Few things make me prouder to be an American than the National Rifle Association.

Speaking at the NRA’s 2001 Annual Meeting, Sunday in Kansas City, Mo., I’ve never been surrounded by so many so dedicated to preserving our freedoms.

While the popular media tries to portray the NRA rank and file as right-wing wackos and rednecks, that’s quite a different vision from what I saw. In fact, the thousands of NRA members I met looked like you or me — the average American you’d see in your hometown. Clean cut, well-groomed and fashionably dressed, each one could be your neighbor — the one you’d invite to your Fourth of July picnic.

The NRA is a lot different than Hollywood and Peter Jennings would have you believe. Eight of 76 members of the NRA’s governing board of directors are Jewish, for instance — more than 10 percent. At the convention, there were quite a few blacks — like conservative columnist and radio host Armstrong Williams, plenty of women — like actress Susan Howard (“Dallas”) and plenty of others you wouldn’t expect if you believe what you hear on TV and read in conventional newspapers. The NRA is a cross-section of America, more representative than many other organizations — including the self-anointed Million Moms, a largely upper-middle-class group of soccer moms and semi-celebrities who push gun control.

But what doesn’t make NRA members average is their dedication to our basic civil rights. They recognize that without a strong Second Amendment, Americans might as well forget the rest of the Bill of Rights — especially the First Amendment’s free speech protections.

Anyone who doubts that, hasn’t been following the so-called campaign finance reform efforts of Sen. John McCain over the last couple of years. Make no mistake about it. McCain’s claim to be worried about money’s alleged control over the election process is phony. This is simply a McCain attempt to score political popularity points at the expense of our most precious freedom — political speech. And clearly, the free speech of the NRA is McCain’s biggest target, as evidenced by the senator’s comments on Sunday’s political shows. McCain attacked the NRA because he lost — fair and square — the South Carolina Republican Primary and did not get to be president.

And, while campaign finance reform was the centerpiece of his campaign there, the NRA was his primary target. In the battle between McCain and free speech, the NRA won.

And the NRA is still winning. The Million Moms, who never were a million, are faltering. Almost all of their candidates lost the 2000 elections, and — as reported by Independence Institute scholar and National Review columnist Dave Kopel — they laid off 30 of their 35 staffers. In contrast, the NRA is a record 4.3 million members strong and growing — one of the largest citizen organizations in America. Over 86 percent of NRA-endorsed candidates won their elections, and Fortune Magazine just named the NRA as the most influential lobbying group in America. Even in Hollywood, which hates the NRA and disdains average Americans, shows that proudly feature guns in crime-fighting — like Pamela
Anderson’s “VIP” and Chuck Norris’ “Walker, Texas Ranger” (which just ended a ratings-winning 9 seasons) — are hits.

By comparison, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “The Sixth Day” — for which he refused to appear holding a gun in promotional posters — was a dud. Best of all, annoying, super-sized, gun-grabbing loudmouth Rosie O’Donnell, whose ratings have sunk since she attacked Tom Selleck for his NRA affiliation, announced she’s leaving the airwaves after next season.

Even Steven Yokich, leader of the United Auto Workers union, paid backhanded respects to the NRA’s positive influence on his own members, when he frantically used union members’ forced dues to fund dual attacks on the NRA and campaign pushes for Al Gore, last fall. He recognized, as did the NRA, that many union members believe in the Second Amendment. The NRA brought President Charlton Heston and Vice President Wayne LaPierre on speaking tours of swing states with heavy union populations. That’s why, last year, traditionally Democratic, union-dominated states like Arkansas and West Virginia, voted for a Republican presidential

But the NRA’s popularity is not about guns or hunting or big money. It’s about freedom.

The average NRA member is not a wealthy person. He or she is not like Denise and Marc Rich or Peter Buttenweiser — one of the Democrats’ largest soft-money donors. Many of them are Yokich’s working-class union members, working the assembly line, like my late cousin Marc — a target of union-paid gun-related propaganda supporting Al Gore. Or moms raising children at home. They want the same freedom as the wealthy to protect themselves — and to support or oppose politicians who want to preserve or attack, respectively, that right. And since they cannot individually afford costly television advertising, they join the NRA, which represents them collectively and runs ads reflecting their desire to preserve their constitutional rights.

John McCain wants to take those rights away. His McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Reform Act would reform free political speech — the basis for the very establishment of this nation — out of existence. It prohibits issue ads mentioning a candidate’s name in the crucial 60 days prior to an election. Just imagine the Boston Tea Party or Paul Revere’s ride under McCain-Feingold.

“No taxation without. … We now pre-empt this protest of the British Stamp Act for 60 days due to the proclamation of Lord John McCain.”

“One if by land, two if by — oops, Landholder McCain says we can’t mention the King’s name right now. See ya in 60 days.”

McCain’s bill is not a question of “Big Brother” vs. “Big Money.” It will not restrict the wealthy who can find ways around campaign finance reform, like buying offshore broadcasters. But it will protect the jobs of incumbents, like Sen. McCain, and other members of the Senate — at least two-thirds of whom are millionaires. Competition, as American as apple pie, will be a thing of the past in elections. Think Senatrix Hillary for life. If you run your own small website attacking, say, Teddy Kennedy, imagine having to take it offline for 60 days before an election. The Wall Street Journal recently ran an article about one such website operator. The Federal Election Commission told him he’d have to file “independent expenditure reports.” And under McCain’s fascist bill, he’d have to shut down.

There’s only one possible benefit of McCain’s anti-democratic legislation. He recently began appearing in annoying, unnecessary, pro-trigger-lock “public service” ads at a theater near you. Bankrolled to the tune of $250,000 by pro-gun control “Americans for Gun Safety” — which is funded by Monster.com’s billionaire founder — they are nothing more than McCain for president ads, which would be proscribed under his bill.

Or maybe not.

Hollywood and public service ads are not included in McCain’s campaign finance restrictions. And union actions, like Yokich’s anti-NRA leaflets, were specifically excluded and allowed.

In the NRA forum in which I spoke, pollster Kellyanne Fitzpatrick Conway, president of The Polling Company, pointed out that campaign finance reform is unimportant to voters. A recent ABC News/Washington Post poll confirmed this, with campaign finance reform ranking 16th out of 18 issues in importance to Americans. Even in the New Hampshire Primary, only 9 percent of McCain voters cited it as their reason for voting McCain.

So why is it so important to McCain? As someone once said, “Truth is hate to those who hate the truth.” To John McCain, truth is a campaign commercial, and those who hate it push for anti-democratic campaign finance reform.

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