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Reading the Chess Board

So since it seems like we’re going to get DISCLOSE rammed down our throats by the White House, it’s worth taking a look at the chess board and seeing what we stand to lose. It should be noted that at this time, the White House seems to be sticking behind Van Hollen’s promise to proceed with the large group exemption. Because many folks were quite emotional about the NRA deal, I’m going to take a cold, hard look at just what is at risk with this bill from a movement wide perspective. But in order to do that, I should first explain what kind of activities DISCLOSE regulates. DISCLOSE only regulates electioneering activities for federal office.This means advocating for the election or defeat of any specific candidate for federal office. It doesn’t not include advocating on behalf of a bill, lobbying (though there are some implications if you’re a group that lobbies or are a lobbyist), educational efforts (which can include voter education, and issue education), or most personal communication about political topics. It is limited only to advocacy on behalf or against a candidate for federal office. NRA does a quite a lot of all these things, but few groups have much in the way of an election apparatus. Let me explain.

Most groups tend to do electioneering activities through their Political Action Committees or PACs. NRA’s PAC is the Political Victory Fund. A few other groups have PACs. But let’s look at the monies at risk here:

Gun Right PAC Money in the 2008 Election

This is the bread and butter when it comes to electioneering. NRA spent a bit over a million dollars in funds directly to campaigns in 2008. That was nearly 10x more money than Gun Owners of America spent, and for pro-gun Democrats it’s more than 1000 times more than GOA spent. The other groups here are so low on their spending as to not even being worth mentioning. But we shouldn’t just look at PAC giving just to candidates. Let’s also not forget independent expenditures, which in the 2008 cycle amounted to about 18 million dollars, 13 million of which was against anti-gun Democratic Candidates. By contrast, GOA does very little in the way of independent expenditures, with most of their money going directly to candidates. So far for the 2010 election cycle, NRA’s independent expenditures amount to more than 76 times that of GOA’s.

So why pick GOA for comparison? Because they are the only other group with PAC spending that’s even on the radar screen at all. SAF, a non-profit organized under 501(c)(3) of the tax code, cannot legally participate in electioneering or independent expenditures without putting their tax status at risk. The are not affected by DISCLOSE, so their ability to speak in the electioneering domain is not at risk. JPFO also shares the same tax status. But what about other national gun rights group, like Dudley Brown’s National Association for Gun Rights (NAGR). They’ve been some of the most outspoken critics of NRA for DISCLOSE. Well, they don’t have a PAC, or if they do, they spend no money to show up on any radar. NAGR doesn’t even have a lobbyist registered on the Hill, so how they are promoting gun rights is beyond me. What about Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, which is SAF’s 501(c)(4) sister organization. They don’t have a PAC it seems. They do, however, have a lobbyist registered on Capitol Hill. Given that they are spending little on electioneering activities, they aren’t putting much of anything at risk maintaining opposition to the bill even when the exemption was offered to be lowered to 500,000 members. GOA has some money for electioneering at risk, but compared to their other spending and income, it’s a small amount. Compared to the overall movement it’s a puny amount.

So purely from a numbers game, if you’re making the call, do you put NRA’s entire electioneering machine at risk to try to save GOA’s which is orders of magnitudes smaller? I argue it would be irresponsible for the movement as a whole to do that. Many people speak about principles. Principle is the name of the hill you’re going to die on in politics if you fight based on that alone. Principles are a guide through the process. They are not the process itself. The process itself is a high complex strategy game. That has to be kept in mind.

17 Responses to “Reading the Chess Board”

  1. illspirit says:

    Well, hey, while you’re sacrificing principles and other peoples’ rights so long as you got yours, would a gun ban be okay if NRA execs and members got an exemption? If a few GOA members lose their guns, it no big deal, right? If all that matters is the Borg collective “movement as a whole,” then why not?

    Meh.

    If this is the “movement,” I’ll be getting off the train now..

