ANTHONY BROOKS, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Anthony Brooks in Washington. Neal Conan is away this week.
The National Rifle Association has dominated the debate over gun rights and gun control for decades. As one of the nation's most powerful lobbying groups, the NRA is also among the most feared. Few politicians dare challenge it. Even as cops struggled to control gun violence in cities, even in the wake of school shootings from Columbine to Virginia Tech, there's little serious debate these days about the need for further gun control. That's a testament to the power of the NRA. To be clear, we're not debating gun control in this hour. Rather, we're focusing on the gun lobby.
Most Americans know little about the NRA, about its political agenda, its financial structure, or how it spends its money. But Richard Feldman does. He's a former NRA lobbyist who saw it from the inside. And now he's written a book about it. Among his conclusions: The NRA would rather fight than win. That is uses scare tactics to raise money for itself and for its well-paid executives.
If you're a gun owner, if you believe in Second Amendment rights, does the NRA represent your interests? Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Our e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also comment on our blog, it's at npr.org/blogofthenation.
Later, the Motley Fool joins us. If you have questions about the ups and downs on Wall Street and what the holidays might do to your portfolio, you can e-mail us now: email@example.com.
But first: inside the NRA. Richard Feldman was a regional political director for the National Rifle Association during the 1980s and a lobbyist and spokesman for the gun industry's National Trade Association in the '90s. He's author of "Ricochet: Confessions of a Gun Lobbyist." And he joins us from New Hampshire Public Radio in Concord, New Hampshire.
And Richard Feldman, welcome to the program.
Mr. RICHARD FELDMAN (Author, "Ricochet: Confessions of a Gun Lobbyist"; Former Regional Political Director, National Rifle Association): Thank you very much, Anthony.
BROOKS: It's good to have you.
You write - I don't want sort of jump in on this right away - that the NRA insists on absolute hegemony in every significant gun issue nationwide, and that it thinks it's better to fight than to win. Can you explain that?
Mr. FELDMAN: Sure. You know, fighting is what's good if you're involved in membership recruitment, if you want to be on the front pages of the newspapers across the country, if you want to maintain your organization and your issue as a wedge issue in American politics. All those things play very well as long as you're fighting the fight. Coming to some conclusion and actually winning on some these issues on behalf of the folks they represent - gun owners - well, you know, that's good for gun owners, but it may not be all that good for the organization.
BROOKS: You mean, if everything is - sort of every fight is won and we've gotten more or less what we want, those memberships do stop coming in and we don't have the money to spend.
Mr. FELDMAN: Well, you know, eight years ago - seven, eight years ago at the beginning of the Bush administration, the NRA membership was believed up into the five million level. My understanding is it's dropped back down to around three million, still a huge number. Had Al Gore won that race seven years ago, NRA's membership would probably be approaching seven million by now. So, you know, there's something of a inverse relationship between what's good for your membership and what's good to continue the fight.
BROOKS: Mm-hmm. Well, I want to start to sort of where your book ends, so this is through - gets to your story. You write that in the eyes of the NRA, you know, you sort of describe a kind of cardinal sin that you committed because you actually helped broker a compromise. During the Clinton administration, you helped persuade weapons manufacturers to place trigger locks on handguns. And you were seen as moving too close to the enemy, so you were seen as a traitor. Is that more or less how it went?
Mr. FELDMAN: Well that's how it played itself out. I announced this voluntary agreement between the firearm industry and Bill Clinton's White House. And it just made a lot of sense at that time when it didn't need to be a rocket scientist to see the municipal lawsuits that the industry would soon be facing, and providing a child safety lock with every gun we shipped made a lot of sense on behalf of the manufacturers.
Had the issue been mandatory use, I would have been opposed to it. You can't legislate or regulate every single situation, and you shouldn't even try. But providing the opportunity for people to have the means to lock that gun up in their particular situation seems like a good idea. In fact, the NRA, a year or so later, announced that they had always supported child safety locks. So at that time, I was a little confused why I was the traitor. And when they announced it, it was okay. But in fact, it wasn't about the policy. It was more about the politics and keeping that fight going.
