The National Rifle Association thinks it can bring down New York Attorney General Leticia James’s investigation into the gun group with not the Second, but the First Amendment, a court filing shows.
In a little-watched lawsuit against New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the NRA has propounded dozens of requests for documents to state regulators with a view towards James’ office.
The requests support a longshot, yet aggressive, allegation from the NRA that it’s been targeted by New York state for political reasons.
The gun group brought the lawsuit last year against Cuomo and other top New York state officials, telling a federal judge that it was the victim of a “political vendetta” organized by Albany.
The “vendetta” in question relates to Carry Guard, an insurance policy that the NRA promoted, which covered gun owners who had killed or maimed someone in self-defense. Critics referred to the program as “murder insurance” and launched a campaign for various states to open investigations into the program.
William Brewer, outside counsel for the NRA, told TPM in a statement that “Government officials can express viewpoints on matters of public concern, but when the state crosses the line from persuasion to coercion, the First Amendment comes into play.”
“Our client believes that defendants’ communications to those they regulate, urging them to sever ties with the NRA, is an abuse of government power — and reflects pure viewpoint discrimination,” Brewer added.
The New York State Department of Financial Services opened an investigation into the service in October 2017, which led to the policy’s broker and administrator, Lockton, to discontinue its involvement. The next year, Cuomo himself issued a statement urging New York businesses to “weigh [the] reputational risk of business ties to the NRA.”
The NRA responded by suing Cuomo. The ACLU issued a statement after the lawsuit was filed in support of the case, accusing Cuomo of trying to “penalize advocacy groups” that advocate for gun ownership.
The recent discovery dispute in the case shows that the gun group is now trying to tie the matter to James’s separate investigation into whether the group is in compliance with state charity law. That probe has arguably been the catalyst for the group’s recent turmoil.
Adam Liptak, a UCLA law professor who wrote a book on the group, told TPM that “they’ve been couching every argument they’ve made in the Constitution whether there is law to support it or not.”
“The big difference is that the NRA back then was all about self-defense against criminals, with only an occasional comment about tyranny or resistance to government tyranny,” Liptak recalled. “Today, those elements seem to be the loudest, and the most popular understanding of the Second Amendment seems to be about resisting government tyranny.”
For the NRA, James has become something of a bogeyman.
The threat of an investigation from James — who during her campaign to become New York attorney general likened the group to a “terrorist organization” — forced the NRA to audit its relationships with its main vendors last summer.
Court filings released since then have shown that of all the vendors, only one refused to provide financial records for the audit. That was its longtime imagemaker Ackerman McQueen, and its failure to turn over documents spawned a series of lawsuits that have led to ugly, well-documented allegations of corruption on both sides.
And apart from the pressure of her office’s ongoing investigation, various dissident board members have invoked the threat posed by her probe as a reason to oust the group’s leader, executive vice president Wayne LaPierre.
With James as a major potential threat to the group, the gun group is using the lawsuit against Cuomo to try to learn about “any and all referrals” from New York’s insurance regulator to James’s office. The nonprofit accuses New York state of running a “censorship campaign against the NRA,” arguing that the law has been selectively applied to the gun group because of its political activity.
The NRA also requested “All documents and communications” exchanged with Cuomo’s and James’s offices relating to the Carry Guard probe. That follows on additional requests targeting any probes that New York state considered opening into any “gun promotion organization.” Another battery of requests target communications between New York state government and private businesses in the state.
The judge in the case recognized in an order that some of the requests “could potentially support a claim that defendants interfered with potentially legal business arrangements with banks/financial institutions doing business” with the NRA. But the judge also noted that he had already given the NRA leave to amend counts in its initial complaint alleging that it was politically targeted.
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