NRA's Year-End Message Banks On the Courts

(Bloomberg View) -- To anyone familiar with the National Rifle Association’s madcap culture-war offerings — videos, for example, in which a rage-sputtering NRA spokeswoman channels Daffy Duck — the organization’s 2017 Year in Review provides a sober counterpoint.

Published last week, the review is neither paranoid nor unhinged. Mostly. Instead it’s generally coherent and informed. Being a product of the NRA, it’s not free of propaganda. But if the public howls of NRA leader Wayne LaPierre represent the group’s lizard brain, spreading social panic, the Year in Review represents its accounting brain, taking stock of victories, losses and what really matters.

And what really matters to the NRA, along with making money and sustaining a culture war (which helps generate more money to finance more culture war), are judges and politicians — especially politicians who appoint judges.

If the election year of 2016 was a time of investment for the organization, 2017 was a time to reap. The more than $55 million the NRA spent in 2016 included tens of millions invested in the high-risk, scattershot bid of Donald Trump. No payoff will be bigger than Trump’s appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court. As the Year in Review points out, Gorsuch “has made clear that he understands the importance of the individual right to keep and bear arms.”

The 2017 summary has more than a passing interest in the judicial system. The courts will have a powerful role in deciding to what degree the guns-everywhere rights in red states can be imposed nationally over the protests of citizens and politicians in blue states. The House of Representatives recently passed a reciprocal carry bill, which would force blue states, and their cities, to allow the lowest common denominator of unregistered, untrained gun owners to carry concealed guns in public. 

The assault on gun regulation is often incremental, even tangential. The NRA review cites a favorable ruling by the New Jersey Supreme Court in the case of an apartment dweller who, during a night of disputes with a neighbor, answered his front door holding a machete. You don’t have to guess why the NRA gets excited about answering the door while “holding an object that was legal to possess.”

Court cases in California (restrictions on large magazines for firearms), Washington D.C. (concealed carry) and elsewhere also occupied the NRA’s attention, underscoring the almost limitless value of its investment in Trump and, by direct extension, Gorsuch. If any of those cases trickle up to the nation’s highest court, the NRA expects Gorsuch to deliver. Without a conservative judge in the seat once occupied by Antonin Scalia, the past few decades of radically loosened gun laws would be at risk, including, potentially, Scalia’s 5-4 Heller decision that in 2008 found a previously camouflaged individual right to possess guns.

Critics often treat the NRA as no more than a lobby for gun manufacturers. But it’s more than that. Like supply-siders who fervently believe, despite decades of evidence to the contrary, that tax cuts for the rich produce magical economic growth, NRA true believers ignore a globe’s worth of evidence to sustain their faith that whatever the place or situation, more guns make everything better.

The association’s 2017 summary lauds an Arizona Supreme Court decision in August upholding the state’s authority to prohibit localities from destroying firearms obtained through forfeiture or as unclaimed property. The NRA position is proof that it transcends the grubby work of a lobby. Since guns are sacred, and the estimated 300 million or so sloshing around America are too few, they must not be destroyed — even if a robust, largely unregulated market in second-hand guns cuts into manufacturers’ profits.

The Year in Review is ultimately a declaration of NRA values, a reiteration of principles stripped of much of the reactionary crazy that permeates NRA communications to its armed and frightened base. A little crazy nonetheless seeps through.

The 2017 summary expresses deep alarm that “radical left-wing activist George Soros” has “funneled” $18 billion into a “philanthropic” (scare-quotes in the original) organization that he founded for nefarious purposes. This can only mean trouble for humankind, since the Soros foundation’s “global reach has imperiled gun owners throughout the world.” From Sweden to Japan, the NRA stands with the oppressed longing to shoot free.

One topic the Year in Review avoids completely is Russia. Like an uncannily long list of Trump allies, the NRA has in recent years been building relationships with Russians tied to the nation’s deadly autocrat, Vladimir Putin. The NRA hasn’t been eager to talk about this work, or about Russia’s efforts to sabotage U.S. democracy.

Perhaps that will be a topic for the 2018 Year in Review.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.

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