NRA “Extremism”—down but not out. A year ago the National Rifle Association’s internal politics, by tradition kept out of the public spotlight, erupted into the mainstream press. According to NRA management and Beltway spin doctors, a group of extremists on the NRA Board of Directors was trying to fire NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre for the sole purpose of replacing him with NRA First Vice President Neal Knox, a “no-compromise” stalwart when it comes to the Second Amendment. The NRA’s p.r. campaign was so successful that even the New York Times got into the act, describing Knox in a February 3, 1997, editorial as “a dark force in the NRA,” David Brock then covered the story with an exhausting nine-page article in the American Spectator, in which he described me as the NRA’s “kamikaze” board member.

Though Knox took himself out of the race for NRA Executive Vice President in January 1997, NRA management succeeded in keeping him the central theme of its campaign and described, to Associated Press reporter James Rowley, Mr. Knox’s supporters on the NRA board as “assassins,” “henchmen,” and “dissidents.” LaPierre’s old friend Charlton Heston was brought in to run against Knox and defeated him in the race for First Vice President by a scant four votes. Newly crowned, Vice President Heston wasted no time in assuring the world that there were indeed some guns that were “inappropriate” for civilian ownership and that the NRA’s Board of Directors must be “purged” of “extremists.”

There are two ways for an eligible NRA member to become a candidate for the 76-member Board of Directors; he can either gather 250 signatures on a petition from eligible NRA members, or he can be recommended by the board’s nominating committee. On the surface this would seem to be a level playing field, but for over a decade the board has effectively been self-selected by publishing the “report of the nominating committee” in the NRA’s house magazine (in recent years directly opposite the ballot).

Since most candidates for the NRA board have no public persona, the report of the nominating committee has functioned as a de facto voter guide. As a result, nominating committee candidates dominate board elections, occasionally pulling off a clean sweep. Not surprisingly, board members who ruffle the feathers of the board’s power-brokers do not get re-nominated and thus stand little chance of being reelected. The possibility of losing his seat on the board is something to be avoided at all costs for most NRA directors, as “service” on the NRA board is by far the high point in the life of the average NRA director and therefore not something to be casually sacrificed out of fidelity to the Second Amendment or some antiquated noHon of fiduciary duty to the NRA’s three million members.

Last summer, some 1,500 NRA members signed a petition to put a measure on this year’s ballot that would require directors and officers to disclose their financial dealings with the NRA (directors are not paid), prohibit NRA officers from campaigning for directors (who in turn elect these very officers), and prohibit the NRA’s outside contractors from influencing NRA elections. Not surprisingly, the board voted against this amendment (by a two-thirds majority, no less). Vice President Heston, named “outstanding conservative leader” by CPAC in January, assured the board that “if they [the members] pass it, I will defy it.” Not a single director who voted in favor of the financial disclosure amendment was re-nominated by the nominating committee.

This fight has now moved to the courts. As it turns out, the NRA bylaws clearly prohibit designating the method of nomination (committee or petition) on the ballot or in the NRA magazines. While management relies on an Orwellian interpretation of this bylaw as a shield to continue publishing it, already nine petition candidates have filed suit to force the NRA to obey its own bylaws. In addition, a libel suit has been filed against an NRA officer.

Should the ballot initiative fail, NRA members will have one more shot at forcing accountability on the board—the members’ meeting this June in Philadelphia. Members will have a chance to pass three separate amendments to the NRA certificate of incorporation dealing with the disclosure issue as well as term limits for directors. Finally, a proposal has been made to reduce the NRA’s board from 76 to 24. This last proposal may represent the best chance NRA members have to prevent the Association from becoming just another Beltway sell-out of a populist cause.