ACLU Trashes NRA's Mission While Defending Its First Amendment Rights

AP Photo/Seth Perlman, File

The American Civil Liberties Union has long had a blind spot when it comes to their defense of individual rights. As far as the organization is concerned, while every American possesses the freedom of speech, the right to worship, and due process protections, our right to keep and bear arms simply doesn't exist. 

According to the ACLU, "regulation of firearms and individual gun ownership or use are appropriate, however, only when consistent with civil liberties principles such as privacy, due process, equal protection, and freedom from unlawful searches. Keeping those principles in mind, the ACLU will not oppose governmental regulation of firearms as long as such regulation is reasonably related to a legitimate governmental interest, such as protection of the public health, safety, or welfare. Deference should be given to legislative judgments limiting gun ownership or use so that state and local governments are allowed an opportunity to experiment with solutions to the complex problems involving guns."

In other words, the ACLU might object to a particular gun control law, but it won't be on Second Amendment grounds. ACLU attorney Jenessa Calvo-Friedman has made that even more explicitly clear while defending the group's decision to side with the National Rifle Association in a case called NRA v. Vullo

The ACLU disagrees sharply with the NRA on many issues, yet we are representing the group in this case because of the First Amendment principles at stake. We argue that Maria Vullo, a New York state regulator, threatened to use her regulatory power over banks and insurance companies to coerce them into denying basic financial services to the NRA and, in Vullo’s own words, “other gun promotion” groups. Vullo’s threats were expressly based on her disagreement with the NRA’s advocacy. And they worked. Several insurance companies and banks refused to work with the NRA out of fear of reprisals from New York regulators. The ACLU urges the Supreme Court to hold that coercing third parties to break ties with the NRA because of its advocacy violates the First Amendment.

Even those who oppose government censorship may be sympathetic to New York’s efforts to shut down the NRA. The NRA is dedicated to promoting guns, which play an outsized role in violence and death in this country. The ACLU does not support the NRA’s mission. In fact, we directly oppose the NRA and support the government’s power to adopt sensible tools, like public carry permits and disarming persons subject to domestic violence protective orders. While it’s understandable that Vullo wanted to address the gun violence epidemic, government censorship wasn’t a constitutional response to the problem.

Neither is gun control, despite the ACLU's insistence to the contrary. The organization wouldn't support a law that removed Fourth Amendment protections for someone who's been accused but not convicted of a crime or requiring a government-issued permission slip before being allowed to attend a religious service of your preference, but so long as the government contends that a particular gun control law is on the books in the name of public safety, that's good enough for them. 

To be fair, that position appears to be okay with ACLU members, as convoluted and contradictory as it is to the organization's mission "to conserve America's original civic values - the Constitution and the Bill of Rights - and defend the rights of every man, woman and child in this country." And I'm sure the ACLU is getting plenty of grief from its members for siding with the NRA in its challenge to Mario Vullo's neo-McCarthysim. That's probably why Calvo-Friedman penned her piece to begin with; to remind the group's supporters that they're supposed to be in favor of free speech for all... not just those they agree with.  

Maria Vullo followed the same playbook. As the state’s top financial regulator, in coordination with then-Governor Andrew Cuomo, she expressly targeted the NRA for its “gun promotion” advocacy and urged all the banks and insurance companies she regulates to refuse to do business with the NRA. She offered leniency to one insurer for legal infractions if it would cut its ties to the NRA, and extracted promises from the NRA’s three largest insurance partners never to provide “affinity insurance” to the group’s members ever again.

NRA v. Vullo isn’t just about the NRA. It’s about all of our First Amendment rights to advocate for causes we believe in, without being targeted by public-private ventures of retaliation. If New York can do this to the NRA, then Oklahoma could similarly penalize criminal justice reformers advocating for bail reform, and Texas could target climate change organizations advancing the view that all fossil fuel extraction must end. The right to advocate views the government opposes safeguards our ability to organize for the country we want to see. It’s a principle the ACLU has defended for more than 100 years, and one we will continue to protect from government censorship of all kinds, whether we agree or disagree with the views of those being targeted.

I'm not going to applaud the ACLU for siding with the NRA over Maria Vullo. After all, that's what the organization is supposed to do, especially when the actions of the state are as atrocious as Vullo's largely successful attempt to get businesses to end their relationships with the National Rifle Association. 

I'll save my cheers until the ACLU is willing to take a stand for the Second Amendment rights of First Amendment advocates just as it has for the First Amendment rights of Second Amendment groups like the NRA. I'm don't expect that day will be arriving anytime soon, but if the ACLU ever wants to truly fulfill its mission then it's going to have to eventually acknowledge the damage done to our civil liberties by the gun control lobby and their political allies.