in the Senate, both currently referred to committee. CARA would divert more than $45 billion of oil and gas royalty payments from offshore oilfields from the general revenue pool to special funds mainly devoted to acquisition and administration of public lands.

It has drawn widespread opposition from Constitutional-integrity, property owners', taxpayer advocates' and even gun rights organizations. The CARA controversy has inspired livid opposition from many NRA members, a few affiliated state gun interests organizations, and even some NRA directors.

Presenting great awkwardness is the fact that CARA's author and chief sponsor is Rep. Don Young, R-AK, an NRA Board member. Since 1998, the NRA's legislative lobbying arm, the Institute for Legislative Action (ILA), has been maneuvering on Capitol Hill in support of Young's bill. Most NRA directors, however, were until recently completely unfamiliar with CARA. It appears the bill was never briefed, or, at least, emphasized, at committee or Directors' meetings. At meetings scheduled this week and weekend, it is to be taken up and voted on by the Directors, who nominally set NRA policy and can by resolution bind the ILA, for the first time.

Parsing the Critical Question

It is generally acknowledged the Board has three alternatives: to affirm the ILA's support for CARA, to oppose CARA, or to adopt a neutral stance. And in that three-way choice, the compelling issues of equivocation and CARA boil down to one: whether to take a stand or to adopt a neutral, equivocal position. The latter choice risks being perceived by adamant members as an indication of irresolution, with implications for issues they care about even more than CARA. Therefore, it also risks further dissension and possible diminution in membership and influence.

In the institutional self-interest of the NRA, a preference for a decision on CARA, yea or nay, to signal decisiveness in the abstract, is indicated. That, of course, does not inform Directors which CARA position should be taken.

That question admits of two approaches: one on the perceived merits or demerits of CARA itself, the other, again, with an eye to institutional integrity. Here "integrity" is not meant as a synonym of honesty or astuteness, but rather in the sense that a sound bridge that will support many crossings and withstand many stresses has structural integrity.

CARA is a complex, multi-faceted bill. NRA-ILA supports the entire package because of the prospect it will greatly enlarge one fund, the Pittman-Robertson Fund. That fund is now generated by an excise tax on firearms and ammunition sales, and is dedicated to conservation of wildlife and hunting terrain in general and game animals in particular, plus establishment and operation of public shooting ranges. Some who favor CARA also believe its provisions for acquisition of more public property will expand available hunting and shooting-range amenities. For those reasons, NRA-ILA recommends accepting the rest of the package.

On the hunters'- and shooters'- interest issue alone, opponents say environmental zealots are already energetically at work legislating, regulating, and litigating everyone else off public lands, wielding vastly exaggerated but nevertheless accepted interpretations of the Endangered Species Act as trump card in every contest. NRA's New York State affiliate, on its website (left screen, scroll down to "Political Action" and, under that, click "(CARA)") has announced opposition to CARA from the single-issue-charter-group stance NRA-ILA assumed to support it.

But the single greatest opposition group is composed of people convinced CARA will further erode private property rights by empowering their adversaries. NewsMax columnist Diane Alden has railed against CARA for years, mainly on property and rural lifestyle grounds. Jay Zane Walley, NRA member and leader of the property-defending, government-incursion-opposing Paragon Foundation, is another intrepid campaigner, credited (or charged, depending on conviction) by many with generating the uproar over CARA within the NRA membership. NRA state affiliate Arizona State Rifle and Pistol Association Legislative Liaison Landis Aden said that group cannot see separating Second Amendment and property rights, and maintains CARA poses a threat to the latter.

As noted before, a spectrum of other interest groups has announced in opposition. Last weekend, NRA Board Member Grover Norquist, long-time and eminent tax reduction activist, reminded fellow members he testified against CARA in years past, and confirmed he still maintains his opposition. "I am strongly opposed to CARA and have testified against this anti-property rights, anti-taxpayer legislation in the House of Representatives," Norquist said.

