Earlier this month New York Attorney General Letitia James filed a civil action over alleged insider self‐dealing against the National Rifle Association (NRA) and some of its top officers. Policing charity misconduct is among the longstanding powers of the New York Attorney General, and James advanced a substantial narrative of misconduct by high officials. Had she contented herself with seeking such lesser but potent sanctions as restitution of ill‐gotten money and court orders barring wrongdoers from managing non‐profits in the future, few outside NRA circles would pay much heed. (The case is not a criminal prosecution.)
Instead James grabbed nationwide headlines by asking the court to dissolve the nation’s best‐known gun rights organization in its entirety. Some of those praising her action were openly gleeful at the prospect that government action might shut down what is, from their perspective, a major opposition political group. For the very same reason, James’s demand has drawn deserved fire from a range of commentators who themselves can’t stand the NRA as a group, disagree with its view of Second Amendment rights, or both (a “violation of key democratic and rule‐of‐law norms [that] should be troubling …no matter one’s place on the political spectrum.”)
Note that dissolution is a not just a tougher sanction than restitution or separation, but a qualitatively different one. For example, it is hostile toward the wishes and interests of the group most directly harmed by the self‐dealing, donors who wanted a maximally effective Second Amendment advocacy group and (if the allegations are true) were cheated of that.
There’s all the difference in the world between dropping a legal anvil on NRA insiders because you want to vindicate the interests of the organization’s donors and members, and demanding the group’s dissolution precisely because you don’t.
And that latter disregard for what the donors and members want makes the question of motivation relevant. In 2018, James called the NRA a “terrorist organization” with a “poisonous agenda.” In the same year, the ACLU blasted a scheme by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to arm‐twist insurers and banks into severing their ties to the group: “The First Amendment bars state officials from using their regulatory power to penalize groups merely because they promote disapproved ideas.”
For all these reasons, I suspect the judiciary will be unlikely to go along with James’s dissolution demand. But assuming she gets lucky and draws a judge favorable to the scheme, it’s worth sketching one further danger. Should a non‐profit like this be dissolved, the state does not become entitled to its remaining funds, which are instead supposed to be allocated to similar worthy causes. Would anyone be surprised, given her record, if James asked for the funds to go to groups at fundamental odds with the organization’s Second Amendment advocacy mission? You can just imagine the line her office and her allies would take — the NRA always claimed to be a leading voice for gun safety and the outdoors, so let’s use their money to fund this group promoting “safe storage” along with this other group that represents our sort of hunters, the right sort.
Whatever the implications for the Second Amendment, perhaps the greater danger here is to the First. I discuss these issues in a Cato Daily Podcast with Caleb Brown, and have also been quoted on the subject lately by the editorialists at the Wall Street Journal and by Stephen Gutowski at Free Beacon.