BROOKS: Mm-hmm. And the politics of the fact that you actually compromised with the Clinton White House which wasn't exactly seen as an ally to the NRA.
Mr. FELDMAN: Well, it wasn't an ally. And it really had nothing to do with the Clinton White House. It was an issue whose time had come. One could see the legislation rearing its head in Congress. And rather than go through another silly fight like we did in the firearm community over the Brady law and rather than having our friends on Capitol Hill having to stand up and oppose child safety locks, which just seemed to be the height of stupidity, I thought we should end this debate by having the industry just announce that we're going to start shipping them.
Mr. FELDMAN: And somehow, it didn't destroy the Second Amendment and it was an issue that we just terminated and we moved forward, something that we need to do a lot more of in this country not just on the firearm issue. I mean, that's really - well, of course, I talk about the gun issue in this book. That's really something of an indictment about the way we conduct business in Washington and in our state capitals across this country.
Mr. FELDMAN: We continue to fight the same fight over and over again instead of saying, look, let's find some areas where there is agreement. And I believe on this issue, in large measure, the American people have concluded that the right to gun ownership is a right that's going to be here for a long time in the future. We're not fighting about it anymore. And it's only at the margins of this issue that we really need to discuss solutions that work to the benefit of gun owners and non gun owners alike.
BROOKS: Mm-hmm. So what lies behind your fundamental disagreement with the NRA at this point?
Mr. FELDMAN: Well, I actually don't have a fundamental disagreement with the NRA. I'm very much in support of what the National Rifle Association stands for. I am a gun owner, and I think it's eminently clear to those who look at the history of this issue in America, that if the NRA had not taken up the battle cry 30 years ago after the Gun Control Act of '68, I don't think there'd be much left of the Second Amendment to be arguing in the Supreme Court, which may be coming shortly.
My disagreement is not with what NRA stands for and not with NRA members and not with gun owners, it's how the senior leadership and consultants of the NRA have morphed the organization into this grand fundraising operation for the power and glory primarily of themselves.
BROOKS: Mm-hmm. And how is that manifested? You talk about the kinds of salaries that some of these people make.
Mr. FELDMAN: Well, you know, according to the IRS returns, Wayne LaPierre, their CEO, is making around a million dollars a year. And just - since the books come out, several board members have - of the NRA, have said, gee, we never voted on that. I didn't know he was making that kind of money. Why - I mean, that's fine. There's nothing illegal about it. Why doesn't the board of directors know what they're paying their CEO? Of course, that's far, far more money than almost any other not-for-profit membership organization in this country pays its leadership. It's four or five times the salary that a United States congressman makes.
BROOKS: Mm-hmm. And you write in the book that at one sort of very fundamental level, you're worried that the NRA is actually working against the interest of gun owners. How so?
Mr. FELDMAN: Well, you know, there are times where - and I'll give you a couple of specifics - but in some states where, in large measure, they've kind of written off the gun issue, more of the urban states, to some degree, California, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Maryland. And it really works to their benefit that the gun owners and NRA members in that state end up suffering on the laws instead of moving forward, because we do have 50 states in this country and the gun laws in one state are not the same in another. And what would be a step forward for New York gun owners would actually be a step backwards here in Vermont - in New Hampshire, Vermont, or Maine and lots of other states.
So, instead of having 50 individual strategies to benefit gun owners and their membership in the 50 various states, they - it's easier for them to have one national strategy, focus on that. And essentially, the gun owners in those states - they're a lesson to be learned if you let go of this issue.
BROOKS: Mm-hmm. I want to just mention to our listeners and to you, Richard Feldman, we did invite a representative from the NRA to join this program but they declined. And this is what the NRA told us. I think you've heard this before. They gave us a statement that went like this, quote, "we don't comment on works of fiction." You've heard that before, Richard Feldman.
Mr. FELDMAN: Well, that's what they seemed to be saying. I don't know. Is it fictional that Wayne LaPierre is their CEO? Is it fictional that he's making a million dollars a year? Is it fictional that his contributions to NRA's political action committee have been negligible and not even itemizable? At a million dollars a year, one would think that he would at least make a $250 dollar contribution every two years. So the NRA seems to be saying to its membership: do as we say, not as we do.
