Introducing the NRA kingmakers

Updated
National Rifle Association Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre calls on Congress to pass a law putting armed police officers in every school in America...
National Rifle Association Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre calls on Congress to pass a law putting armed police officers in every school in America...
Evan Vucci/AP Photo

The rites of spring rarely change. Every year, even before the season opens for wild turkey shooting, hunters begin sighting-in their shotguns in the field. And just like the beginning of the hunting season, every spring, members of the National Rifle Association will learn whom their leaders have quietly picked for reelection to the NRA’s governing board. Eligible NRA members will also receive their paper ballots in the mail.

The NRA board appoints a shadowy committee to handpick almost every candidate appearing on the ballot annually. The Nominating Committee members for this year’s NRA board elections include highly-connected Republican leaders, along with figures connected to the nation’s largest conservative lobbying group, gun manufacturers, and even the New York State Police, reporting and internal documents obtained by msnbc show.

The NRA board appointed nine individuals, including six board members and three people from outside the NRA, to the 2013 Nominating Committee last summer—before Mitt Romney’s loss in the presidential race and December’s Newtown, Connecticut Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.

But few NRA members—less than 7%—even take the time to vote. “I don’t bother anymore,” posted an NRA member in California, under the screen name HunterJim, “the insiders have set this system up so no outsider is going to be elected.”

Learning who is on the board’s Nominating Committee provides a rare window into the usually obscure gun lobby. At a time when the Obama administration and California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein have proposed a ban on assault or military-style semi-automatic weapons, the NRA is moving in the other direction—having placed three “black gun” or Bushmaster AR-15 advocates on the 2013 Nominating Committee. The NRA is also reaching out to Latinos, perhaps realizing that, like the GOP, it must diversify if it is to survive. Even as some conservatives begin to wonder out loud whether the gun lobby has become a liability, the NRA is connecting with different camps within the Republican Party, along with the conservative and neo-conservative movements.

“These people don’t have the slightest idea how to make their case before a skeptical and increasingly liberal public,” recently wrote one blogger with the user name kowalski, on RedState.com. “It’s not their ideas—it’s the presentation of those ideas by these toupeed old white males who are positively hated in this culture right now but they still cannot face the music.”

There are usually up to 30 candidates on the ballot to elect 25 directors, or nearly one-third of NRA directors, to serve a three-year term. (One director, the 76th board member, is elected annually from the NRA’s convention floor to serve for one year.)

Although a few candidates often make the ballot through a grassroots petition, the rest are placed there by the Nominating Committee and almost all of their choices win. It “is a sad testimony to how seriously flawed the NRA election process is” noted gun rights blogger Jeff Knox, “and the NRA’s unwillingness” to change it.

Matt Schlapp, one of the 2013 members of the Nominating Committee, is a former senior White House adviser to President George W. Bush who served as deputy assistant to the president and director of political affairs. Schlapp is also a board member of the American Conservative Union. He is not an NRA board member and holds no publicly discernible position on the NRA.

“I’ve only attended one meeting,” said Schlapp who confirmed his role on the 2013 Nominating Committee in a brief telephone interview with msnbc.

Another committee member, Joseph P. DeBergalis Jr., is a 25-year-veteran New York State Police Officer and supervising investigator, according to a report by the Albany Times Union. DeBergalis has been a board director for the NRA since 2009. DeBergalis, whose name is not listed on the NRA website’s list of board directors, is from New York, which recently passed the strictest assault-weapons restrictions in the country.

The N.Y. State Trooper is a competitive sports shooter and a “black rifle”, or Bushmaster AR-15 advocate, according to the website of ARFCOM or AR-15.com, a gun rights community that endorsed DeBergalis’ past two successful bids for the NRA board. The Bushmaster AR-15 gained notoriety in 2012 after it was used in December’s grade school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. DeBergalis did not return calls requesting comment and NRA officials at the organization’s headquarters in Fairfax, Virginia, declined to comment on why his name was not listed on the site.

DeBergalis also has ties to Brownells Company, an Iowa-based firearms manufacturer specializing in selling firearms accessories, parts, and gunsmith tools to the public, as well as police departments across the nation. The company’s website boasts that Brownells “respects and supports the 2nd Amendment—protecting your right to keep and bear arms.” Brownnells Company chief executive officer, Pete Brownell, serves with DeBergalis on the NRA board. DeBergalis is also a Brownells Company “Volunteer Training Instructor,” according to the Brownell Company’s website.

The make-up of this year’s Nominating Committee also suggests that the NRA may be attempting to diversify beyond what one gun rights blogger called “the OFWG” or “Old Fat White Guy hoe-down.” Nearly a handful of African-Americans are now on the NRA’s board, most notably the former Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Lakers forward Karl Malone, who has been the face of the gun lobby’s “I’m the NRA” national advertisements. Yet it is still hard to find many African-Americans at NRA conventions. “I met twelve black persons in attendance at [last year’s NRA] conference in St. Louis,” wrote Rick Ector in his blog Legally Armed in Detroit.

Will the gun lobby do any better with Latinos? Another Nominating Committee member is Antonio Hernández. He is one of the first Hispanics recruited for the Nominating Committee; since 2001, there has been one Chicano on the NRA board. Hernández is the deputy legal counsel of the Republican Party of Puerto Rico, and endorsed Gov. Mitt Romney in 2012. Hernández holds no other position in the NRA. In a brief telephone interview, he confirmed his assignment and said that he is a sports shooter.