  2. Miguel says:

    illspirit, what was your favorite gun group doing while DISCLOSE was being worked up? Would NOTHING be a fair answer?

    If you guys did not care for your rights, why should we care for yours?

    Here is the opportunity to come clean and do something other than bitching about the NRA. Pick up your phone and call your senator and representative every damn day. Tell you friends about DISCLOSE and have them call their senators and representatives every damn day.

    Stop bashing the NRA for what you did not do.

  3. Sebastian says:

    Let me put it in another context that’s more like this. Suppose back in 1986, instead of having the Hughes Amendment imposed on us, we instead had the option of accepting a deal to preserve some post-86 machine guns, with an exception for DCM to be able to surplus old M1 Thompsons, M14s, M16s and M4s through DCM affiliated clubs.

    If you were at the chess board back then, what would your move be? Do you risk opposing Hughes entirely? Or do you take the deal?

    Now think about it from hindsight. Do you think if you could get surplus M1s subguns, M14s, M16s and M4s through DCM would be an improvement over the current situation? Would you push that kind of exception today?

    I would wager a lot of folks who are screaming loudly at this would have jumped all over a deal like I just mentioned, in which case you’re also willing to sacrifice some in order to move the ball forward, or, removing hindsight, to prevent if from being moved so far backwards.

    Perhaps some will push the principle of no-compromise, ever. You’re welcome to die on that hill, but it’s not a hill any the rest of us want to die on.

  4. illspirit says:

    Stop bashing the NRA for what you did not do.

    You mean supporting censorship? You’re right. I didn’t do that. And won’t. Sorry Miguel.

    Sebastian, no, I wouldn’t support the Hughes amendment with such exceptions. If you want to play chess and endorse someone who lessens damage of a bad bill, that’s one thing. Rolling over and supporting the whole thing it is another.

    As for not wanting to die on that hill, fine, whatever. I don’t expect you or anyone else to do anything for me. But when you make a deal to keep the hill in exchange for giving the enemy ammo to shoot at other friendly units, don’t expect them to thank you for that.

  5. Sebastian says:

    NRA is not supporting DISCLOSE.

  6. Sebastian says:

    I also don’t really see it as giving the other side ammo. They probably have the ammunition to shoot everyone, to continue the battle analogy. It would kind of be like you’re a general in the field. You have a choice between withdrawing part of your army to fight another day, or risk letting the whole thing get slaughtered, in which case the battle is over and you lose. Some soldiers are going to die covering the retreat. But do you blame the general for retreating?

  7. Matt says:

    I think this DISCLOSE business is another example of the Rorschach test. It’s a mess of politics smeared on paper (or the internet, more precisely), and to some people it looks like the proverbial butterfly and to others it looks like a blood spatter. People will look at it and make of it what they will. In the end, though, all it is is just a smear of politics.

  8. Sebastian says:

    There some truth to that analogy, in that people are looking at a complex situation through the lens of their own biases. But the field in politics isn’t as random as a Rorschach inkblot. Nonetheless, two people can look at the same situation and come to two different conclusions.

    Going back to a battlefield analogy, I could understand a debate about whether the enemy dug into a hill had two weeks rations, plenty of water, and plenty of ammunition, or whether they were stacking up empty boxes in an attempt to deceive their opponents about their supply status. In the analogy that would be an argument about whether NRA had the votes to outright defeat DISCLOSE. But then you still have the argument that you’re talking about opening up a hole in your line to rescue another battalion.

    The problem I see is that we’re not not disagreeing about interpretation over what we see on the field. We’re not sure what battle we’re supposed to be fighting or where, or even who the enemy is.

  9. illspirit says:

    NRA is not supporting DISCLOSE.

    Then why are you spilling so many pixels trying to tell us what a glorious victory it is for us?

    I also don’t really see it as giving the other side ammo. They probably have the ammunition to shoot everyone, to continue the battle analogy.

