The Campaign Spot

Did the NRA Help Stop DISCLOSE, or Leave the Fight Too Early?

If the DISCLOSE Act is really kaput, a major internal fight among conservative organizations has thankfully been brought to an end.


My buddy Cam, who hosts his show on and Sirius/XM, offered the perspective of the National Rifle Association: that its first mission, above all others, is to protect the rights of gun owners and ensure that their voice is heard. Like an attorney who must always act in the best interest of its client, the NRA had to prioritize protecting its members’ rights first; all other considerations, including how terribly the bill limits other groups’ First Amendment rights, must be secondary.

I understand where they are coming from, and perhaps they saw any alternative course as abandoning their primary duty. But with respect to Cam, everyone at the NRA, and everyone else who saw it otherwise, I think their stance was the wrong call.

Most conservatives, and many Republicans, felt the original McCain-Feingold bill was fundamentally unconstitutional, restricting Americans’ First Amendment right to speak their minds and spread their message before an election. President Bush himself apparently had concerns about whether some provisions were constitutional, but signed it into law anyway, expecting that the Supreme Court would strike down the parts that troubled him. A hard lesson to learn: Don’t count on the Supreme Court.

The lesson of the McCain-Feingold fight is that if you see legislation that fundamentally violates constitutional rights, kill it. Do not try to minimize the damage. Do not try to get the best deal you can. Do not count on even a John Roberts–led court to do the unpopular work and strike it down. Do not count on any other part of our political or judicial system to step in. Do not pass “Go” or collect 200 dollars. Kill it, kill it, kill it before it can put down roots.

Because we have a governing class that literally “doesn’t care” about the Constitution. As far as they’re concerned, the Commerce Clause ensures that Congress can pass any idea that pops into its members’ heads if the votes are there. Ben Stein tells how the White House press office told him that no enumerated power in the Constitution or federal law was required for Obama to fire the head of GM. This crew thinks that the Constitution ensures the government’s right to require citizens to purchase health insurance. As Charles Kesler noted, “TARP, for example, was an unprecedented delegation of legislative power to the Treasury secretary, of all people. It was a desperate, essentially lawless grant resembling the ancient Roman dictatorship, except that the Romans wisely confined their dictators to six-month terms.”

Up against a crew like this, for whom the Constitution is a dusty museum relic, you don’t take the best deal available.

At least, that’s my take. Here’s the other argument from David Keene, NRA First Vice-President:

I have been an NRA Board member for some years and currently serve as NRA’s First Vice-President — that you may know. What you may not know is that I have been in the forefront of the fight against liberal attempts to tilt the political playing field their way for decades through what they like to call campaign finance reform. This is a battle that began in the seventies when I put together the case that went to the United States Supreme Court known as Buckley v. Valeo. I was a vocal opponent of the so-called McCain-Feingold “reforms” that shackled groups like the NRA in recent years, and I have served as a First Amendment Fellow at Vanderbilt University’s Freedom Forum.

I can assure you that I would never countenance a “deal” of the sort you think the NRA made with Congress to further Democratic attempts to restrict political speech. I consider such restrictions to be not only repugnant, but blatantly unconstitutional, an opinion shared by NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre and Institute for Legislative Action Executive Director Chris Cox.

The so-called “DISCLOSE ACT” is a horrible piece of legislation designed to do exactly what you suggest. It would require advocacy groups to run a regulatory gauntlet designed to make it very difficult for many of them to play the role for which they were formed and is both bad policy and flies in the face of recent Supreme Court decisions.

But I’m afraid there’s more . . . particularly how it would affect the NRA. When you think of the NRA you no doubt think mostly about the NRA’s advocacy on Second Amendment issues, but the NRA also provides training to its members, law enforcement and military personnel, works with states, counties and private organizations to build ranges and runs competitive events such as those at Camp Perry in Ohio. Since Camp Perry is a military base, public monies go into range development and federal funds go to training military and police personnel, the NRA would be classed with government contractors and TARP recipients under the DISCLOSE ACT as originally written and effectively prohibited from engaging in any meaningful political activity.

In other words, this act as originally written by anti-gun legislators like New York Senator Chuck Schumer would have silenced the NRA . . . which would have been the death knell for the Second Amendment.

NRA has one major mission . . . to defend the right of its members and all Americans to keep & bear arms as guaranteed by the Second Amendment. Therefore, the NRA served notice on Congress that since the act threatened our very existence, we were prepared to do anything and everything that might be required to defeat it unless it was changed so that we could continue to represent the views of our members in the public arena. The letter, sent on May 26, was public. The NRA did not engage in back room shenanigans, but told Congressional leaders quite clearly that we would do whatever we needed to do to protect the rights of our members and our ability to defend the Second Amendment.

Last week Democratic leadership in the House capitulated by agreeing to exempt the NRA from the act — not in return for NRA support, but to avoid a political war that might cost them even more seats this fall.

I have to tell you that I never thought the Democrats would agree to this — not because they have much regard for constitutional rights — because I didn’t believe their left wing would allow it. The events since their capitulation convince me that their fear of NRA retaliation forced them to take steps that split their coalition and could easily doom the whole bill.

Consider this: on Thursday night, California Senator Diane Feinstein, one of the most anti–Second Amendment members of the Senate, announced that she wouldn’t support the DISCLOSE ACT if it exempted the NRA. By Friday some two-dozen left wing activist groups that had previously been pressing Congress to pass the bill announced that now they wanted it defeated.

The bottom line is that in refusing to risk its members’ rights and the very survival of the Second Amendment, the NRA has also made it less rather than more likely that support for this terrible legislation will collapse and the free speech rights of every one of us will benefit.

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