The following article was written and submitted by a long time reader who wishes to remain anonymous.
Posted with his permission.
Asserting the Second Amendment
How Prominent Gun Rights Organizations Miss Our Target
Lately there has been considerable discussion concerning the value of the NRA with regard to protecting our natural right to keep and bear arms. Some have suggested shifting support to other organizations such as the National Association for Gun Rights or the Gun Owners of America. In my opinion the discussion has entirely missed the hard truth that none of these organizations have, as their controlling purpose, the assertion of the Second Amendment prohibition on government infringement on the right to keep and bear arms. Accordingly, reliance on these organization and similar organizations will result in the inevitable criminalization of the right to keep and bear arms.
These may be provocative words but they are accurate. The country is increasingly divided with a large, dedicated, and well funded faction that has a clearly articulated mission to restrict all private keeping and bearing of arms. Advocates for forcible disarmament of private citizens now control the House of Representatives and are just a few seats away from control of the Senate. President Trump, while nominally supportive of “gun rights” has already displayed a lack of understanding of the Second Amendment with his endorsement of the bump stock ban. Lastly, the Supreme Court has never acknowledged the clear purpose of the Second Amendment. Even Scalia’s majority opinion in the Heller case – touted as a great victory by gun owners – effectively disregarded the Constitution in favor of rule by judicial bargaining.
The efficacy of an organization, or one’s own actions, with regard to defending the natural right to keep and bear arms cannot be evaluated without a proper understanding of the Second Amendment. There is a vast body of nonsense, expectorated by the Supreme Court, lawyers, politicians, and other fools, concerning the purpose and intent of the Second Amendment. All of this nonsense proceeds from the incorrect notion that the first 10 amendments constitute a Bill, or listing, of rights. This is a false and pernicious idea that is refuted with the simple act of reading the preamble to the first 10 amendments and the amendments themselves.
The Constitution was ratified on June 21, 1788. Fourteen months later, on September 25, 1789 the first Congress, through a Joint Resolution, submitted 12 proposed amendments to the States for ratification. The Joint Resolution stated the purpose of the amendments with this unambiguous statement:
The Conventions of a number of the States, having at the time of their adopting the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added: And as extending the ground of public confidence in the Government, will best ensure the beneficent ends of its institution. [emphasis added]
The clearly stated purpose of the amendments was prevent the abuse of the powers granted to the federal government by adding declaratory and restrictive clauses. Of the ten amendments that were ratified only two can be considered statements of rights . These are are the 6th (right to speedy trial) and 7th (right to trial by jury). The 9th and 10th amendments are declaratory stating that the enumeration of some rights in the Constitution shall not be construed as to to deny or disparage other rights held by the people (9th amendment) and that any power not delegated to the federal government are reserved to the states of the people. The remaining 6 of the 10 original ratified amendments unambiguously use language that restricts, restrains, and forbids government actions.
There are only two powers granted to the federal government that could plausibly be stretched to permit a restriction on the right to keep and bear arms. The first is the power to tax and the second is the power to regulate commerce with foreign nations, the indian tribes, and between states. Accordingly, with the stated intent of the Second Amendment being to prevent abuse by further restricting the powers delegated to the federal government, it can only be understood to mean that the federal powers to tax and to regulate interstate, foreign and Indian commerce are limited by the Second Amendment so as to prohibit any infringement upon the right to keep and bear arms. In other words: the Second Amendment prohibits the federal government from using its power to tax from infringing upon the right to keep and bear arms. It also prohibits the federal government from using the power to regulate (non-intrastate) commerce from interfering with the keeping and bearing of arms. Questions such as what arms are protected or how are not legitimate questions no matter how often ignorant judges have wrestled with them. The Second Amendment does not provide for any exceptions to this restraint on the federal government’s authority.
The popular misunderstanding that the purpose of the Second Amendment is to establish or protect a right to keep and bear arms, rather than restrict the power of of government to infringe upon a preexisting natural right, opens the door for the faux discussions of what the amendment protects and how far the protection extends. Those who wish to prevent the private ownership and bearing of arms push this discussion to the extremes and those who wish to exercise their natural right to keep and bear arms are constantly on the defense – a position where the only unknown is the time it will take for the right to be fully extinguished. Only by understanding, and militantly asserting, the real intent and purpose of the Second Amendment will the right to keep and bear arms be preserved.
Evaluating the premier gun rights organizations, in light of a correct apprehension of the Second Amendment, makes it clear that these organizations operate in a manner that will ultimately result in the disarmament of the the American people. It is not impossible for any of these organizations to be refashioned into effective defenders of the right to keep and bear arms. Whether it is more cost effective to work to reform an organization in lieu of starting new organizations with the right understanding and strategy is a decision for each person to make for themselves. Below I will provide a brief evaluation of four prominent organizations to provide an example to be used for evaluating any organization that seeks your support in the defense of your right to keep and bear arms.