BROOKS: Mm-hmm. I want to ask you a very basic question. Where is the real power of the NRA? Is it its war chest, its well-financed pack, which is called the Victory Fund or is it at the grassroots level, its grassroots activism? Where is the power?
Mr. FELDMAN: I think that's one of the confusing things in American politics today. People always look at the money. The money is more identifiable. But the bottom line is money doesn't vote. People vote. And what gives the NRA incredible potency that it does is the membership base.
And I know many of your listeners have probably wondered over the years and pondered how the gun issue has a tremendous clout in American politics, which it does. I wrote this book, hopefully, to answer some of those questions. And there are millions and millions of Americans in this country who view the relationship to this democracy through the eyes of the gun issue, and therein lies the secret to the potency of guns in American politics.
BROOKS: We're talking with Richard Feldman about his book "Ricochet: Confessions of a Gun Lobbyist." If you're a gun owner, does the NRA represent your interest? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Or send us an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In a moment, the cofounder of the American Hunters and Shooters Association joins us on what he believes is the better way to protect the Second Amendment.
I'm Anthony Brooks. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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BROOKS: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Anthony Brooks in Washington. Neal Conan is out this week.
A bit later this hour, the Motley Fool takes your question on investing. You can e-mail those right now to email@example.com. We'll get to those in a few minutes.
But right now, Richard Feldman is with us. He's a former top lobbyist for the National Rifle Association. His book is called "Ricochet: Confessions of a Gun Lobbyist." And you can read about how he came to believe that the NRA is, as he writes, a cynical mercenary political cult, at npr.org/talk.
Again, we're not debating gun control on the show today. We are talking about the gun lobby. So if you're a gun owner, if you believe in the Second Amendment rights, we'd like to hear from you. Does the NRA represent your interests? Give us a call at 800-989-8255.
And, Richard, let me - I'm really curious. Before the break, we were talking about how the NRA exerts its power. I wonder if I could get you to describe, in some details, how it works. I mean, for example, let's say I'm a member of Congress. And in the wake of the Virginia Tech shooting, I think more should be done to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally unstable, so I proposed a bill that's going to put more restrictions on the access to guns.
How does the NRA get to me and dissuade me from that course of action?
Mr. FELDMAN: Well, actually, on this particular issue, I think NRA has taken a very positive activist position in trying to upgrade the mental history records that are held by the government. And that would have been useful for the Commonwealth of Virginia to have been able to access, when Cho went into that gun shop to attempt and to buy those guns. He did buy the guns and…
BROOKS: Well, let's say I'm proposing something that the NRA doesn't want.
Mr. FELDMAN: Yeah.
BROOKS: I'm just a little curious…
Mr. FELDMAN: Sure.
BROOKS: …to understand how it exerts its power.
Mr. FELDMAN: Well, if you were to propose some sort of a gun ban or a reintroduction, for example, of the assault weapons' legislation of 10, 12 years ago, what the NRA would do is what any group in a democracy, let's say, well-run organization should do.
It's not just the lobbyists. It's sending out mail to the membership and letting the membership know what their elected officials are up to, and making it as easy as possible for the membership to communicate their views to their elected officials. That's what you're doing in a democracy.
BROOKS: Mm-hmm. Let's take a call. Let's go to Rick(ph) who's calling from Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Hi, Rick.
RICK (Caller): Hi, gentlemen. How are you doing?
BROOKS: Very well, thank you.
RICK: Well, I'm a former NRA member. I'm no longer a member, and I became a member actually during the assault weapons ban. It concerned me. I'm a collector. And it couldn't be - my prices go up on what I like to collect. And, you know, and so in some ways, the NRA did serve me during that time. It brought me information as to what candidates supported this and which didn't.
I was not happy with all of the solicitations I was constantly being deluged with. I think they are a bellwether of freedoms for the gun owner in a sense when they do alert us to potential legislation that is coming around. Are you still there?
