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Editor’s note: The DISCLOSE Act passed through the U.S. House shortly after this column was written. See Jeff Knox’s additional comments at the end.
A firestorm was ignited this week when it was announced that House Democrats had carved out an exemption for the National Rifle Association in proposed new federal campaign legislation and that the NRA was no longer going to oppose the bill.
The new campaign legislation is a response to the recent Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. The Federal Election Commission. In that case the Court held that groups like NRA could not be blocked from mentioning a candidate’s name during the 60 days prior to an election.
The proposed legislation – which is still only available in synopsis form – would tightly regulate the political speech of any corporation (most nonprofits and political organizations are corporations) and require extensive recordkeeping and public disclosure of contributors’ names. Such disclosure is particularly hard on gun-rights organizations as our members tend to be vehemently opposed to having their names put on lists – particularly lists identifying them as likely gun owners.
The NRA has long been a leader in defense of constitutionally protected political speech, and they had stepped up in opposition to this latest threat. Unfortunately, rather than stand strong on principle of liberty and the rule of the Constitution, NRA suggested to the bill’s sponsors that as long as the proposed legislation did not apply to NRA, the association would withdraw their opposition. Good for NRA, but bad for every other group and the Constitution.
Detractors immediately accused leaders of the 4-million-member gun-owner group of betraying their principles, their state affiliates and all gun owners who support groups other than the NRA.
NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre strongly defended the association’s actions during an interview with syndicated talk-show host Lars Larson. LaPierre declared that as CEO of NRA his first responsibility was to protect and defend the Second Amendment and NRA’s ability to defend those rights via the First Amendment. LaPierre repeatedly stated strong personal and corporate repugnance to any attempt to abridge First Amendment rights, but made it clear that as long as the so-called “DISCLOSE Act” did not directly impact NRA, the association would not actively oppose the bill.
In LaPierre’s words, “We’re not in it.”
In an ironic twist, it appears likely that the NRA deal has seriously diminished the chances the “DISCLOSE Act” had of passing. At least three Democrat senators have expressed their opposition to the bill; Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey and Dianne Feinstein of California object to the NRA being exempted from the speech-restriction bill, while Ben Nelson of Nebraska opposes the whole idea of restricting political speech. Their opposition places the Democrats’ ability to break a filibuster in serious doubt.
Of course, a filibuster would only succeed if all Republicans in the Senate were to stick together – something they are not noted for.
House members are also balking at the bill as the outrage of the grass roots is beginning to burn up their telephone and Internet connections and more members of Congress learn the particulars of the bill and of the special treatment allotted to NRA.
Conservative and liberal groups alike are loudly objecting to the NRA exemption. This brings much-needed exposure to the speech-limitation legislation and is causing conflict among the supporters of the bill. Many oppose the NRA exception, but many more, who depend on GunVoter support for reelection, say they will not support the bill if the NRA or GunVoters oppose it.
Sponsors of the bill are in the difficult position of either staying the present course and muscling through the objections of their fellow Democrats, broadening definitions to exempt many more groups or removing the NRA exemption and having one of the most powerful lobbying organizations in the country once again fighting the bill with all of their resources.
The confusion and conflict among Democrats is good news for supporters of liberty and the Constitution.
Had the current political situation been created in any manner other than NRA placing self-interest above constitutional principles, I would be thrilled with the situation. Instead I am frustrated and disappointed. As a life member of NRA, I strongly support their political agenda as well as their shooting programs. In this instance I fear that Mr. LaPierre and NRA leadership have seriously shot themselves in the foot and their intransigent, unapologetic attitude is just adding insult to injury.
NRA’s opposition to the rape of the First Amendment should not be based solely on how such rape will affect them directly, but also how it will affect the movement as a whole, their state affiliates and fellow rights organizations – and the integrity of the Constitution itself. When they accepted this deal, NRA abdicated the moral high ground in favor of wallowing in the mud with the swine.
In the wake of the bill’s passage
The ill-named DISCLOSE Act was passed out of the U.S. House on June 24 by a vote of 219 to 206. The NRA did not oppose the bill. The proposal now goes to the Senate where free-speech advocates are hoping for a filibuster to block passage.
The prime sponsor in the Senate, however, is Chuck Schumer of New York, a consummate dealmaker, meaning even though there are Democrats upset about the NRA carve-out in the bill, Schumer has a good chance of pushing it through. It is quite possible that he will strip the NRA protections out of the bill before passage. That would leave NRA complicit in passing restrictions on themselves.
A last-minute amendment to the bill also excluded labor unions from the restrictions of the bill. Expect this whole mess to get messier in the coming days.