The merits of CARA, for the NRA, seem to boil down to this: do its prospective benefits outweigh opponents' misgivings, and are safeguards addressing their concerns, as NRA-ILA Executive Director James Jay Baker contends, adequate, even though the opponents do not think so? And those questions settle out in this one: Is government, given its recent record, trustworthy to keep CARA from being abused or overextended by environmental zealots or empire-building civil servants? Obviously, reasonable people can differ, and, indeed, it was perceived NRA-ILA dismissiveness of Walley and other opponents' concerns that inspired widespread member anger as much as the NRA-ILA stance itself.

Institutional Considerations

At this point it is legitimate for the NRA Directors, as Directors, to depart from the nebulosities of CARA's merits and consider the effect of support or opposition to CARA on the NRA itself. From that perspective, this consideration leaps forward: How many members have expressed outrage at the prospect the NRA may oppose CARA, threatening, whether sincerely or not, to quit? How many Directors and State affiliates have announced foursquare in favor of CARA? Outside Rep. Young and the NRA-ILA staff, is there any fervent NRA constituency in favor of CARA, countervailing the lists of members, state organizations, and Directors who have so stridently declared against it?

This columnist, after studying the bill, took a stance in opposition from the time I began to write about CARA. People in favor may not have been willing to transmit their sentiments in my direction. But my own investigations have not revealed any fervent CARA supporters. Responses to queries directed to state affiliates, so far, have produced two opponents, Alan Rice and Jonathan Evans, directors of Gun Owners of New Hampshire, but otherwise, in keeping with the GONH official position announced by association President R. Craig Peterson, all state affiliates (except those of CARA-opposing New York and Arizona, mentioned above), that have replied have either decided to take no position or are awaiting the NRA Directors' decision before making their own.

If the opinion count is divided between the opposed and indifferent-or-undecided as it appears from here, the consideration of maintenance of NRA constituent cohesiveness appears to militate toward opposing CARA. That is not to say that decisions are to be made solely by polls. For Directors convinced the merits of CARA outweigh objections to it, conviction should dictate vote. But, unless appearances at this station deceive, what may be thought a decision taken ahead of the popular learning curve would be accompanied by a necessity to conduct much patient persuasion. The website address of the National Rifle Association is, after all, "MyNRA.org", and many may see the reality of the matter as otherwise unless laboriously brought around to supporters' way of thinking.

Institutionally, any erosion of NRA member support might well be accompanied by an even greater diminution of NRA's current tremendous public policy influence, due to a perception the leadership does not speak for the members -- and their votes, votes being the currency and lifeblood of people in two of government's three branches. Given the apparent unanimity of CARA opposition by other gun organizations, the firearms liberty movement itself might be perceived as divided, or, at least, divisible with a little political spadework.

On the other -- institutional -- hand, alignment with the viewpoints of other gun organizations, plus tax, Constitutional-integrity, and property rights organizations could coalesce a broad and powerful working alliance on which NRA could call for support on its own interests. Property rights activists claim there is a link between their concerns and Second Amendment concerns. Should NRA agree, then they would be craven indeed to withhold their support on Second Amendment issues primarily addressed by the NRA.

In the new Internet-enabled era, some have, probably prematurely, pronounced the death of classical political parties. Power abhors a vacuum. What is moving into such void as may be is constant individual messaging to Congress, The president, and the government, much of that sparked by alerts e-mailed by interest groups to their members and other alert-list subscribers.

In this environment, a coalition of special interest groups can combine at times and, without risking charges of weakening due to fragmentation or disunity as political parties do, go their separate ways at others. But any regime of loosely federated autonomous single-issue organizations and groups of organizations -- especially if composed of memberships inclined to be Internet-active -- can expect to wield increasing influence in future years. Due to NRA's size, stature, and record of achievement, its particular influence within any such coalition would necessarily be tremendous.

According, then, to this (admittedly largely hypothetical) analysis, the NRA Board may face a choice somewhat separate from that based strictly on CARA's merits: whether to risk a degree of fragmentation within its own ranks and alienation of other shooters' interest groups by maintaining support, or to take a step toward internal cohesion and working coalition with the other groups by opposing CARA as they do.

A ship in turmoil, so to speak, struggles to stay afloat whatever its course, whereas a ship well-found and in shipshape condition is fit to transport its burdens and join, perhaps even lead, a great fleet.

Read other reports from Mr. Lankford at http://www.KeepAndBearArms.com/Lankford.

 

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