Last week, New York State Attorney General Letitia “Tish” James made the bombshell announcement that her office has filed suit against the National Rifle Association (NRA), charging them with financial fraud and abuse of their status as a 501(C)(3) charity.
James was able to do this because the NRA has been registered as a charity in the state of New York since 1871. The shockwave that rippled through the Gun Violence Prevention (GVP) advocacy and activist world was seismic. Now, basking in the joy of the New York news, we can examine the passion, determination, and unrelenting commitment that brought us to this moment.
As a founding member of Gays Against Guns (GAG), one of the lucky few hundred who can proudly say that I attended that first crowded meeting at the New York LGBT Center, I can say that when Tish James announced her run for Attorney General, I had high hopes that this moment would come. After she won, I was certain that it would. Tish James has been a committed GVP warrior queen for far longer than GAG has been in existence. That is why she made a point of attending several of our early meetings to express her support of our mission to break apart what we call the Chain of Death, the broad circuit of politicians, arms manufacturers, retailers, and, of course, lobbyists, chief among them the NRA. That is also why, as NYC’s Public Advocate, she spoke at more of GAG’s direct-action protests than any other elected official in the city; her passion on the issues surrounding the American gun violence epidemic and how it impacted the people of New York was contagious. It was informed by data and an extraordinarily complex understanding of the myriad factors that contributed to the gun violence in our city and our country.
Like many other GVP groups, GAG was formed immediately in the aftermath of a mass shooting. For us, it was the Pulse Nightclub massacre in Orlando, Fla., on June 12, 2016. As a group of (mostly) LGBTQ+ New Yorkers, we were, of course most focused on the issues surrounding the targeting of a gay club on their Latinx night. Our 49 brothers, sisters, and siblings who were killed and the many injured survivors held the space in the foreground of our minds as we decided, and then prepared, to march in that year’s NYC Pride March.
But afterward, as we moved forward to define exactly what GAG would be, Tish was there, with her passion, her wisdom, and her command of the facts. She not only made herself available to attend our actions, she reached out to us to invite us and include us in her own events. That support, on all those fronts, was invaluable to us as a new organization. And it helped us to understand that we would not be focused solely on Gun Violence Prevention as it applied to our LGBTQ+ communities, but to all communities across the nation. We resolved that we would commit to taking to the streets in protest any time a mass shooting in this country left 10 or more dead.
Gun violence is, however, of acute concern to our LGBTQ+ communities. Queer lives are marked by the specter of hate crimes. Queers of color are more threatened. Trans folks, most especially Black trans women are the most under threat from the violence. The fact that our country is awash in guns, with more firearms than people, increases the potential for a hateful encounter to be deadly. Members of marginalized groups bear the psychological strain from that marginalization. In the absence of resources to support emotional and mental health, violence against others or oneself becomes more likely. And the presence of guns can make that violence deadly. A suicide attempt from pills or gas that is survived becomes deadly when there is a gun in the house, whether the cause is a bad breakup, nervous exhaustion, or a bullied child coming home after school and using his parents’ revolver.
Tish James’s decision to focus on the NRA is personal to New Yorkers. While the organization may have been initially based in New York, from its current home in Fairfax, Va., the NRA has waged a war by proxy on New Yorkers and citizens of other large cities for decades. Through its control over the Republican Party’s agenda, achieved by a mix of donations, list sharing, and dog-whistled white supremacist tropes, the NRA has effectively blocked innumerable bills proposing sensible gun control legislation at the federal level that were supported by the vast majority of the American people, including dues-paying members of the NRA. This has resulted in a patchwork of state and municipal gun laws that are often at odds with one another.