BROOKS: Yeah, we're still here.
RICK: Okay, great. So in that sense, they served me. And the sense that they don't is, I think they also cast a negative light on gun owners as a whole, when they don't support issues which I would consider common sense. That's just what you mentioned earlier. I mean, it doesn't bother me to buy a gun, you know, from a gun store that already has a trigger lock on it.
RICK: If it saves me a couple of bucks from having to go, you know, to the accessory aisle and put one on myself. A waiting period is no big deal.
BROOKS: So because of the lack of sort of - because…
RICK: I'm sorry?
BROOKS: I was just going to ask you. So you're not a member because you don't think they favor, sort of common sense safety issues, for example.
RICK: Right. Well, I ceased my membership, mostly, because I was tired of receiving the constant mailings. I mean, I don't know how many trees must have gone into that. But, yeah, there's also the common sense issues that bothered me. I mean, it's going to catch the negative light. I mean, I don't want to be at a party, saying, oh, I'm an NRA member. They say, oh, so you're against our trigger locks to protect children.
RICK: No, I'm not.
BROOKS: I got it Rick. Well, great, thanks for the call. I appreciate that.
RICK: Thank you.
BROOKS: I want to get one more call in here. Let's go to Mike(ph) from Madison, Wisconsin. Mike, hi. You're on the air.
MIKE (Caller): Yeah, hi, how are you doing today?
BROOKS: Pretty well.
MIKE: I just want to start by saying I'm actually on my way out right now to go do some Turkey hunting. So obviously, I'm an avid hunter and gun owner. But I would like to say that I'm also a former NRA member.
BROOKS: And why former?
MIKE: Number one reason is because of the scare policy that they use. They use a lot of scare tactics, which makes most of the gun owners look bad in my opinion. In fact, unlike the previous caller, the number one reason I'm not an NRA member anymore because of the constant mailings. I've got more junk mail from the NRA than all of my other junks combined, and it's kind of preaching to the choir.
MIKE: And, once again, I (unintelligible).
BROOKS: Well, I think we lost Mike there, but I think we got his point. Richard Feldman, Mike was just talking about scare tactics. That's something you write about as well.
Mr. FELDMAN: Well, you know, scare tactics are very effective in direct-mail fundraising. They do what they do because it works, not because they have some love of it. And they have been very successful in raising the kind of money that's necessary to do the kind of things that a big organization needs to do sometimes.
And, you know, it's not all black or all white. I'm very supportive of a great deal of what NRA stands for and a great deal of what they do now and have in the past. But I think they've gotten off message and they've kind of forgotten who brung them there. And it's the membership that they're supposed to be working for, not the board of directors and not the leadership.
It's not about the senior executives of NRA. It's not about their committee staff. It's about the membership. The average guy out there who is concerned that his right to own a hunting rifle and to be able to use it properly and lawfully was in jeopardy and continues in some places in this country to be in jeopardy.
And I don't - so my argument is really a little more subtle. It's not always about what they're doing, but how they're doing it and for what reasons.
BROOKS: Mm-hmm. We're talking to Richard Feldman. He's the author of the book "Ricochet: Confessions of a Gun Lobbyist." I want to bring you another voice to the conversation, John Rosenthal. He's founder of the nonprofit organization Stop Handgun Violence and cofounder of the American Hunters and Shooters Association. And he joins us from member station WBUR in Boston. And, John Rosenthal, welcome.
Mr. JOHN ROSENTHAL (Founder, Stop Handgun Violence): Thank you, Anthony.
BROOKS: It's good to have you. Now, you've been listening to Richard Feldman. What do you hear? You're pro-Second Amendment. You're also pro-gun control. How do you reconcile the two?
Mr. ROSENTHAL: Well, you know, I think it's relatively easy. And the majority of Americans agree. I'm a gun owner and I believe in the Second Amendment, but I don't believe that the Second Amendment should extend to convicted felons and suspected terrorists. And the NRA doesn't represent me.
