Gun rights groups go after NSA

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Gun rights groups are throwing their weight behind efforts on Capitol Hill to rein in the National Security Agency (NSA).

The National Rifle Association (NRA) is among a number of groups that have signed on to an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) lawsuit against the secretive government agency.
   
The NRA has also endorsed bipartisan legislation proposed by House and Senate Judiciary committees that would end the NSA’s collection of bulk phone records.

Another Second Amendment advocate, the Gun Owners of America, expects to back NSA legislation as well.

“There are issues that, maybe at first blush, wouldn't seem like a gun issue, but once you start looking closely at the issues, they really do affect our gun rights,” said Erich Pratt, the director of communications for Gun Owners of America.

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Gun groups fear the NSA could have the authority under a section of the PATRIOT Act to collect information that could be used to create a federal gun database. They also fear the government could be spying on, or eventually targeting, gun owners.

“Under the government’s reading of Section 215, the government could simply demand the periodic submission of all firearms dealers’ transaction records, then centralize them in a database indexed by the buyers’ names for later searching,” the NRA wrote in an amicus brief supporting the ACLU lawsuit against James Clapper, the director of national intelligence.

The NRA is one of the most active lobbying forces on Capitol Hill, but a spokesman said the group is not yet meeting with lawmakers about intelligence reform, focusing instead on the lawsuit.

Gun Owners of America, in contrast, plans to mobilize a full-scale advocacy campaign involving “hundreds of thousands” of advocates once NSA legislation gets moving, according to Platt.

“These new revelations [about NSA activities] have really brought these issues to light,” Pratt said. “If groups weren't involved before, it's simply because we were working on other legislative issues. The news wasn't in the forefront, but now it is.”

The NSA reform push has blurred the usual political lines in Congress, uniting liberals and Tea Party Republicans, and made for strange bedfellows on the advocacy side. The ACLU said it sought out gun rights advocates to bolster their cause.

“I reached out to [the NRA] because I didn’t think they were aware of it, and they weren’t,” said Laura Murphy, the ACLU’s head lobbyist in its Washington office. Murphy said she showed the group FBI training manuals on how to collect firearm records.

“If we’re working with an organization and we can agree on one narrow principled objective, even if we disagree 90 percent of the time, we’ll find a way to work together. … [W]hen it comes to developing strategic alliances, both of our organizations are very sophisticated,” Murphy said.

Lobbyists say that diversity of the coalition backing NSA reform increases the likelihood of legislation passing Congress.

“Support for this legislation is coming from all walks of politics, including the NRA, which makes its chances for passage very strong,” said Craig Holman of Public Citizen.

But passage of legislation is far from certain, as lawmakers are sharply divided on what should be done.

One NSA bill, pushed by the chiefs of the congressional intelligence committees, would require more transparency and oversight but leave the agency’s powers mostly intact.

The rival plan from the judiciary committees — and the one backed by the NRA — would go much further, imposing new limits on the government’s snooping activities.

The House version of that bill has 86 co-sponsors, with support split almost equally between Democrats and Republicans. A companion bill in the Senate has 17 co-sponsors, most of whom are Democrats, but also includes a few Republicans: Sens. Mike Lee (Utah), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Dean Heller (Nev.).

“I haven’t seen anything this bipartisan in a very long time,” Murphy said. 

Rep. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) introduced the House version of the NSA reform bill this week, calling it the USA Freedom Act. The veteran lawmaker argues the NSA is misinterpreting the powers it was granted under the PATRIOT Act, which he helped write after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Sensenbrenner’s office has filed an amicus brief in support of the ACLU’s lawsuit and has been engaging with various groups to encourage their involvement.

An aide to Sensenbrenner told The Hill he called the NRA and personally asked for their endorsement on the USA Freedom Act — and the group obliged.

Still, the ACLU is leading the charge on Capitol Hill, the aide said.

“They understand what we're trying to achieve and have been helpful throughout the process,” the aide added.