“The NRA Strikes Back” – from The Sun, March 8, 2024 


Did New York State try a kind of backdoor censorship of the National Rifle Association because of its defense of the Second Amendment? The NRA, backed by the American Civil Liberties Union, will be arguing that question at the Supreme Court, after losing in the Second Circuit. The First Amendment dispute comes on the heels of the NRA’s victory in New York after Attorney General Letitia failed to dissolve the venerable civil rights group. 


The NRA contends that Governor Andrew Cuomo pushed a New York State regulatory official, Maria Vullo, “to use the regulatory power” of the state’s financial services department to “financially blacklist” the group. The department, the NRA says, was “coercing banks and insurers to cut ties” with the group “to suppress its pro-Second Amendment speech.” The whole scheme was “meant to silence the NRA,” the group reckons.


A “critically important First Amendment fight,” is how the ACLU puts it, noting that New York tried “to blacklist a nonprofit advocacy group and deny it access to financial services” because of what the rights group calls the NRA’s “controversial viewpoint.” While we don’t see it as controversial to defend the plain language of the Second Amendment — the “palladium of our liberty,” in St. George Tucker’s words — the Empire State’s move was chilling.


After all, the ACLU observes that “if government officials can pressure the businesses they regulate to blacklist the NRA,” that would be a green light for “officials in other states” to “punish other advocacy organizations in the same way.” This kind of sub rosa censorship drive isn’t just a threat to conservative groups, the ACLU reckons. It notes such machinations could even be turned against left-leaning organizations like “the ACLU itself.”


The ACLU observes that Ms. Vullo, as head of the financial services department, “leveraged her regulatory power over banks and insurance companies” against the NRA and what she called “other gun promotion” groups. She gave “formal guidance to every bank and insurance company” in New York, the ACLU says, beseeching them to “sever ties” with the NRA and even “promising lenience to certain insurers if they would stop doing business” with the group.


Ms. Vullo’s threats were all the more concerning for being framed as insinuations. She “warned regulated institutions that doing business with Second Amendment advocacy groups posed ‘reputational risk’” that would “concern” the financial services department, the NRA notes. “Numerous financial institutions perceived Vullo’s actions as threatening,” the NRA adds, and “ceased business arrangements with the NRA or refused new ones.”


Ms. Vullo’s efforts to undermine the NRA were part and parcel of what the group sees as a conspiracy between the regulator, Mr. Cuomo, and Ms. James. They were followed by Ms. James’ lawsuit, in which she explained she was “seeking to dissolve” the group, which she described as the “largest and most influential pro-gun organization in the nation.” The suit was a failure, though, as Ms. James was forced to dial back her attempt to dismantle the group.


As these columns observed, Ms. James’ case ended with a jury finding that two ex-NRA officials, Wayne LaPierre and the chief financial officer, Wilson Phillips, were “liable for financial misconduct.” Yet the penalties imposed in the case, it turns out, “will be payable not to New York, but back to the NRA itself.” So, despite the best efforts of the Empire State to close the doors of the NRA, the verdict left the organization unscathed.


In the NRA’s dispute with Ms. Vullo and New York, the group prevailed at the district court. The riders of the Second Circuit, though, disagreed that Ms. Vullo’s “threats and inducements,” as the NRA put it, amounted to a violation of the group’s right to free expression. So the stakes are high. If the Supreme Court agrees with the NRA, the group, best known as a champion of the Second Amendment, will deserve plaudits for vindicating the First.