By Jeff Knox
(October 18, 2017) Whether you like it or not, the National Rifle Association is absolutely our most important defender of our constitutional right to arms, and you need to be a member. Many of us are angry with the NRA for the foolish statement put out by Wayne LaPierre and Chris Cox in response to the atrocity in Las Vegas, and others are angry with me for publicly criticizing that foolish statement, and calling on the NRA Board of Directors to repudiate it.
Strategy disagreements aside, NRA is the 800 pound gorilla of the gun rights fight. Without them we cannot win, and people who are not members have very little influence with the organization.
I began purchasing a Life Membership in NRA with my first check out of Army Basic Training back in 1978. Even though my father was the Executive Director of NRA-ILA at the time, and even though I was only a couple of months too old to get in at the half-price, Junior rate, I got no discount or special pricing. I’ve never regretted that decision, and I certainly don’t regret it now.
For most of the past century the NRA has suffered from leadership that was too often out of touch with the members. Originally the organization’s leaders were former military officers, including General Ulysses S. Grant. That tradition continued through most of NRA’s history. NRA staff once wryly called the NRA Board the “Colonels’ Club.” Retired military officers, and more recently, retired law enforcement chiefs filled key positions at the head table, and among paid staff. While military officers and career bureaucrats often have a good grasp on how things work in the nation’s capitol, they are also conditioned to follow orders from politicians and higher-ups within the Executive Branch. That’s been an ongoing problem.
Many years ago, before the Annual Meeting became such a big deal, the meetings were always held in Washington, D.C. close to headquarters. It was not unusual for NRA members would turn the pilgrimage to the meeting into a family vacation, often taking the opportunity to do some sightseeing, and also to stop in and visit their congressional delegation. This casual grassroots lobbying became so popular among the members, that NRA leaders began hearing complaints from politicians about their active lobbying efforts. The NRA leaders, distraught that their organization was being accused of trying to influence politicians, decided it would be better to hold the Annual Meeting of Members in locations other than the nation’s capitol. So began the current tradition of moving the event around the country each year – and staying out of Washington.
By 1975, NRA leaders were so determined to avoid being called “the gun lobby,” that they made plans to sell their Washington headquarters and move the offices to Colorado Springs. That plan was quashed by members at the Annual Meeting in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1977, where an empowered membership exercised its authority under the law to direct their Association. The assembled members provided new ways to govern the organization and put a new leadership team in place. Soon after that night, newly-elected Executive Vice President Harlon Carter told his protege Neal Knox that the losing side was already working to undo what was accomplished in 1977. In the 40 years since, most of the reforms of Cincinnati have disappeared, and the legal openings that allowed the membership revolt have been nailed shut.
The current NRA leadership now embraces the “gun lobby” label, but it does so because they are serving a market. Today’s NRA does not exist primarily to defend the Second Amendment. It is primarily a fundraising operation that has found it can monetize defense of the Second Amendment. Paid NRA staff members take home million-dollar paychecks, and key vendors, notably its advertising and public relations firms, walk away with even more.
If you are angry with something NRA or its executives have done, withholding funds that you might have contributed is very reasonable, and can make a difference. But canceling, or choosing not to renew your membership, is self-defeating. We need you in the NRA. We need your vote in NRA elections, and we need you to bolster the total membership numbers, to garner more influence with your elected politicians. If you are an Annual Member, and let your membership lapse, that means you won’t be eligible to vote in NRA elections for another 5 years, unless you pony up for a Life Membership. Realistically, $40 a year is not much, especially considering the magazine subscription and the insurance benefits, not to mention eligibility in NRA competitions. And you can easily cut that back to $35 by shopping around for discount deals, or buying multi-year packages.
If you want to influence the NRA’s actions, but want to minimize how much of your money goes into the pockets of NRA executives and vendors, the best deal is to purchase a discounted Life Membership at an NRA Annual Meeting. It’s not uncommon for them to offer Life Member packages with added perks at well below half-price at the Annual Meeting. And once you have your Life Membership, you don’t have to ever give the NRA another dime, but you have a voice for life.
The Annual Meeting and Exhibits will be held next year in Dallas, and the following year it is scheduled to be in Indianapolis, then Nashville, then Houston. Start planning now to attend the one closest to you, and start putting a couple of bucks a day in a jar so you’ll have the cash to become a permanent NRA Voting Member.
The only way we’ll ever get NRA on the right track – and keep it there – is by having a strong majority of dedicated rights supporters willing and able to vote in NRA elections, so we can get the best possible candidates elected as directors, and the best people leading the staff.
NRA absolutely has some serious flaws, and gun owners are facing some very serious challenges, but the answer is not to abandon our most powerful asset, but to take control and steer it in the right direction.
There are few people in the world with a more thorough knowledge of the NRA and its shortcomings than we Knoxes. We certainly don’t always agree with NRA leadership, and we’ve never been shy about confronting those disagreements when and where appropriate, but there are also few who have worked as hard as we have to build up the organization and move it toward a principled defense of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. That’s why we urge all gun owners to join the NRA, renew your membership, and if you can, upgrade to Life Membership, then get active and involved in NRA politics. Elect directors who will stand up to the tests and move the organization forward, then lobby those directors to keep the staff in line and working for all of our rights.
Our friends over at the Gun Collective news site have developed a tool for NRA members to reach out to their directors. Just go to www.theguncollective.com/nra and enter your member information to send messages to your NRA Board of Directors. We’ve been asking the NRA to create a service like this for at least 10 years, and finally it’s being offered, not by NRA, but by a group of independent members. Take advantage of it. Stay in the fight, and lobby your elected NRA representatives, just as you would lobby Congress.
Your rights are under fire. Now more than ever, you need to be a member of the NRA.