- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 30, 2007

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Nothing is more fun than watching one’s political opponents fight among themselves. So the anti-gun crowd must be cheering the release of “Ricochet,” a tell-all from former National Rifle Association top lobbyist Richard Feldman. He’s still pro-gun, but he takes the NRA’s top brass to task for what he considers money-hungry management.

In 1991, Mr. Feldman became head of the trade group American Shooting Sports Coalition, later Council (ASSC), and in that role he adopted a moderate, pro-compromise tone that irked his former NRA coworkers. They leveraged their clout against him, and in 1999 he left the gun movement.

“Ricochet” is an expose that doesn’t really expose anything. For example, Mr. Feldman reveals NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre’s compensation (about $900,000) as though he’s breaking news, but in fact that’s public information. The American Institute of Philanthropy has even included Mr. LaPierre’s pay as number four on its “Top 25 Compensation Packages” list. Contrary to the book’s publicity, Mr. Feldman’s case relies on logical reasoning, not insider dirt.

The core assertion is that the organization over focuses on fund-raising. In Mr. Feldman’s view this has two manifestations — one, the NRA sends too many alarmist letters asking for donations (as a former member I can attest to the communications’ hysterical nature). Two, the organization would “rather fight than win” because that’s what brings in money. It fights unwinnable battles and prolongs winnable ones.

Regarding the constant shakedown of NRA members for cash, it would have been nice for Mr. Feldman to give readers some numbers. Instead he gives examples of the fund-raising tactics he witnessed, adding in accusations of bad faith.

Still, the statistics support his thesis. In 2004, the NRA spent $68.9 million on fund-raising — 33 percent of its total expenditures — according to the Better Business Bureau. It costs the group 46 cents to raise a dollar. Other well-known political groups tend to spend 5 cents to 20 cents per dollar.

But is it true that the NRA eschews pragmatism for absolutism, preferring fighting to winning? Mr. Feldman’s biggest gripe here is the group’s opposition to universal “child-safety” trigger locks.

As head of the ASSC in 1997, Mr. Feldman supported a voluntary, industry-wide policy of packaging locks with handguns. He claims this kept then-President Clinton from supporting legislation to that effect (which he says definitely would have passed) and positioned gun manufacturers as responsible corporate citizens. The NRA opposed Mr. Feldmanforcefully, supposedly to gin up anger in its membership.

But even Mr. Feldman does not deny the stupidity of the concept. As pro-gun scholar John R. Lott Jr. once wrote, “Overwhelmingly, the [accidental] shooters [of children] are adult males with long histories of alcoholism, arrests for violent crimes, automobile crashes, and suspended or revoked driver’s licenses.” These guys won’t be using trigger locks.

And there’s an innocent explanation for the NRA-Feldman disagreement. As head of a gun-industry trade group, Mr. Feldman’s job was to protect gun manufacturers’ bottom line, not gun owners’ interests or the Second Amendment. Manufacturers pass their costs along to consumers, not caring much that guns now cost a little more and anti-gunners have succeeded in undermining freedom. The NRA stood up for its clients, Mr. Feldman for his, the way lobbyists are supposed to.

More importantly, for its supposed lack of pragmatism, the NRA has a reputation for hyper-effectiveness. In 2004, the San Francisco Chronicle ran a story titled “NRA huffs — weapon ban falls.” Mr. Feldman himself notes that, after ostracizing him, the NRA won “one victory after another.”

There are smaller issues here as well. Mr. Feldman spends a lot of time on his pre-NRA life story, and it’s not clear why he thinks anyone cares. There’s also some gratuitous identity-politicking; without evidence, he accuses the “hard-right fringe of the NRA’s ranks” of anti-Semitism, hoping that “some of those Neanderthals weren’t packing heat and didn’t know what hotel I was staying in.”Considering Mr. Feldman’s stated goal of winning over NRA members, calling them bigots might not be the best way to go.

The NRA has its share of issues — I let my own membership lapse when it campaigned against now-Sen. Jim Webb, Virginia Democrat and NRA member. And its management does send barrages of breathless, intellectually lazy fundraiser mailings. But however much it focuses on raising money, it’s an effective lobbying force for gun rights.

Robert VerBruggen is assistant book editor at The Washington Times.

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