And given the fact that there's about 80 million gun owners in this country and only three to four million members of the NRA, I believe that the NRA doesn't represent the majority of gun owners. And I'll even take it one step further, and this may sound outrageous. I don't even think the NRA cares about guns.
Mr. ROSENTHAL: They care about power, and they use fear of confiscation by Democrats or any independent elected official to use that fear to get their extremist candidates elected.
Mr. ROSENTHAL: There's no other way that you could really reconcile the fact that in this country today, convicted felons and people even on a suspected terrorist watch list can buy an unlimited number of guns in 33 states without even a background check or showing an ID. There is not a single federal law that requires a background check for all gun sales.
BROOKS: John, you know what…
Mr. ROSENTHAL: …and the NRA is the reason for that.
BROOKS: Interesting. John, I'd like you to comment a little bit on what you've heard Richard Feldman say, because I know you guys have been on opposite ends of this argument, sometimes, over the years. And yet, it seems like in this moment, you're saying some of the same things, at least in terms of your disapproval of NRA strategy.
Mr. ROSENTHAL: Yes, it's nice to hear Richard and see him again. And, yeah, we have been on other sides of the issue and we've been on the same side of the issue over the years. We first met when Massachusetts promulgated the very first in the nation consumer protection regulations for guns.
Massachusetts, by the way, now has the second lowest firearm fatality rate, the most comprehensive gun violence prevention legislation, second only to Hawaii. We have a three per hundred thousand firearm fatality rate. The national average is 10.6.
As a gun owner, I think there's a lot we can do, and the NRA stands in the way of saving lives and supporting law enforcement. So where I've had the most trouble with the NRA is that I believe - and they use this in their marketing materials. We have to enforce existing laws. We have to support law enforcement.
But in reality, their actions and their policies do exactly the opposite. Under NRA policy, and they are a dictating national gun policy, the FBI has to destroy gun purchase records after 24 hours and the ATF cannot even share valuable crime gun trace data with even local law enforcement. And if they get their way in this Congress, it will make police officers have to go to jail if they share that information.
Now, I said earlier, the NRA says, oh, just, you know, enforce existing laws. But they're not giving the tools to law enforcement to do that. So they have taken a very extreme policy. And it's not in the best interest of rural or urban gun owners.
And as Richard has talked about, you know, these common sense policies like trigger locks and safe storage, background checks for all gun sales, even manufacturing standards. I mean, Richard got into a lot of trouble by going to the White House and saying, you know what, the gun industry can play a role in this. Technology allows them to build in features that ultimately could make just personalized guns that only I or my intended family members that I wanted to have access to the gun could fire.
BROOKS: Stand by, John Rosenthal. I want to get a couple of callers into this conversation who have been itching to get on the show. Let's go to Tony(ph) who's calling from Phoenix, Arizona. Hi, Tony.
TONY (Caller): Yes, good afternoon. Thanks for taking my call.
BROOKS: Sure. Good to have you.
TONY: I just wanted to say that the reason I support the NRA is because I don't see another viable organization out there standing up for gun owners and let me say lawful gun owners' rights. There isn't really a better option. And my concern doesn't come from sporting or hunting or any of the traditional things. It's, frankly, it's personal safety.
I mean, I live in a town in Chicago where, you know, the only people that had the guns where the criminals. And now that I live in Phoenix, where it is a right-to-carry state and it is very easy to purchase a weapon, at least if someone is out to do harm to me or my family, the criminal is going to have to understand that he may also come up against someone with a weapon.
TONY: So, you know, until the local authorities can assure me, as a law-abiding citizen, that someone who is going to try and hurt me or my family is not carrying a gun, then yes, I think I should have a right to do that. But as soon as they can tell me that's the case, they're more than welcome to take my gun as well.
BROOKS: Okay, Tony. Well, I appreciate the call. And I want to just - Richard, I want to come over to you about the point that Tony made right at the beginning there. He doesn't see another viable organization to represent those concerns that he just outlined. Is the NRA it or are there other organizations that he might appeal to?
