| 08 July 2008
The Zeskind Fortnight No. 7
Election 2008: The Gun Lobby Shoots for the Right
By Leonard Zeskind
In the election calculus of 2008, differentiating the relative importance of the National Rifle Association may be a little trickier than usual, in part because the Supreme Court recently adopted a position on individual gun rights similar to that of the NRA’s. Long a stalwart player from the conservative Republican side of the street, the NRA suffers from little of the irresoluteness common this year among some anti-McCain leaders of the Christian right. It knows what it wants to do—oppose Obama—and it has already announced plans to
mobilize its millions of members and spend forty million dollars towards that goal. “After eight years of Republican rule and Democratic acquiescence on the gun issue, the NRA views itself in a position of power,” explained Josh Sugarmann, the executive director of the Violence Policy Center (www.vpc.org) and the pre-eminent authority on the gun lobby. But its scare-the-people-about-the-gun-grabbers routine may not play the same this time around.
The NRA claims, of course, that it is a non-ideological, non-partisan advocate of Second Amendment rights. But who can forget that speech at the 1997 Free Congress Foundation when NRA president Charlton Heston averred that the conservative assembly needed to defend "mainstream America” from the “misguided Cinderella attitudes, the fringe propaganda of the homosexual coalition, the feminists who preach that it's a divine duty for women to hate men, blacks who raise a militant fist with one hand while they seek preference with the other." Then as if to top off his rant, Heston asked, "Why is `Hispanic Pride' or `black pride' a good thing, while `white pride' conjures up shaved heads and white hoods? I'll tell you why: cultural warfare." (Remember, the cinematic Moses was supposed to soften the NRA’s public image after President Bush the First excoriated its militia-style rhetoric and one-time NRA member Timothy McVeigh blew up the Oklahoma City federal building.)
Heston is long gone from the organization's top spot, and it is really not fair to pin everything on a dead person. So look at their recently concluded convention in Louisville. Here the speakers list included Sen. Mitch McConnell (Kentucky), Governor Bobby Jindal (Louisiana), Governor Mitt Romney (Massachusetts), Karl Rove and Oliver North—Republicans all. And speaking also, the Republican nominee himself—Sen. John McCain. The hometown newspaper, the Courier-Journal, gave voice to the hotel and visitor bureau’s pleasure at being the recipient of so many NRA dollars.
By contrast, just days after fifteen people died in a gun-shooting rampage at Columbine High School in 1999, the Mayor of Denver asked NRA conventioneers to stay away. The city lost almost 18 million in tourist dollars as the NRA closed down its convention plans and held only its mandatory annual membership meeting.
From personal experience, this writer can attest to the bonanza-like character of NRA conventions. Hundreds of exhibit booths display the latest in gun-related paraphernalia (including backpacks with hidden holsters for your own personal weapon). Visitors can shoot air pistols at a carnival-size shooting range. And there is always at least one banquet or workshop to satisfy your personal taste. These events are not celebrations of hunters and sport-shooting enthusiasts, however, as much as they are showcases for political power. And in the world of beltway lobbies, the National Rifle Association has been particularly persuasive.
In May, the Supreme Court decided that the Second Amendment did in fact, guarantee an individual’s right to keep and bear arms. Although the court majority, led by Justice Scalia, declared that their opinion did not clash with Supreme Court past decisions, Justice Stevens, writing for the minority, reminded his colleagues that in the past the court had held that the right to have weapons was not an individual right, but contingent on membership in a state militia. Although the actual policy and statutory impact of the majority decision is not yet completely known, the National Rifle Association celebrated the declaration of individual gun rights. Not known is how the “unorganized militias” of the Clinton era militia, would respond. They argued that their own guns were imbued with constitutional power by their membership in a vigilante gang they called a militia.
Any assessment of the NRA’s role in this year’s election should include a look at its money-power. The revenue for the year 2006 was a whopping $165.5 million, according to the most recent and publicly available IRS Form 990. It is difficult for a layperson to completely decipher its complicated finances, which include ownership of an office tower in Virginia, a credit card and insurance service it sells its members, and an octopus-like organizational assemblage that includes a foundation and political action committee. Nevertheless, certain facts stand out. Its revenue stream was eight and a half times larger than the income of People for the American Way, the largest of the DC-based organizations battling the Christian right. The NRA’s executive vice-president, Wayne LaPierre, pulls down the tidy sum of $666,451 in annual compensation and another $56,000 in benefits. (Mr. Jim Buckshot should remember those numbers the next time Wayne asks him to turnover part of his hard-earned weekly take home for the Big Guy’s retirement benefit.)
A closer looked at the tax return also raises questions about the supposed $40 million the NRA promises to spend opposing Sen. Barack Obama. Judging from past practices, it will spend many of those dollars in mass mailings and publications, and Form 990 shows expenses of more than $19 million in printing and publications and another $700,000 in postage and shipping in 2006. So that supposed forty million may not be new money, but rather would include regularly occurring program costs, at least in part.
There are other pots of money the organization will spend in this election cycle, of course. Its PAC, the National Rifle Association of America Political Victory Fund, spent over $9.5 million in federal campaigns during the 2004 election year, according to Federal Election Commission documents. In this election year, the NRA is likely to spend amounts similar to those in past elections. Already in this election cycle, the PAC had received over ten million dollars in contributions, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Adding further to the NRA’s steam will be its “ground game,” mobilizing their members congressional district by district, and getting them to scare their friends into voting against Obama. Here the actual size of the membership matters in our analysis. The NRA bellows loudly that it has four million members, and if true that would be one million more souls added to their past numbers. But the NRA will not allow any independent count of its members. The Violence Policy Center’s Sugarmann thinks the number may be closer to three million, according to a blog he wrote in The Huffington Post Citing the Audit Bureau of Circulation, he explained that every adult member of the NRA is entitled to a choice of one of three magazines—the operant word being “free.” The total circulation for these three magazines as of December 2007, Sugarmann writes was 2.7 million—a long way from four million members.
In a year in which voter mobilization will mean everything, the NRA might simply not have the numbers it claims to have. And hunters and sports-shooters may yet decide that the political party of Dick Cheney never has been able to shoot straight with them.
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