- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 8, 2002

There's a problem in the land, or so said the so-called reformers. Powerful organizations, they told us, are taking over our politics. They are drowning out the voice of the people. Democracy is in peril unless we can reconstitute our campaign finance laws to shut these organizations up when elections draw nigh. Need an example? They had one they loved to trot out the National Rifle Association.
There are many problems with the analysis. One is that the First Amendment's free speech guarantee applies to everyone, even the powerful. Another is that the threat to democracy at least according to any traditional understanding of democracy is not people speaking out, but governmental attempts to control these people. And still another problem with the reformers' view is that many of the groups in question including the NRA, their favorite whipping boy are nothing more than collections of citizens exercising citizenship. They are the people.
It may serve the purposes of those who don't like the NRA to portray it otherwise. Some references make it seem a dark, menacing force of secretive conspirators. The truth is that it is a group that operates in the open and has 4 million members, some of whom are almost surely your neighbors and friends.
These people may join the NRA for lots of reasons, such as the training the NRA provides in rifle shooting, but they also join to do what people are supposed to do in a free, self-governing society. They are working together for the political ends to which they subscribe. Their dues are not much $35 a year. And the average contribution to the political action committee's fund ranges from $12 to $18, I was told.
A powerful group? Yes. But why is it powerful? Some of the answer has to do with passion, I suspect; these people care about their beliefs. The money counts because it facilitates research and communication and other activities. But the biggest reason for the power is that the members and others including many of America's 70 million or so gun owners respond with their votes. Talking about the connection between the organization and voters, an NRA lobbyist once said in a speech, "We flush 'em, you bust 'em." Once alerted, voters sympathetic to the NRA will often vote the NRA way.
I myself agree with the NRA more often than I disagree with it. Even some constitutional experts of a gun-controlling disposition now concur with what ought to be obvious to anyone: The Second Amendment establishes a personal right of gun ownership. Despite a dearth of attention to the fact, the legitimate ownership of guns saves many lives each year. And, as the NRA keeps observing, the chances are slim to zero that still another gun law is going to accomplish what so many others have failed to do, namely, prevent the murderous-minded from acquiring the means of their mayhem.
But suppose you disagree with the NRA. Suppose you think its positions lead to bloody consequences. Would that justify you in silencing the group? Obviously not. The NRA does not write the laws. Legislators do. If you think the legislators are writing bad laws and that some are too much under the influence of the NRA, vote against the legislators or start your own group to fight back or do both.
Don't do as Congress did in passing the McCain-Feingold bill. Among other provisions in this legislation, one says that when elections get near, advocacy groups had better disappear. Mention a federal candidate's name in a political ad on TV or radio close to a primary or general election and, if you did not use political action committee money, you could be in violation of the law. The reformers' rationale, as best I can puzzle it out, is that politics will be purer under this safeguard and that the voters will be protected from critically voiced views that might cause them to make wrong decisions.
Call that democracy or liberty or sound policy if you like, but you will thereby show yourself up as someone who actually has qualms about the people's capacity for self-governance, and if you are running for re-election, you will demonstrate that you are less interested in free speech than a free ride back to office.
Court arguments began last week that will likely lead to a Supreme Court decision deciding whether portions of this law live or die. Let's hope death is the verdict. We do not need to control the speech of the NRA or any other association of citizens. We need to inhibit politicians who have such huge disrespect for their fellow Americans.

Jay Ambrose is director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard Newspapers.

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