Most news reports on the National Rifle Association's carve-out from the DISCLOSE Act (in exchange for dropping its opposition to the campaign-finance reform bill) have offered the group's excision as proof of its political might. But to many in the greater pro-gun and conservative world, it's being interpreted as something quite different: an act of betrayal. What the controversy does reveal is that the NRA's political power--as measured by its ability to control its grassroots "warriors" as NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre likes to call them -- is neither as monolithic nor as seamless as the organization would like its political opponents to believe.
The DISCLOSE Act, intended to tighten campaign finance restrictions devastated by the U.S. Supreme Court in its Citizens United decision last January, would impose new transparency criteria for corporations airing electoral ads during the campaign season. What's fueling the anger toward the NRA is the belief that the group is willing to let other conservative voices be "silenced" under the law -- as long as the voice isn't theirs. An alert issued by Gun Owners of America (GOA) this week is fairly representative of many pro-gunners' view of the NRA's deal with the Democrats (aka "the devil") on the bill.
Citing a quote from LaPierre in the wake of the Citizens United ruling that, "This is a defeat for arrogant elitists who wanted to carve out free speech as a privilege for themselves and deny it to the rest of us," the alert charges, "That's a far cry from the NRA statement to Congress this week regarding legislation specifically designed to undo that Supreme Court decision." In the alert, GOA cites the NRA statement removing itself from the DISCLOSE debate:
On June 14, 2010, Democratic leadership in the U.S. House of Representatives pledged that H.R. 5175 [DISCLOSE Act] would be amended to exempt groups like the NRA, that meet certain criteria, from its onerous restrictions on political speech.
As a result, and as long as that remains the case, the NRA will not be involved in final consideration of the House bill.
GOA then notes, "Apparently it's ok to 'carve out' a little free speech if you're in the role of the 'elitists.' But the misguided NRA exemption will leave millions and millions of gun owners and sportsmen belonging to dozens of different organizations out in the cold."
The view that the NRA has abandoned the other Animal Farm residents in the barnyard as it leaves to learn how to walk on two feet isn't held just by fellow pro-gun groups. From blogs to talk radio, LaPierre and the NRA are being called to task for their actions.
Facing the accusation from conservative radio talk show host and NRA Life Member Lars Larson that the NRA had thrown the First Amendment free speech rights of other groups "under the bus" by agreeing not to oppose the bill, LaPierre insisted to Larson on June 16th that no deal had been cut, stating that "we didn't cut a deal -- they cut us out."
Yet contrary to LaPierre's denials, according to news reports, NRA-ILA Executive Director Chris Cox met with the DISCLOSE bill's House sponsor, Representive Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), at least twice, once accompanied by Representative Heath Shuler (D-NC) and once with Representative John Dingell (D-MI), two leading gun control opponents.
The NRA was the subject of similar criticism from Mark Levin, another popular conservative talk radio personality, who said on his June 17th show that the NRA's exemption would leave the Tea Party out in the cold and that the "leadership of the NRA has done something incredibly disgraceful." He went on to say "this is a very, very sad day for the NRA," and ended with "shame on you, shame on you."
In the blogosphere, the NRA has also found conservative critics. While RedState portrays the NRA as a "weak little girl of an organization protecting itself while throwing everyone else under the bus," others, like National Review Online, merely conclude in less colorful language that "...the NRA has apparently sold out."
And if web comments are to be believed, things aren't much better at NRA headquarters in Virginia. Under the subject line "NRA Shoots Gun Owners in the Back," commenter "Jakeiscrazy" writes, " I'm on hold now now with the NRA-ILA Grassroots Division. They must be getting a lot of calls, I've been on hold for a while."
The NRA's political might on Capitol Hill rests primarily on its ability to maintain the impression that it exerts absolute control over its gunbot grassroots "warriors." If a belief begins to take hold among its supporters that the organization is willing to side with the very "elites" it claims to detest, that control may begin to slip.