NRA Sues San Francisco Over Terrorist Declaration

1 min
A visitor holds a pistol at a gun display during a National Rifle Association outdoor sports trade show. (Dominick Reuter/AFP/Getty Images)

The National Rifle Association is suing San Francisco after the Board of Supervisors declared that the gun rights lobby is a "domestic terrorist organization."

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. 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."

"The fact is in San Francisco, we are always willing to take risks," San Francisco Mayor London Breed told KQED. "We're always willing to put ourselves out there and do what's necessary to address the injustices we see."

Last week, when the San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed the resolution calling the NRA a "domestic terrorist organization," it contended the group spreads propaganda that seeks to deceive the public about the dangers of gun violence.

"This action is an assault on all advocacy organizations across the country," said William A. Brewer III, the NRA's lawyer. "There can be no place in our society for this manner of behavior by government officials. Fortunately, the NRA, like all U.S. citizens, is protected by the First Amendment."

San Francisco's resolution follows some recent high-profile shootings, including the one in Gilroy on July 28, when a gunman entered the annual garlic festival with an AK-style long gun, killing three people and injuring 17 before killing himself. Since that shooting, there have been at least three mass shootings — in El Paso, Texas; Dayton, Ohio; and in the West Texas towns of Odessa and Midland.

San Francisco Supervisor Catherine 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. "They continue to stand in the way of gun violence reform, and people are dying because of it."

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

“The NRA is a terrorist organization that isn’t succeeding at much of anything: They’re dealing with dwindling membership, financial troubles and a Russian spy scandal. This lawsuit is just their latest unsuccessful effort," Stefani told KQED.

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 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, D.C., where authorities are questioning whether its operations are in violation of its nonprofit status.

There also have been internal battles over NRA leadership with the group's then-president, Oliver North, and its top lobbyist, Chris Cox, stepping down, giving gun rights activists pause about the NRA's ability to hold sway in the upcoming 2020 presidential elections.

"There needs to be a light shined on, not only what's happening with our policymakers, but who's actually influencing our policymakers and why they can't act on getting rid of assault rifles and things that should never be in the hands of anyone for any reason in this country," Breed said Tuesday.

Democrat leaders in Congress on Monday urged President Trump, a favorite of the NRA, to push Republicans to agree to expand background checks, and there have been efforts to make it easier to seize firearms at least temporarily from people who are exhibiting mental health issues.

The NRA would rather go to court than tackle the "epidemic" of gun violence in the U.S., said John Coté, 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," Coté said. "Common-sense safety measures like universal background checks, an assault weapons ban and restricting high-capacity magazines would be a good start."

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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."

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."

"Police shootings and gun violence understandably inspire strong emotions, and elected officials are no exception. But they need to watch their words, especially when those words are contained in legislation or, in this case, pseudo-legislation," McGough wrote.

But Erwin Chemerinsky, Dean of UC Berkeley Law, said the supervisors' resolution doesn't constitute a free speech violation, unless the city went a step further to deny contracts or fire people based on their association with the NRA.

"San Francisco saying the NRA is a domestic terrorist organization is just San Francisco engaging in speech," Chemerinsky told KQED. "The United States Supreme Court is clear that when the government or government officials engage in speech, it can not be said that their expression violates the free speech clause of the first amendment."

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.

KQED's Angela Corral, Jeremy Siegel and Kate Wolffe contributed to this report.

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