National Rifle Association (NRA)
The NRA is a large and multi-faceted organization with annual income of nearly $350 million. Of this amount, approximately $163 million comes from member dues and approximately $76 million, something less than half of membership revenue, is funneled to the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action (NRA-ILA). This money is spent, according to the NRA’s form 990 (Return of Organization Exempt From Tax), on issues involving “firearms and ammunition regulation, recreational shooting on public lands, gun registries, range preservation, veterans protection, international gun control threats, open and conceal carry laws, wildlife conservation, free speech, and a host of related matters.” That is a lot of different issues and there is no way to tell how much of the money funneled into the NRA-ILA is spent asserting the correct understanding of the Second Amendment and how much is spent on the “host of related matters” like free speech, veterans protection, and recreational shooting on public lands.
It seems that only about one dollar out of five from membership dues can reasonably be credited to defense of the the Second Amendment – even as misunderstood by the NRA. Moreover, if one considers additional expenses such as the $81 million annually spent on employees and professional services and another $81 million spent on member communications it seems that almost every dollar of member dues is spent on salaries, professional services, or member communications. This does not mean that the NRA doesn’t do good and valuable work. Defending shooting on public lands, the continued existence of shooting ranges and wildlife conservation, etc. are worthwhile endeavors, but I suspect that most members of the NRA pay their dues for the primary purpose of preserving their right to keep and bear arms.
Can the NRA be redirected to focus on militantly asserting the Second Amendment? I suspect not because it is located in the Washington D.C. area and is highly oriented towards lobbying as well as other lines of business that are not directly threatened by the “common sense” regulatory restrictions that are prohibited by the Second Amendment. Lobbying is a game of compromise and compromise will only result in the concession of our rights. Lobbying is also lucrative and feeds the egos of those who feel valued by being close to power. Militant assertion of the Second Amendment will not be welcomed in Washington and that will not sit well with those drawing large salaries and enjoying the perks and privileges of being a Washington player. For them, the Second Amendment is useful mostly as a fundraising tool.
Gun Owners of America (GOA)
On the opposite end of the spectrum from the NRA is the Gun Owners of America. With revenue of about $2.2 million GOA is 1/150th the size of the NRA. No one is getting rich off GOA – the highest paid employee of GOA makes about $120k. GOA has consistently articulated the truth that the phrase “…shall not be infringed” means government cannot restrict your right to keep and bear arms. On the surface, it would seem that GOA might be a much more effective organization than the NRA – as well as one that would more easily be improved. Unfortunately, GOA simply isn’t a very effective organization and is likely resistant to change.
GOA was founded in 1975 – over 43 years ago. According to the GOA’s 2016 form 990, in 2016 GOA received revenue of $168,706 in membership dues. An annual membership costs a minimum of $20. That is a maximum of 8,435 dues paying members. Accumulated over 43 years. That is less than 200 dues paying members per year. By any standard building a membership of less than 8,500 people over the course of 43 years is a failure. Despite this extraordinarily low membership count GOA claims to exercise disproportional influence. The evidence for this is thin.
Under the heading “Accomplishments”, as of February 1, 2019, GOA’s website lists their top 10 highlights for 2016. There is nothing listed for 2017 or 2018. Among these are nebulous accomplishments such as “Exposing Hillary’s anti-gun record,” and “influencing the Supreme Court” (according to Mother Jones). Others claim credit for things supported by a wide, and disparate coalition. An example is GOA claiming credit for “Salvaging the Supreme Court” by delaying a vote on the replacement for Scalia until after President Trump took office. While there is no doubt that GOA weighed in on the issue it is incredulous to claim credit for a broad based effort that included virtually every organization associated with republican, conservative, or libertarian ideas. GOA can get publicity but has shown little ability to organize and mobilize gun owners in a manner that will result in real protection for gun owners in Washington D.C. and the state capitals. GOA is the Chihuaha of gun rights – far more bark than bite.
However, the most discouraging reality of the GOA is that it is, like so many organizations dependent on threats emanating from DC, a very close held organization that seems to have the highest priority of providing for the inner circle. GOA is controlled by Larry Pratt and Bill Richardson as it has been since it’s founding in the 1975. Virtually all of the Directors and key employees are related by blood or marriage to Larry Pratt or Bill Richardson. Gerry Ognibene is the only supposedly uncompensated director but his firm, Vote Rite, is paid about $144k each year. This tight knit group has demonstrated no interest in seeking the advice of independent directors and seems quite happy with the status quo.
