The Myths Fueling Today’s Armed Right How the NRA seeded the storylines animating the violent groups that will be patrolling this year’s election

Please see the original article here including photos by Mark Peterson/Redux.

The 13 men charged in a plot to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer called themselves the Wolverine Watchmen, a possible reference to the white supremacist vigilante militia in the HBO series Watchmen. The suspects began planning their kidnapping this summer, with live fire exercises and explosives, according to the charges. Not long before, gangs of armed men, many of them carrying AR-15s, and defiantly not wearing facemasks, protested inside the state capitol in Lansing against strict health measures imposed by Whitmer. Similar armed right-wing groups across the nation are planning to privately police polling sites on November 3, as President Donald Trump called for in the presidential debate in late September.

At first blush, it may seem hard to connect the various themes that crop up in recent stories about the armed right. There is, of course, the adamant assertion of their right to bear arms, but also a penchant for white supremacy (evidenced by their baleful presence at Black Lives Matter protests, and the online contempt they routinely hurl at the movement), a resistance to common sense public health measures meant to prevent the spread of a deadly pandemic, and the specter of voter intimidation. But at a deeper level, what connects this powerful, and dangerous, set of attitudes and reflexes is a collection of myths that have spread like coronavirus mutations through social media, allowing the different groups of the armed right to perceive themselves as good guys fighting various historic evils.

Many of these myths can be traced back to the National Rifle Association, the once-powerful and now-waning guns rights organization that is in the midst of tearing itself apart. The NRA is in decline and in debt, laying off staff and losing members. The New York Attorney General’s office is seeking “to dissolve” the NRA over credible charges of massive embezzlement first raised by the NRA whistleblower Oliver North, the Reagan-era White House official at the center of the Iran-Contra scandal. North, identified as “Dissident No. 1” in court documents, was backed by other NRA board directors, including the rock star Ted Nugent.

But even as the NRA teeters, its mythical spirit lives on, entering a welter of new right-wing groups, some of which are neo-fascist—such as The Proud Boys, whom the president notoriously told to “stand back and stand by” at the first debate—or openly white supremacist, and some of which are not. They are united in their paranoia, and in their anti-government agenda, by one of the NRA’s grand theories: the “slippery slope.” The idea is that even a little gun control, like background checks, can start a dangerous slide in disarmament leading all the way to white genocide. Trump himself fuels the myth. “They call it the slippery slope, and all of sudden everything gets taken away,” he told reporters last summer, explaining his own reversal on background checks.

Even as the NRA teeters, its mythical spirit lives on, entering a welter of new right-wing groups.

For these armed groups, the slippery slope’s primary example is the Holocaust. In 2016 Nugent posted a graphic on his Facebook page featuring photos of prominent Jewish American leaders, each one next to an Israeli flag, calling them “punks” who “hate freedom” over their support for gun control. Within hours the Anti-Defamation League denounced Nugent, saying that “anti-Semitism has no place in the gun control debate.” Nugent then posted in response, “What sort of racist prejudiced POS [piece of shit] could possibly not know that Jews for gun control are Nazis in disguise?” Nugent was referring to the belief amongst gun activists and other conservatives across the country that the Nazis used gun control to disarm Europe’s Jews before they killed them.

Another example marshalled to bolster the slippery slope argument comes from the Reconstruction era. “I’m a Black American and I know that the NRA was started as a civil rights organization training Black Americans to arm themselves and defend themselves against the KKK,” said Candace Owens in 2018 on Fox News, announcing her membership in the NRA.

These gun myths about Reconstruction and the Holocaust are both the work of the NRA. The first is a fabrication wholly invented by its modern leadership, while the second is an old trope that the NRA has endorsed and amplified. The NRA’s messages have spread through social media to animate gun activists nationwide. The work of one NRA-funded scholar, David B. Kopel, has appeared in newspapers like The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal, arguing that gun laws don’t work, usually without disclaimers reflecting the millions of dollars in NRA funding Kopel’s think tank, the Independence Institute, has received. The NRA’s rewriting of history continues to feed viral memes that appropriate the epic struggles of two historically persecuted minorities. These fantasies have saturated the Republican electorate to the point that the “slippery slope” is now embraced as gospel truth on the American right.


The NRA wasn’t always like this. For over a century, it was dedicated to riflery and the shooting sports. It was founded in New York City in 1871, during the peak of Reconstruction. Union Army veterans, most of whom were New York National Guard officers, formed the group to improve riflery among soldiers and able-bodied men in anticipation of future wars. They modeled their organization upon the National Rifle Association of the United Kingdom, inaugurated 12 years before by Queen Victoria, and borrowed its namesake and target designs for their shooting range. In 1876, during the American centennial, the NRA added “of America” to its name to prevent “any international confusion.”

In 1977, in an internal uprising that today’s NRA leaders pretend never happened, the NRA literally shifted overnight into America’s largest gun lobby in what is still quietly known within its lore as the “Cincinnati Revolt.” This internecine mutiny was over the NRA’s prior support for the Gun Control Act of 1968, which outlawed, among other things, mail-order rifles like the one tied to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, bought through an ad in the NRA’s own flagship magazine American Rifleman. “The NRA does not advocate an ‘ostrich’ attitude toward firearms legislation,” explained the NRA’s old guard before it was overthrown. The modern NRA has since embraced an “unyielding” and “absolutist” take on gun rights, and over the past 43 years it has helped expand access to guns across most of the nation.

