NRA’s Legal Drama Is No Reason To Silence Second Amendment Advocates

Gun Rights

Wayne LaPierre, the long-time head of the National Rifle Association (NRA), stepped down last month after testifying in New York Attorney General Letitia James’ civil trial against the organization. Mr. LaPierre admitted to improperly receiving exorbitant perks and took responsibility for the group’s mismanagement under his watch, which CNN described as “falling on the sword.”

Although the NRA has much to answer for, New York’s overt attempt to punish the organization for supporting gun rights casts a cloud over the case. Attorney General James campaigned on “tak[ing] down the NRA,” and described it as “an organ of deadly propaganda masquerading as a charity for public good” and a “terrorist organization” which is “antithetical” to New York’s gun control policies.

James is not the only New York official to target the NRA for its policy views. In 2018, New York’s top insurance regulator issued “Guidance on Risk Management Relating to the NRA and Similar Gun Promotion Organizations.” The letter cited the “social backlash” against the group’s promotion of gun ownership and encouraged banks and insurers to consider severing ties with it. That same year, then-governor Andrew Cuomo publicly directed regulators “to urge insurers and bankers” to question if their relationship with the NRA “sends the wrong message.”

The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments next month on whether these thinly veiled threats were unconstitutionally coercive. The American Civil Liberties Union has come to the NRA’s defense and the Biden administration’s brief concedes that there is a plausible claim that New York “violated the First Amendment by coercing regulated entities to terminate their business relationships…to suppress” the NRA’s advocacy.

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Wayne LaPierre
NEW YORK, NEW YORK – JANUARY 08: Former NRA Leader Wayne LaPierre arrives for his civil trial at New York State Supreme Court on January 08, 2024 in New York City. LaPierre, former NRA treasurer…
NEW YORK, NEW YORK – JANUARY 08: Former NRA Leader Wayne LaPierre arrives for his civil trial at New York State Supreme Court on January 08, 2024 in New York City. LaPierre, former NRA treasurer and chief financial officer Wilson “Woody” Phillips, and NRA corporate secretary and general counsel John Frazer are being sued by Attorney General Letitia James alleging that they violated nonprofit laws and misused millions of dollars of NRA funds to finance lavish lifestyles for themselves. LaPierre resigned as executive vice president and chief executive officer from the organization last week and co-defendant former chief of staff and executive director of general operations Joshua Powell settled the case against him last week as well.

Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

New York’s anti-gun animus does not absolve the NRA of responsibility, but it demands that we question the state’s endgame in its trial over the misappropriation of funds during LaPierre’s tenure. James initially sought to dissolve the organization, which a New York state court rejected as an extreme and unprecedented punishment that could “impinge…on the free speech and assembly rights of its millions of members.” The remedies that James currently seeks do not fare better. She has asked the court to ban the NRA from soliciting or receiving donations in New York, setting a precedent for starving the membership-based group of funds that other blue states and even the federal government may try to follow.

New York also wants to install a corporate compliance monitor—a remedy usually reserved for criminal cases that would be a First Amendment disaster in the making. Imagine what happens when the NRA’s management wants to meet key stakeholders behind a new membership drive. The compliance monitor may consider the trip to be too lavish, even if the NRA’s management insists that the expense is in the best interest of the organization. Free speech law has traditionally given private organizations leeway to make such decisions on behalf of their members. It’s hard to see why NRA members should be treated any differently when the officials who accepted lavish gifts during LaPierre’s tenure have resigned or been fired.

New York has a legitimate interest in punishing financial misconduct at nonprofits. But that interest is served by holding NRA executives who abused the posts accountable, not by engaging in lawfare against the people’s right to support gun ownership.

Michael Toth is an attorney in Austin, Texas.

The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.

Uncommon Knowledge

Newsweek is committed to challenging conventional wisdom and finding connections in the search for common ground.

Newsweek is committed to challenging conventional wisdom and finding connections in the search for common ground.

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