Out of that chaos, the iron pipeline has been created: black market arms dealers are able to buy large caches of firearms in states with weak gun laws and lower taxes on gun sales and then traffic them to cities like New York which have very strict laws and sell them illegally for a significant profit. About 70 percent of the guns in private hands in New York City were originally sold in other states. The reason the NRA can go against the wishes of their membership is that the purpose of the NRA long ago shifted from supporting the needs of private gun owners – classes in gun safety, training for rural kids, etc. – toward serving as a marketing firm for the gun industry with a goal of increased sales.
The gun industry has for years stuffed the NRA’s bank accounts with millions each year in recompense. The Obama administration served as a perfect tool for the NRA. They were able to bamboozle millions of Americans into believing that his calls for sensible gun control legislation like federal background checks, databases, and waiting periods really meant “Obama is going to TAKE YOUR GUNS!!!” As a result, gun sales, like the number of white supremacist groups around the country, rose precipitously under Obama.
Gays Against Guns was formed late into the Obama administration. In the summer of 2016, after our splashy debut at Pride, the NRA was flush with cash, making major inroads into social media relevancy, creating the NRA-TV platform and spending scads of money on the election. Though most of us had not worked in the realm of Gun Violence Prevention, we had all been in favor of the sensible gun control legislation that the NRA had been successfully using their puppets in Congress to block for years; so we knew what the NRA was and the damage it was doing to our society. We knew that most Americans felt the same way and realized that placing a lot of attention on the NRA in our activism was going to be the best tactic.
We researched and discovered the existence of the NRA Business Alliance: a consortium of national corporations that gave discounts to NRA members. Among them were Hertz Rent-a-Car, Wyndham Hotels, and Federal Express, which gave discounts to any NRA members shipping guns. In concert with several other GVP groups we helped launch and provided the direct-action component of a national campaign to dismantle the alliance and isolate the NRA from the mainstream. Within 18 months the alliance was kaput. The only holdout, FedEx, finally fell a year later. Throughout that time, the NRA’s sacred cash cow was in trouble: Americans were not buying as many guns.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Trump administration had ironically presided over a precipitous drop in gun sales. With no Obama to rail against, gun enthusiasts (we use different words for them at our GAG meetings and on our social media) had seemingly lost the will to hoard weaponry. And that downturn in gun sales has led to problems for both the firearms industry and the NRA.
America’s oldest gun manufacturer, Remington Outdoor, filed for bankruptcy in March of 2018. Banks like Wells Fargo, Chase, and US Bank Corp stepped in to extend lines of credit to the gun makers as their sales declined. And without the corporate contributions they had received from the gun industry for years, the NRA’s finances began to falter. After spending $50 million in the 2016 election cycle and successfully helping the GOP gain control of the presidency and Congress, in August of 2018, just one and a half years after Trump’s inauguration, speculation was rampant that the NRA might be declaring bankruptcy. Soon after, we were greeted with the news of Maria Butina, an apparent Russian spy who had worked her way into the upper echelons of the NRA’s world and perhaps paved the way for an infusion of money from Russian oligarchs to prop up the failing enterprise.
The organization that prided itself as the most patriotic, constitution-protecting paragon of all the freedoms we hold dear had been receiving large sums of money from one of our country’s fiercest geopolitical adversaries. NRA-TV died ignominiously and with little notice. Infighting began. The NRA went to war with their own marketing company. Secrets were spilled. Tales of outlandish spending by or on behalf of the NRA leadership began to circulate. Amid all of this, Tish James was elected attorney general of the State of New York. The stage was set. And now the curtain has risen on what may be the final act of the tale of the NRA.
If successful, James’s suit would result in the complete dissolution of the National Rifle Association. Jail terms could very well be possible for the notorious Wayne LaPierre and others in its leadership. One of the worst organizations in our political world, one responsible for untold numbers of dead Americans through its actions to undermine common sense, might cease to exist. And Tish James will enjoy the thanks of a grateful nation, especially her friends in Gays Against Guns.
Jay W. Walker is a founding member of Gays Against Guns, a direct action group of LGBTQ+ people committed to ending gun violence through nonviolent means, civil disobedience, and activism.