City Council v. NRA: New York likes Republican money, but not Republican values

By Dave Kopel & Paul Blackman

August 30, 2004, 8:41 a.m., National Review Online. More by Kopel on the NRA.

The New York city council was originally happy with the thought of money pouring into the city for the Republican National Convention. Unfortunately, the city council was shocked to learn that the convention will bring not only GOP dollars, but also visits from groups trying to influence the Republican party. Although pro-terrorist demonstrators are threatening to wreak havoc in New York (as of yet they've fallen short), the council has been getting worried about the arrival of a much more sedate group: the National Rifle Association.

This spring, several city-council members introduced Resolution No. 11 denouncing the National Rifle Association's presence at the Republican Convention. A modified version of the resolution was approved by a voice vote on March 10, with seven recorded dissenters. 

It is patently silly to expect the NRA not to be part of the convention. Since the NRA was founded in 1871, seven presidents of the United States have been members. That is only one fewer than the number of presidents in the same period who have been members of the Democratic party.

By contrast, no member of the New York city council has ever become president of the United States. Historically speaking, the chance that a randomly selected NRA member will one day be the president is notably greater than the chance that a New York city-council member will become president. (The two New York City residents who became president — Chester Alan Arthur and Theodore Roosevelt — were both Republicans who avoided the city council. The former started out as head of the Customshouse; the latter first won office in the New York state assembly.)

The original version of this year's New York City resolution complained that the NRA's "stated goal" is to preserve the rights "guaranteed by the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution." The draft resolution also urged the Republicans to bar the NRA from the Republican Convention. As adopted, the resolution merely asks the GOP to denounce the NRA.

According to the revised resolution, the NRA lobbies "based on the belief that people have a right to bear arms." This is true — just as the ACLU lobbies based on the belief that people have a right to freedom of speech.

The resolution is incorrect, though, in its claim that the NRA "lobbies on behalf of the nation's gun industry." The NRA is a consumer group; lobbying on behalf of the industry is performed by the Sporting Arms & Ammunition Manufacturers Institute (SAAMI).

Usually the NRA and SAAMI share common goals — just as book readers and book publishers often have common goals. But sometimes the NRA and the industry diverge. For example, the first major federal anti-gun law, the Gun Control Act of 1968, was initially pushed by American manufacturers to curb the spread of inexpensive imported guns. For similarly protectionist reasons, the industry supported Drug "Czar" William Bennett's 1989 ban on the importation of so-called "assault weapons." In 1993, the American Shooting Sports Council (an industry group later absorbed by SAAMI) even endorsed the Brady Bill!

The NRA, as the New York resolution accurately notes, has lobbied against legislation banning some guns, and against sharply restricting who may own guns; it has lobbied in favor of legislation that would prevent gun registration, and also in favor of legislation to prohibit abusive lawsuits against lawful firearms manufacturers. Among those abusive lawsuits is a case filed by the New York City government.

Similarly, the ACLU opposes censoring books, and lobbies against restrictions on who may read certain books. The ACLU supports the abolition of registration for book-readers (as was once required for people who received "subversive" foreign books in the mail) and supports restrictions on lawsuits that could endanger the First Amendment.

Even if one does not agree with the ACLU on every single First Amendment issue, it would hardly be fair for a city council to denounce the ACLU for zealous advocacy of constitutional rights. We have found no evidence, for example, that the city council plans to denounce ACLU's state affiliate, the New York Civil Liberties Union, for its vigorous defense of planned massive demonstrations against the GOP, despite concerns from federal and local law-enforcement authorities.

So the city-council resolution attempts to buttress its animus against the NRA by engaging in character assassination of the NRA leadership. To do so, the resolution cites a litany of out-of-context statements attributed to "members of the NRA leadership." Actually, the statements were doubly removed from context: First, the Brady Campaign took out of context a variety of statements from various NRA staff, board members, and supporters, and posted them on its website; then the city council lazily used portions of some of those quotations to denounce the NRA.

The first quote comes from Wayne LaPierre, the NRA's CEO. According to the resolution, LaPierre called "anyone who supports gun control 'an enemy of freedom and a political terrorist.'" Well, the resolution as originally proposed called on the GOP to keep the NRA away from a political convention, so it would be fair to characterize the resolution's anti-gun sponsors as enemies of freedom.

But LaPierre's actual statement was broader, denouncing all people working in various ways to "advance an anti-freedom agenda of any kind" as "enemies of freedom and political terrorists." It's hard to know why the city council is upset that LaPierre claimed that people who "advance an anti-freedom agenda of any kind" are "enemies of freedom": The statement is a tautology.

As for the "political terrorists" quote, it was inflammatory rhetoric and obvious hyperbole. LaPierre delivered the line at the Spring 2002 NRA Annual Meeting; it was the first NRA meeting following the anti-gun lobby's attempt to use 9/11 to push gun prohibition and to claim that the NRA is pro-terrorist. In essence, LaPierre responded, "No we're not; you are."

