Turley: The tragic irony of the New York state lawsuit against the NRA
It is for the best that Ambrose Burnside is not alive, as New York Attorney General Letitia James has filed a complaint seeking, among other things, the dissolution of the National Rifle Association. For the hapless Burnside, it is one final indignity. Widely ridiculed as an unimaginative Union Army commander in the Civil War, Burnside has only two lasting legacies. First, his facial hair was so prominent that others would sport what would later be called sideburns. Second, he was the first president of the NRA in the 19th century. Now James wants to leave him with only his whiskers.
Her complaint alleges lavish spending by officers, most notably executive vice president Wayne LaPierre. The list includes hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on himself, his wife, family, and friends. It runs from petty to gross, such as gifts from Neiman Marcus, golf memberships, and private jets. When figures like former president Oliver North decided to side with NRA whistleblowers, they were forced out. The NRA has reportedly spent an obscene $100 million on legal fees and the related costs alone.
If there is any hope for the legacy of Burnside, it comes from James. While she claims the NRA has been smeared with self dealing by its leaders, the same complaint could be leveled against her record as attorney general. I previously criticized her for inserting politics into her state office. She ran on the pledge to prosecute Paul Manafort, former campaign manager for Donald Trump. James had not only used the prosecution of an unpopular individual for her own gain but sought to gut the New York constitutional protection against double jeopardy. The case was then dismissed.
James would later call the NRA a “terrorist organization,” a claim which is common among internet trolls, but this was the top New York prosecutor engaging in legal trolling. That is what makes the NRA complaint a tragic irony. If taking power to benefit yourself rather than your organization is the measure, the complaint could indict herself. Her demand to dissolve the NRA in order to pander to voters undermines the case presented by her office. While dissolution is simply absurd, James shows us absurdity and popularity can often move hand in hand in New York politics.
Many organizations have suffered dubious spending by officers, ranging from political parties to nonprofits to universities. None were disbanded. Union and religious leaders are often accused of lavish spending on their travel or other job perks. Few have been prosecuted. The National Action Network of Al Sharpton paid him more than $1 million in compensation in 2018 and another $500,000 for rights to his life story. While it is based in New York, James has not tried to dissolve it or other organizations.
Other cases seeking dissolution undermine the case against the NRA. Five years ago, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman tried to dissolve the National Children Leukemia Foundation after finding that 1 percent of around $10 million in donations went to cancer victims, including almost no money spent on its “Make a Dream Come True” program. Its president turned out to be a felon who ran the organization out of his basement. A settlement was reached and the charity was voluntarily shut down.
The NRA is not run out of a basement, and it spends sums of money on its firearms lobbying and training programs. It is, by any measure, one of the most successful advocacy groups in our history. It has more than 5 million members and is the largest and most influential gun rights organization in the world. Whatever complaints can be raised over the spending habits of its officers, the NRA is undoubtedly a successful enterprise. Indeed, many lawmakers have denounced its influence in Washington, since low scores from the NRA can mean defeat for politicians who face close races.
James is not disregarding the implications of a Democratic official seeking to destroy one of the most powerful conservative groups in the country in an election year. By contrast, she seems to revel in that image. She knows liberals are thrilled by the idea of disbanding the NRA. She is now revered as a hero by those who view no problem in her past declaring the group a terrorist organization and now trying to dissolve the group as a fraudulent organization. It has been a political campaign in search of lawful rationale for years, however, the allegation is not as important as the target.
Those same political supporters, of course, would be justifiably outraged by any clear action of the administration to dissolve liberal organizations such as Planned Parenthood. Misconduct or crimes by its officers would not leave it as a criminal enterprise. Like the NRA, Planned Parenthood is one of the most effective groups defending a constitutional right.
Trying to dissolve an organization engaged in political speech should not occur absent overwhelming proof that it is a criminal enterprise, which is why this has never happened with a group like the NRA. James may point to the voluntary dissolution of the Donald Trump Foundation, a small and mostly inactive nonprofit, or the dissolution of Ku Klux Klan groups in the 1940s, but there is little comparison with the NRA in these cases.
Many liberals celebrating the lawsuit against the NRA condemned Trump for trying to declare the radical movement antifa a terrorist organization. They were as right then as they are wrong now. I recently testified for the Senate to oppose such a designation for antifa. While I have been a vocal critic of antifa and its tactics, it is a dangerous power for the government to openly wield against organizations engaged in political speech.
Burnside will always have facial hair as his lasting legacy. James is turning hers into something much more menacing. It is not that she will succeed in such raw political demands that is the concern. It is that so many want her to succeed in dissolving a real advocacy group in this country.
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. You can find his updates online @JonathanTurley.
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