NRA sues San Francisco for declaring group a 'domestic terrorist organization'

Lois Beckett and agencies
Photograph: Josh Edelson/AP

The National Rifle Association sued San Francisco on Monday over the city’s recent declaration that the gun-rights lobby is a “domestic terrorist organization”.

The lawsuit, filed in US district court for the northern district of California, accuses city officials of violating the gun lobby’s free speech rights for political reasons and says the city is seeking to blacklist anyone associated with the NRA. It asks the court to step in “to instruct elected officials that freedom of speech means you cannot silence or punish those with whom you disagree”.

Last week, the San Francisco board of supervisors passed a resolution calling the NRA a “domestic terrorist organization”, contending the group spreads propaganda that seeks to deceive the public about the dangers of gun violence.

“They continue to stand in the way of gun violence reform and people are dying because of it,” said Catherine Stefani, the San Francisco supervisor who drafted the resolution not long after a mass shooting at a garlic festival in nearby Gilroy, California, left three people dead.

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Despite the troubling drumbeat of mass shootings across the country, the overall gun homicide rate in San Francisco has dropped 49% over the past decade, a much more dramatic decrease than in the country as a whole.

But the lifesaving success of local gun violence prevention programs rarely gets much attention in America’s national gun debate, which is driven more often by headline-grabbing confrontations between gun rights and gun control activists, like the one San Francisco’s board of supervisors kicked off last week.

In the past months, the NRA has been hobbled by money troubles and vicious internal infighting, including a bitter legal battle with its own longtime public relations firm Ackerman McQueen. The group’s powerful chief lobbyist, Chris Cox, left the organization in June, after being accused of conspiring against the NRA CEO, Wayne LaPierre. For the embattled gun rights group, public condemnation from a group of liberal California lawmakers appears to have come as a welcome distraction.

The group’s Twitter feed has been full of updates on the lawsuit, along with videos from a diverse selection of NRA members, declaring, “I am not a terrorist.”

“This action is an assault on all advocacy organizations across the country,” William A Brewer III, the NRA’s lawyer said. “There can be no place in our society for this manner of behavior by government officials. Fortunately, the NRA, like all US citizens, is protected by the first amendment.”

San Francisco’s resolution follows some recent high-profile shootings, including one in Gilroy, California, about 80 miles south-east of San Francisco, where a gunman entered a festival with an AK-style long gun, killing three people and injuring 17 before killing himself. Since that shooting on 28 July, there have been at least three mass shootings: in El Paso, Texas; Dayton, Ohio; and in the west Texas towns of Odessa and Midland.

Stefani said she drafted the resolution after the Gilroy shooting, driven in part by the vision of one of those killed while playing in a bouncy house at the festival. Stefani, an attorney who has been involved for years in gun-control organizations, said the thought sickened her. “I had enough,” she told the Associated Press.

She also criticized the NRA leadership for how it spends dues from its self-proclaimed 5 million members – a sore point among some gun-rights activists as well who believe its longtime CEO, Wayne LaPierre, and some of those in his inner circle have misspent hundreds of thousands of dollars on expensive clothing, travel, housing and inflated salaries.

Stefani told the AP that she believes the lawsuit is a “desperate move by a very desperate organization”, taking note of those allegations by some NRA members. “I truly believe their time is up.”

The NRA CEO, Wayne LaPierre, at the organization’s annual meeting in Indianapolis, Indiana, on 26 April 2019. Photograph: Lucas Jackson/Reuters

The NRA has been battling a number of challenges to its operations in recent months, including an investigation by the attorney general in New York, where its charter was formed, and the attorney general in Washington DC, where authorities are questioning whether its operations are in violation of its not-for-profit status.

The NRA would rather go to court than tackle the “epidemic” of gun violence in the US, said John Cote, the San Francisco city attorney’s office spokesman. “The American people would be better served if the NRA stopped trying to get weapons of war into our communities and instead actually did something about gun safety,” Cote said. “Commonsense safety measures like universal background checks, an assault weapons ban and restricting high-capacity magazines would be a good start.”

LaPierre, the NRA’s CEO, vowed to fight the move by city officials, saying in a statement: “This lawsuit comes with a message to those who attack the NRA: We will never stop fighting for our law-abiding members and their constitutional freedoms. Some politicians forget that all 5 million of us in the NRA stand for freedom and that we believe it is a cause worth fighting for. We will always confront illegal and discriminatory practices against our organization and the millions of members we serve.”

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The move by city officials has received some pushback from those who believe it amounts to “virtue signaling”. An editorial in the Los Angeles Times written by Michael McGough argued that although the NRA should be criticized for blocking efforts to stem gun violence, it’s not accurate to label it a “domestic terrorist organization”.

The San Francisco resolution also follows steps by corporate America in recent years to cut ties with the NRA and its membership – from Delta Airlines ceasing discounts for NRA members to last week’s moves by Walmart, CVS, Walgreens and Albertsons chains all asking customers to not openly carry firearms into their stores.