WASHINGTON -- The newly elected president of the National Rifle Association, James Porter II, opened the NRA's annual convention this past weekend by declaring that the debate over gun control "is not a battle over gun rights." It is "a culture war," he said, and NRA members are "the fighters for freedom. We are the protectors.”
This kind of fiery rhetoric has already endeared Porter to the gun lobby's grassroots base, who view proposed legislation to expand background checks for gun buyers as an affront to their constitutional rights.
They also like his attacks on the Obama administration. In the past few years, Porter has called Barack Obama a "fake" president, described Attorney General Eric Holder as "rabidly un-American," and accused the administration of making "a run on our rights," in order to "take us to a European socialistic, bureaucratic type of government."
But far from the political wrangling in Washington, there's a second front in Porter's war, with battles being waged in state and federal courthouses across the country. The NRA and its allies are challenging gun control laws in court, hoping to capitalize on the landmark 2008 Supreme Court decision District of Columbia v. Heller, which affirmed the individual right to own a firearm.
Deciding how and when it's best to proceed with these cases is precisely the sort of expertise that Porter, a career litigator, brings to the presidency of the NRA, said Ken Klukowski, a professor of law at Liberty University and former NRA staffer.
"Jim's election reflects the board's awareness of the growing importance of making the right decisions regarding Second Amendment litigation," Klukowski said. "He understands where the opportunities are for us to make headway, and where the challenges are, so he can make decisions about where to put strategic resources."
In a February commentary in The Daily Caller, NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre wrote that building the "legal capability" at the NRA was the first step of the gun lobby's long-term strategy to "withstand the siege that is coming."
According to LaPierre, the likelihood that Obama will nominate pro-gun-control judges to the federal bench has forced the NRA to increase the pace of its litigation. "Some cases, on which we might have improved our chances of victory by waiting a while, are going to have to be brought now," he wrote. "Besides bringing affirmative pro-rights cases, we will also have to litigate against the flood of new anti-gun federal regulations that are coming, and against anti-gun laws" passed by state legislatures in the wake of the Sandy Hook school shooting.
In March, the first of these post-Sandy Hook cases was filed in New York state by an NRA-affiliated gun group. It challenges the constitutionality of tough new statewide bans on high-capacity magazines and military-style assault weapons. Similar lawsuits are reportedly being prepared in Maryland, Connecticut and Colorado, the three other states so far where legislatures have voted to tighten gun laws in the months since the tragedy in Newtown, Conn.
"At this stage in the NRA's history, Jim Porter will be the perfect match for president," David Keene, the NRA's outgoing president, told The Washington Times last week. "As we are likely to win most of the legislative battles in Congress, we will have to move to courts to undo the restrictions placed on gun owners' rights in New York, Connecticut, Maryland and Colorado."
Porter's connections to both the NRA and the legal profession date back to his childhood. His father was a lawyer who served as NRA president from 1959 to 1960, and Porter has recalled childhood summers spent at Ohio's state-owned Camp Perry, where the NRA holds shooting competitions. "I practically grew up in Camp Perry over the first 18 summers of my life," he said in 2009.
Porter has served as a member of the NRA's board for more than 20 years and has advised the organization on litigation in the past. His small Birmingham, Ala., law practice has defended gun manufacturers in product liability suits, and he is also a trustee of the NRA's Civil Rights Defense Fund, which reviews applications for funding from individuals and groups that are involved in court cases over gun rights.
To date, the NRA has generally approached court cases as small battles in the larger war for gun rights. "Courts are reluctant to offer broad constitutional rulings with regard to individual rights," Richard Broughton, a professor of law at the University of Detroit and a former Justice Department prosecutor, told The Huffington Post in February.
Other groups, such as the Second Amendment Foundation, have been more aggressive in seeking to expand gun rights through the courts and have won some notable victories. But the NRA, wary of losing a major case that could stymie protections for gun owners for years to come, has generally avoided seeking sweeping rulings. Instead, the group has generally challenged specific aspects of individual gun laws and asked courts to interpret narrowly the scope of those laws. The NRA's long-term goal, Broughton said, was to "win smaller victories they can build on" in order to create favorable legal precedent.
The NRA's strategy, however, appears to be changing. The legal challenge in New York, brought by the NRA-affiliated New York State Rifle and Pistol Association, is based on an argument that banning military-style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines violates not only the Second Amendment's right to keep and bear arms, but the 14th Amendment's guarantee of due process. The plaintiffs have asked a federal court to rule that the state bans are therefore null and void -- not an incremental step, but a sweeping decision with wide-ranging implications.
The broad nature of the lawsuit in New York may not be typical of the NRA, but an NRA staffer, who spoke on background to discuss legal strategy, said it was necessary now. "The recent state battles have been forced upon us," he said, referring as well to the gun reforms in Colorado, Connecticut and Maryland. "The sweeping nature of our response reflects the sweeping nature of these new laws," he said.
Porter is expected to bring his own leadership style to the president's office, one that's less politically oriented than that of David Keene. Before assuming the top job at the gun lobby, Keene had spent many years at the American Conservative Union, a right-leaning public policy group, and had built a reputation within the conservative movement as a savvy political strategist.
Keene's experience made him a natural fit to lead the NRA during the national political debate over gun rights. Charlton Heston, who served five consecutive terms as NRA president from 1998 to 2003, used his Hollywood celebrity to get the NRA's message out at public events, but largely left the political strategy to others. "Each new president adapts their role to the strengths they bring to the table," said Klukowski.
In Porter, the NRA seems to have elected a president who is closer to the grassroots and is prepared to fight their battles.
"When Porter refers to the culture war, he's talking about American gun culture -- the culture of hunting, target shooting, outdoor life and family traditions that are all part of the heritage of the NRA," said Klukowski. "The Second Amendment here is every bit a social issue, and like most other culture war issues, the NRA understands that when it comes to gun rights, the courts will have the final word.
"That's why they've asked Jim Porter to be president," he said.