Still, we can understand why the New York city council would be upset at the use of the word "terrorist" as part of a characterization of someone who is merely a political opponent, and not an actual terrorist. We assume, therefore, that the New York city council, to be consistent, has many more denunciation resolutions planned. Among the people to be denounced must be John Kerry, who in January 1996 called congressional Republicans "legislative terrorists" because of the federal-government shutdown. He elaborated: "Terrorists hold hostages, and the Republicans are holding the government hostage." (Note to Kerry: Telling someone not to come to work today because there's no money to pay him is different from kidnapping him and hacking his head off.)

Likewise, a non-hypocritical New York city council would denounce the NAACP, whose president, Julian Bond, claims that President Bush's judicial nominees come from the "most rabid followers of the Taliban wing of American politics."

LaPierre aside, our favorite quotation from the resolution — for obvious reasons — is attributed to Paul Blackman, who is identified as "a head NRA researcher." Blackman is quoted as saying that deaths of homicide victims who are "criminals themselves and/or drug addicts or terms of economic consequences to society, are net gains." Well, "in terms of economic consequences," that's generally true.

Those 18 words are from a 22,000-word paper discussing and refuting various allegations made against firearms freedom, based on a "public health" approach to the topic. The specific issue, addressed in a few paragraphs, is the assertion that gun-related injuries and deaths cost society $20 billion annually. Blackman noted that most of the alleged "costs" were lost productivity — lower contributions to society (taxes paid, etc.) that were lost if a productive young person died. One of the oddities of the public-health "productivity" analysis is that it sees children and retired people as drains on society. According to this flawed analysis, if a 20-year-old gangster shoots an 80-year-old, there is no economic loss to society beyond the costs of the funeral; on the other hand, if the 80-year-old victim manages to kill the 20-year-old in self-defense, tens of thousands of dollars in productivity are imagined to have been lost.

Blackman simply noted that, to the extent these young thugs were unlikely actually to become productive members of society, their deaths did not deprive society of tax revenue or other economic productivity. If they were caught and sent to prison, they would cost society about $20,000 per year. If their criminal careers were not interrupted by prison or by being shot (either by a good citizen or by another criminal), the most active of these criminals would cost society about $400,000 per year, according to Justice Department estimates.

Let us emphasize, again, that the discussion was of the economic consequences. There was nothing suggesting that the lives of predatory criminals or drug abusers were otherwise worthless. We have long recognized the problem Gilbert and Sullivan noted in The Pirates of Penzance:

When a felon's not engaged in his employment,
or maturing his felonious little plans,
his capacity for innocent enjoyment,
is just as great as any honest man's....
When the enterprising burglar's not a-burgling,
when the cut-throat isn't occupied in crime,
he loves to hear the little brook a-gurgling,
and listen to the merry village chime.
Perhaps more important, it is astounding how the Blackman quote was used in the city-council resolution. The "Whereas," after all, is to support the "Resolved" conclusion that "comments made by members of the National Rifle Association leadership are offensive to many communities that bring to the City the diversity that ensures its vibrancy." Well, if you think that violent criminals add "diversity" and "vibrancy" to a city, then you might get upset at Blackman for pointing out that such criminals do not add any economic value.

The city council's action is preposterous and hypocritical: The council denounces political diversity (energetic defense of constitutional rights) while proclaiming its love of "diversity." By the council's reasoning, violent criminals add "diversity" and "vibrancy" to a city, but constitutional-rights advocates do not.

We happen to think that (non-criminal) people of all sorts can add vibrant diversity to a city, including both the GOP delegates and the (law-abiding) left-wing demonstrators about to descend on the Big Apple. If the New York city council really valued diversity, the council might pass a resolution condemning councilman Charles Barron. Barron is an unapologetic former member of the Black Panthers, a racist, violent hate group. At a rally in favor of slavery "reparations," Barron announced that he sometimes wanted to "slap" a white person for his own mental health.

After passing a resolution against Charles Barron, the city council could turn its attention to another of its very own bigoted foes of diversity: councilman Robert Jackson, who complained that Jews had delayed speedy enactment of a resolution opposing the liberation of Iraq.

Genocide deprives a community of "diversity" and "vibrancy," so an intellectually honest city council would be quick to pass resolutions against people who support genocide. But instead, councilman Charles Barron was allowed to throw a council reception for Robert Mugabe, the genocidal tyrant of Zimbabwe. Meanwhile, councilman Robert Perkins is trying to name a street after former councilman Benjamin Davis (1904-64). Davis was a card-carrying Communist and an enthusiastic defender of Stalin and his genocide, even after Khrushchev exposed Stalin's crimes in 1956.

Rather than working itself into a snit over comments by members of a civil-liberties group in Fairfax, Virginia, the New York city council would better serve the cause of diversity by dealing with the hate-mongers and the apologists for mass murder currently found in its own ranks.

The city-council resolution is not all bad, however. Blackman has never been personally denounced by any legislative body. In most places outside of New York City (and especially in Blackman's home state of Virginia), such a denunciation is a badge of honor — personal recognition for more than a quarter-century of work on behalf of the right that best preserves the entire Bill of Rights. All Blackman wants is a fancy copy of the resolution suitable for framing.

David Kopel is research director of the Independence Institute, and Paul Blackman is research coordinator of the National Rifle Association. They are benefactor members of the NRA, and co-authors of No More Wacos: What's Wrong with Federal Law Enforcement and How to Fix It.

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