Speak softly and carry a concealed handgun: would a nicer NRA be more effective?

Author:Sullum, Jacob
Position:Ricochet: Confessions of a Gun Lobbyist - Book review

Ricochet: Confessions of a Gun Lobbyist, by Richard Feldman, New York: John Wiley & Sons, 296 pages, $24.95

IN SEPTEMBER the National Rifle Association unveiled a $15 million advertising campaign urging voters in key states to "Defend Freedom" and "Defeat Obama." It declared that the Illinois senator "would be the most anti-gun president in American history." FactCheck.org, a nonpartisan project of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center, issued a scathing analysis of the NRA's effort, saying it "distorts Obama's position on gun control beyond recognition."A co-author of the FactCheck critique went further, telling Fox News the ads were "one of the worst examples of lying" he had "ever seen."

FactCheck made some legitimate points. An NRA flyer, for example, misleadingly presented inferences based on positions Obama has taken over the years as his "10 Point Plan to 'Change' the Second Amendment." Yet all the verifiable claims in the NRA'S TV spots had a factual basis, a point FactCheck missed largely because the NRA refused to provide its sources and explain its reasoning. According to FactCheck, the NRA'S public affairs director"declined to speak to us except to say that the claims are based on Obama's voting record and statements he has made in the media."

The episode made me think of Richard Feldman, the former NRA and gun industry lobbyist who argues that such apparent errors in public relations are in fact calculated attempts to foster unfair treatment so the NRA can complain about it. The organization and its supporters portrayed FactCheck's critique, which was parroted by The Washington Post, as yet more evidence of the mainstream media's anti-gun bias. The NRA reinforced the impression of a conspiracy against gun rights by noting that "FactCheck's primary funding source," the Annenberg Foundation, had given $150,000 in grants to the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

As Feldman tells it in Ricochet: Confessions of a Gun Lobbyist, picking such fights is part of the NRA's strategy to build membership and raise money. During nearly two decades as a lobbyist against gun control, he says, he discovered that the NRA was "a cynical, mercenary political cult" whose leaders "weren't interested in actually solving problems, only in fueling perpetual crisis and controversy." Since its financial health depends on keeping its constituents in a constant state of alarm and indignation, Feldman writes, the organization eschews compromise and "would rather fight than win."

The NRA, which memorably alienated some of its supporters by calling agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms "jack-booted thugs" shortly before the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City, surely has been guilty of hyperbole and rhetorical excess over the years. (So, too, have countless organizations that rely on direct mail to raise money--including, as Feldman notes, the NRA'S opponents.) But it's not true that the NRA never compromises. The organization seems to accept all the major features of the current federal gun control regime, including the prohibition of firearm ownership by certain categories of people, the background checks used to enforce those criteria, and the ban on civilian ownership of post-1986 machine guns. Feldman's own narrative depicts an organization steering a middle course...

To continue reading