Following the intense scrutiny the NRA has faced in the wake of the Newtown massacre, some Republicans have begun to openly worry about their association with the gun lobby. At a time when Republican leaders are trying to reach out to both Latinos and women, some fear the NRA and its stubborn response to gun violence may only hinder the GOP’s appeal.

The experience of NRA director H. Joaquin Jackson underscores the gun lobby’s challenge as it tries to diversify. Already a storied Texas Ranger, Jackson gained national prominence when he was recruited by the actor/director Tommy Lee Jones to play a Texas Sheriff in the 1995 TV film “The Good Old Boys.” In 2001, the NRA’s then-Nominating Committee put Jackson on the election slate for the board, where he has served since. But in 2005 Jackson told the Texas Monthly in an on-camera interview that he opposed both assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, leading some NRA members to demand he be recalled. Jackson, who later said he misspoke, is one of the board members up for reelection this spring.

“I was very disappointed watching that news conference—which it wasn’t—it was just a painful slog from one end to the other,” posted kowalski on RedState.com following NRA chief executive officer Wayne LaPierre’s press conference one week after the Newtown shooting. “What LaPierre said in the abstract was helpful, but he really did look and sound like he was delivering the message from a funeral home, as the undertaker of something already dead.”

Last month, reporting for Mother Jones, I obtained the NRA Report of the 2012 Nominating Committee to elect candidates to the NRA’s current board of directors.

“There is little change of any injection new blood,” complained gun rights blogger Knox. “Historically we can expect that at least 23 of the 25 incumbents will win reelection.”

The NRA’s 2012 Nominating Committee Chairman was Patricia A. Clark, a competitive sports shooter and longtime NRA board director who happens to live in Newtown, Connecticut just a few miles from the Sandy Hook Elementary School. Quietly serving under her on the same 2012 Nominating Committee was George Kollitides II, the chief executive officer of the North Carolina-based Freedom Group, one of the nation’s largest gun making consortiums that made the Bushmaster AR-15 rifled used in Newtown, last summer in Aurora, Colorado, and in and around Washington by the DC sniper a decade earlier.

One 2013 Nominating Committee member, Carolyn D. Meadows, sits on the board of the both the NRA and the American Conservative Union. Two other NRA directors, the anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist and NRA President David Keene, are also on the ACU board. (Another ACU director, Asa Hutchinson, is an NRA consultant. A former U.S. Attorney, Arkansas Republican Party chairman, and Bush administration drug enforcement chief, Hutchinson was recently appointed by NRA CEO LaPierre to lead the NRA’s National School Shield Emergency Response Program that aims to put armed guards or police in every school.)

The rest of this year’s Nominating Committee are pulled from the gun lobby’s own locker. William H. Allen, this year’s Nominating Committee chairman, serves as Inspector with Tennessee’s largest Sheriff’s office. Allen is also a champion competitive shooter and Second Amendment activist who, like DeBergalis, enjoys the support of the AR15.com “black gun” group.

Charles L. Cotton, pulls double-duty as the NRA’s trustee of its Civil Rights Defense Fund and takes up cases to establish legal precedents in favor of gun owners, along with his work on the Nomination Committee. Longtime NRA director, Ret. Air Force Gen. William H. Satterfield served in the Reagan administration as both general counsel of the Federal Regulatory Commission, and as deputy solicitor in the U.S. Interior Department. Rounding out the committee is J.D. Williams a Texas-based lawyer and former trustee of the NRA Foundation. Williams and Satterfield each seem more like older generations of NRA leaders, as they are both hunters and conservationists involved in preserving wildlife habitat for game fowl and waterfowl.

Richard Pearson is not an NRA director but, like fellow committee members DeBergalis and Allen, Pearson competes in High Power matches using AR-15 and other long-range, semi-automatic rifles. He is the third person appointed by the board from outside the gun lobby—after Schlapp and Hernandez–to the Nominating Committee. An insurance broker, Pearson is executive director of the Illinois State Rifle Association and a certified semi-automatic firearms instructor.

This year, some of the better known NRA directors up for reelection include former Republican Georgia Rep. Bob Barr, Brownells gun maker CEO Pete Brownell, retired All-Pro NFL defensive tackle, sports shooter, and former spokesman for Winchester and Fiocchi Ammunition Dave Butz, former Idaho Senator Larry Craig –who resigned over allegations of sexual impropriety in a men’s room, Marion P. Hammer, the petite grandmother and gun rights advocate most responsible for Florida’s Stand-Your-Ground law, former Iran-Contra-era White House official and news commentator Oliver North, and the rock artist and Vietnam War-era draft dodger, who last year was visited by the U.S. Secret Service after using threatening language against President Obama, Ted Nugent.

The Nominating Committee controls the slate for board and knowing the composition of this year’s Nominating Committee suggests that –despite America’s worst gun tragedy two months ago at the Sandy Hook school—the NRA is already planning to dig in and fight any proposed restrictions or regulations of guns, no matter how reasonable they may seem to the rest of the nation.

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Introducing the NRA kingmakers

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