The National Rifle Association richly deserves criticism for its role in preventing the enactment of sensible gun control legislation. The Los Angeles Times put the matter bluntly in an editorial in February: “Because of the gun group’s cynical hardline policies and near-religious embrace of the Second Amendment, more and more Americans live at daily risk from gunfire, be it from a random shooter, from an intimate partner or by their own hands.”
But does the NRA’s responsibility for loose gun laws make it a “domestic terrorist organization”? The San Francisco Board of Supervisors thinks so, and approved a resolution on Sept. 3 purporting to “declare” it as such.
The resolution may be good politics, but it’s irresponsible for several reasons.
First, it’s not the business of a county board of supervisors to designate terror organizations. Even if you don’t agree with me that legislative bodies at all levels should refrain from passing nonbinding resolutions, this one is particularly inappropriate because it is couched in language that could leave the impression that its declaration about a national issue actually has legal force.
The resolution also calls on the City and County of San Francisco to “take every reasonable step to assess the financial and contractual relationships our vendors and contractors have with this domestic terrorist organization.” That’s also problematic from a First Amendment perspective if officials follow though and attempt to blacklist contractors who deal with the NRA.
The resolution refers to — but distorts — the federal definition of “material support” for terrorism. Opposing legislation that would make it harder for some people to use guns in crimes, offensive as that may be, is not remotely the same thing as providing weapons to “any individual (who) has committed or plans to commit a terrorist act.”
The resolution also alleges that the NRA uses its resources to “incite gun owners to acts of violence.” Federal law does prohibit speech that solicits the commission of a violent crime. But it requires that the speaker act “with intent that another person engage in conduct constituting a felony that has as an element the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force.”
This resolution comes at a time when there is pressure on Congress to respond to recent mass shootings by creating a new crime of domestic terrorism. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) has introduced the Confronting the Threat of Domestic Terrorism Act, which he says is “narrowly tailored to violent terrorist acts.” But look for NRA supporters to point to the San Francisco supervisors’ resolution to argue that this and similar bills will threaten the organization and its exercise of First Amendment rights.
Politicians are prone to exaggeration, even when using legal terminology. Sen. Kamala Harris was criticized (fairly) for tweeting on the fifth anniversary of Michael Brown’s killing that “Michael Brown’s murder forever changed Ferguson and America.” As the Washington Post fact-checker noted, the reference to “murder” was at odds with a report by the Obama Justice Department that “there is no credible evidence that (police officer Darren) Wilson willfully shot Brown as he was attempting to surrender or was otherwise not posing a threat.”
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.
Michael McGough is the Los Angeles Times’ senior editorial writer, based in Washington, D.C.