    If they had all the ammo, they wouldn’t be crawling to the NRA for a deal, now, would they? But, okay, maybe I exaggerated slightly by saying you were giving them ammo, and you’re just retreating to fight another day so to speak. To extend your warfare analogy though, you’re retreating with a carrier battle group and leaving your coastal population undefended. Against what looks like a damaged frigate which is about to sink anyway come November.

    • Bitter says:

      Nobody here would dare say that DISCLOSE was a good thing – there have been absolutely zero pixels dedicated to that argument. Hell, I was the first one writing about the issue in any of the gun blogs – before the issue of exemptions came up.

      What we have said is that it’s the best solution we can get from a Congress hellbent on shoving this down on throats aside from outright killing it in its tracks. I’ve been encouraging people to help in the effort to do just that on this very site since the beginning of the month. Just because NRA has worked to protect its members doesn’t mean that we as individuals shouldn’t try to rise up and stop it.

  10. Sebastian says:

    I’m not saying it’s a glorious victory. It’s a bad law. My argument is NRA’s strategic position is a reasonable one. Do they have the power to stop DISCLOSE entirely? That’s an open question. Generally speaking, how these things go down, you have the votes to stop it until suddenly you don’t anymore. It depends on how much the leadership is willing to put behind the bill. If they answer is not much, you probably have the votes to stop it. If the answer is full weight, you probably don’t. It’s impossible to know ahead of time how far they are willing to go to pass it.

  11. illspirit says:

    Sorry about the glorious victory bit. I was trying to be sarcastic, but alas, that doesn’t always work over the internets.

    And, yea, maybe tactical retreat was the best the NRA could get out the deal for itself. Maybe not. But either way, my interest in this extend beyond just the best way to defend gun rights.

    Granted, the NRA is a one-issue org, and like I said before, I don’t feel entitled to having anyone fight for me. It’s just that I’m equally annoyed by people who would seek rents or curry favors and exemptions from regulators as I am with the regulators themselves. Call me a Quixotic principle freak if you like, but that’s my position.

  12. mobo says:

    I’m confused. Does DISCLOSE prohibit a private organization from buying tv and radio ads *outside* of official campaigns, or does this only apply to contributions to the campaigns themselves? Is this an absolute restriction (jail, fines, etc…), or does this bill “only” threaten the tax status of any organization that chooses to get involved in politics?

    Forgive me, but I’m completely ignorant of all this campaign finance crap.

  13. Sebastian says:

    What you are describing is an independent expenditure, and it is regulated by DISCLOSE. It’s not prohibited outright. You are just required to comply with a rather ridiculous and ill defined set of disclosure requirements.

  14. dusty says:

    “Many people speak about principles. Principle is the name of the hill you’re going to die on in politics if you fight based on that alone. Principles are a guide through the process. They are not the process itself. The process itself is a high complex strategy game. That has to be kept in mind.”

    Wrong. The NRA IS sticking with its principles – it gets involved in fights over guns, and leaves other fights for other people. That’s a highly principled stance, no need to apologize.

    NRA isn’t supporting DISCLOSE. There are thousands of bills that NRA doesn’t have an opinion on. To be consistent, anyone who expects NRA to fight DISCLOSE should have been demanding that they fight for term limits, help in the Minnesota recount, and every other issue tangentially related to the second amendment.

    For another perspective, the NRA picks its court battles. The serial murdering rapist out on furlough whose guns rights were violated – NRA leaves that guy to fend for himself. That’s not unprincipled. NRA doesn’t make the pledge to fight every foe, pay any price.

  15. Sebastian says:

    A good point, dusty… but there are many who seem to want NRA to fight for all freedoms, rather than just the Second Amendment. That’s what I mean when I say principle. Perhaps not the best choice of words.

  16. Miguel says:

    Sebastian, no choice of words will satisfy a certain hardcore/thoughtless section of the populace. To some, it is easier to act insulted and bash the NRA than admit they were too engrossed watching some reality TV show than paying attention and acting against the shenanigans of the congresscritters.

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