The principals of GOA may be motivated by a genuine desire to protect the right to keep and bear arms. What is certain is that they are too incestuous to recognize their ineffectiveness in support of their stated goal. After 43 years and nearly $100 million dollars in membership dues and contributions it is hard to argue that the money has been well spent.
National Association for Gun Rights (NAGR)
NAGR is an organization that apparently sits in between the NRA’s marketing machine and the GOA’s self-satisfied boutique operation. This organization was formed in 2001 following the Columbine and declares to the IRS that it is “dedicated to preserving and protecting the right to keep and bear arms through aggressive programs designed to mobilize public opposition to anti-gun legislation.” In the 17 years of its existence NAGR claims to have grown to 4.5 million member’s – just shy of of the NRA’s claim of 5 million members. And it’s revenue reached as high as $16 million in 2003 – 8 times as much as GOA’s in less than half the length of time. NAGR also articulates a strategy for victory – changing policy by changing politicians one at a time – that is more on target than anything articulated by either the NRA or the GOA.
Although NAGR sounds attractive on the surface getting close up brings a stench of corruption. While NAGR claims 4.5 million members, they report report on their IRS form 990 exactly zero revenue from membership dues. Unlike both the NRA and GOA, everything is lumped into “Other contributions.” The organization also claims to have 20 state affiliate organizations but only identifies 6. It isn’t uncommon, unfortunately, for non-profits to exaggerate their membership and influence but NAGR is particularly unabashed about doing so. Some may consider that a necessary evil. Weird financials are not.
NAGR acknowledges that a company called Front Range Enterprises and Communications (FREC) is a 100% owned and related organization. However, it has no real web presence except for a Facebook shell account which claims the web address of frontrangeprint.com (locked). The FORM 990 does not disclose who owns FREC – unlike similar disclosures from GOA and the Second Amendment Foundation. It is always a red flag when principals in a non-profit own a company that receives the bulk of their business from the non-profit. It may be legal but it is often a way to launder funds to benefit the principals under the guise of program expenses. NAGR spent almost $15 million from 2011 – 2016 on “Mailing Communications” which almost certainly involved FREC.
Additionally, formed at least 5 LLC’s have been formed under names such as West Virginia Gun Rights, Tennessee Gun Rights using the same address as NAGR. These organizations are obviously not organic state organizations being supported by NAGR. It is far more likely that they are simply shell organizations used to obscure financial reporting.
There are other more suspicious activities around NAGR. The purpose of NAGR is declared to be motivating grassroots activism but the organization spends 10 times the amount on lobbying that it does on grass roots development. Who gets the lobbying money – almost $1 million/year – is anyone’s guess. So is the mysterious GRAE of 702 Lee Ave in Fredericksburg, VA. That address is a single family residence in a not so upscale neighborhood. Still, whatever GRAE is, or does, it received almost $2 million from 2013 – 2015. from NAGR. How about more than $1 million for “Internet Communications” (not advertising) every year. Websites are inexpensive. Connectivity is inexpensive. You can buy all the bandwidth you would ever need for less than $1,000/month. What NAGR does best is raise money from people who want to protect their right to keep and bear arms and spent that money to perpetuate the organization for the benefit of the principals.
Second Amendment Foundation (SAF)
The SAF is the last of the most prominent gun rights organizations to consider. As far as I can tell it is transparent with it’s financials, not profligate in spending, and actually does substantive work to protect the right to keep and bear arms. SAF focuses primarily on raising legal challenges through the judicial branch of government. While I think that legal challenges are important I think the protection we can expect from the judicial system is weak. While SAF was instrumental in the Heller and McDonald victories the Supreme Court has simply ignored gross violations of the Right to Keep and Bear Arms since those opinions were written. Even if President Trump gets to replace Ginsburg I don’t think either Roberts or Kavanaugh can be counted on to conform to the law of the Constitution.
It is dismaying to realize that there is apparently no organization with national influence that is operating an effective program to assert the Second Amendment. However, it is always better to deal with reality as it is rather than as we wish it to be. If those who value liberty and the rule of law want to preserve a free state and to retain the ability to defend ourselves, our families, and our communities, we must find a better way than writing checks to organizations that are happy to take our money and not terribly concerned with spending it for the reasons it was given. I am convinced that such a strategy can be fashioned. It will necessarily require locally focused grassroots organizations that act cooperatively. It will require that these organizations define what is needed to roll back government infringement in their local area. It will require them to determine when it is effective to lend their support to groups in more hostile areas. It will require them to define when, if ever, providing resources to national lobbying organization is cost effective and the strings attached to those resources.