Mr. FELDMAN: Well, I think that when I ran the Firearm Industry Association, we were getting to the point where we were playing on the same - in the same ballpark with NRA and they just don't play well with other children. And they did what - they eliminated the competition. And we were starting to become the competition. They don't like competition unless it involves gun products.
Mr. FELDMAN: But, you know, Tony brings up a very important point that is really the basis of so much of the foundation of the gun rights community in this country. And it's that a government which cannot or will not protect its citizens is in a very poor position to deny those same citizens the right to protect themselves. And therein, really, is the tremendous strength of the whole move in this country to pass concealed carry laws.
And, of course, I recall 15 years ago in Florida, which was the first of the modern states concealed carry laws, there was this human cry that the bloodshed in the streets - nothing like that has occurred. People that go through the process of getting a concealed carry license and actually do carry the gun, they're not robbing 7/11s around the place. But there have been multitudes of instances where they have stopped the bad guy.
I, myself, had a situation where having the gun prevented a very bad incident from occurring to me. And, you know, I always look at the gun very much like, you know, people would say, well, what do you carry a gun for? And I go, let me ask you a question. Do you have a fire extinguisher at home? Well, sure. And I'd say, well, are you expecting to have a fire tonight? No, of course not, but you want to have the tool to put it out if you should have a fire. That's the only reason…
Mr. FELDMAN: …that people carry a gun. That's why law enforcements carry guns…
Mr. FELDMAN: …not because they expect to use them everyday, but if they need it, it has to be available right then and there.
BROOKS: Stand by, Richard Feldman. We're talking to Richard Feldman, author of the book, "Ricochet: Confessions of a Gun Lobbyist," and John Rosenthal.
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let's go to Chris(ph) who's calling from St. Louis, Missouri. Hi, Chris.
CHRIS (Caller): Hello.
BROOKS: Yeah, you're on the air.
CHRIS: Well, yeah. I just that - my comment is that it seems like - it has seem to me at times that NRA acts as sort of - not even subsidiary of the Republican Party, but a subsidiary of a certain segment of it. I identify it as politically liberal, but I'm also in favor of gun rights. And it seems like the NRA is associating that position with a whole lot of other positions that are irrelevant to it.
BROOKS: Interesting point. Let me put that to John Rosenthal, because John Rosenthal, you're someone who I think would identify yourself as politically liberal but pro-gun.
Mr. ROSENTHAL: I would say I'm independent and I'm a freethinker. And it just boggles the imagination of how, you know, in a country like ours, where we can be inconvenienced, you know, when we want to take an airplane, but somehow we don't think that gun owners should be inconvenienced to even require a background check for gun sales.
Now, there is an alternative in this country, to respond to your previous caller. It's called American Hunters and Shooters Association. I cofounded it with former NFL player for the Redskins, Ray Schoenke. And you can look at huntersandshooters.org to see what that stands for.
And, you know, I would go as far to say that the NRA's positions are self-fulfilling prophecy: Make guns virtually unrestricted, including to criminals; don't support candidates that want to even the playing field by having economic opportunities and jobs for our poorest, but give them unrestricted access to guns. And today and everyday, about 90 Americans will die from guns, of which 90 percent will be nonwhite, poor people in our inner cities. I don't think…
BROOKS: Richard Feldman, we're just about out of time. And I want to give literally the last 15 seconds of this segment to you. Final word on this issue.
Mr. FELDMAN: Well, you know, I dedicated this book to Harlon Carter, who founded the modern NRA. And I'll read you the title, just the title of an article he wrote back in 1977. "Gun Owners: The True Liberals." Gun control is not a liberal versus conservative issue. Firearms rights are intermeshed with all our other American rights.
BROOKS: All right. Well, Richard Feldman, thank you so much for joining us today.
That's Richard Feldman, a former regional political director for the National Rifle Association, and a lobbyist and spokesman for the firearm industry's national trade group. He's also author of the book, "Ricochet: Confessions of a Gun Lobbyist." We also heard from John Rosenthal, founder of Stop Handgun Violence and cofounder of the advocacy group, American Hunters and Shooters Association.
John Rosenthal, thank you very much.
Mr. ROSENTHAL: Thank you.
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