The NRA’s Royal British roots hardly make for a good story for the modern NRA to tell. It has come up with a new origin story more than once, most recently as 2013, after the re-election of a Black president, Barack Obama. “We are the largest civil rights organization in the world, and we have been part of the fabric of America ever since 1871,” wrote LaPierre in February 2013 in an article that appeared in the American Rifleman. The idea of the NRA being the world’s largest civil rights organization planted a new notion that soon morphed into another. “As members of the oldest civil rights organization in the nation, NRA members know tyranny when we see it,” wrote LaPierre six months later on the conservative news website The Daily Caller.

Wayne LaPierre and NRA chief spokesman Andrew Arulanandam each declined to comment for this story.

Since then, the NRA has made this specious claim—that the NRA is the nation’s oldest (or longest-standing) civil rights organization—its new mantra, repeated by leaders, lawyers and the group’s website. Just last year the NRA laid down the keystone of its new genesis story by falsely claiming that the early NRA “stood with freed slaves” during Reconstruction. This is a canard that tries to turn the history of gun ownership in America from one dominated by white men armed to help maintain an unequal social order into a mythical one where white gun owners and the NRA itself were on the frontlines of America’s earliest struggles for racial equality. “Those Who Call The NRA Racist Don’t Know Our History,” wrote LaPierre in 2017. “In our [149-year] history, open doors for minorities, and defense of our common rights, has been at the center of the NRA’s existence.”

By then the NRA had already helped boost a novel theory about the Holocaust: that German gun control laws were “essential elements” leading to the genocide of six million Jews, the idea being that Jews could have defended themselves from Nazi fascism if the Gestapo had not first seized their guns. Needless to say, this claim has no basis in any prior scholarship. “For whatever reason, historians have paid no attention to Nazi laws and policies restricting firearms ownership as essential elements in creating tyranny,” as one NRA-funded scholar himself lamented. This theory turns the worst atrocity of the modern era from one with many documented factors leading to the Nazis’ consolidation of power, into a myth where the Holocaust itself is the cautionary tale of gun control.


The NRA’s attempts to identify itself with the Black struggle for equal rights can be seen in the case of Roy Innis and the award named after him.

In 1968, around the time of the start of the gun rights rebellion within the NRA, Innis emerged as the leader of the Congress of Racial Equality, running on an independent “Black Nationalist” agenda. His predecessors had helped establish the “Freedom Rides” and led them through the deep South in the early 1960s. By the early 1990s, after Innis had seen first one and then another of his sons “murdered,” in his words, “by young, Black thugs,” he joined the NRA’s board of directors, among the first African Americans to do so.

In 2017, after Roy Innis died, the NRA established a memorial award in his name. The first recipient was honored posthumously in 2019. Otis McDonald was an Army veteran and retired maintenance engineer from the South Side of Chicago. It was McDonald who brought the pivotal Supreme Court case McDonald v. Chicago, decided in 2010, that extended the right to keep arms in one’s home throughout the nation.

This ceremony last spring was the high point of the NRA’s convention in Indianapolis—a weekend marred by breaking news of the embezzlement scandal. The commemoration was led by NRA board director Allen West, a former Army lieutenant colonel whose mock execution of an Iraqi policeman had led to him receiving a fine but keeping his rank. He also served in Congress as the first African American representative from Florida since Reconstruction. He rose in the Tea Party Caucus until, after redistricting, he lost his seat. West is now the chairman of the Texas Republican Party. He made the QAnon phrase, “We are the storm,” the new slogan of the Texas GOP, putting it on fundraising emails, social media, T-shirts, and hats.

The NRA had helped boost a novel theory about the Holocaust: that German gun control laws were “essential elements” leading to the genocide of six million Jews.

West joined fellow board members Oliver North and Ted Nugent in making accusations of financial improprieties against LaPierre, and it was West who called for him to resign. Yet West and LaPierre still managed to maintain a united front when it came to the ceremony for McDonald, which led to the NRA announcing that its founding fathers had armed freed slaves.

“We owe a debt of gratitude to Otis W. McDonald for his courage, his commitment and his sacrifice to take a stand and be steadfast in his belief in the United States Constitution,” West said from the stage, with LaPierre and his staff sharing the dais. Close to 1,000 NRA members, many wearing NRA gear or MAGA hats, were in the hall. West went on to fold McDonald’s action into the myth of the early NRA’s role during Reconstruction. “Know the history. The NRA, this organization, stood with freed slaves to make sure they had their Second Amendment rights,” he said. Everyone in the room rose and applauded, in the longest standing ovation of the meeting.

“As an American black man, the history of the National Rifle Association has a special meaning for me, and I often reflect on it,” West wrote in a 2018 column for the Conservative News Service. “At a time when recently freed slaves were transitioning to being American citizens, they came under assault during the Reconstruction Era. When faced with the threats, coercion, intimidation, and yes, violence of an organization called the Ku Klux Klan, it was the NRA that stood with and defended the rights of blacks to the Second Amendment.”

Is there any actual historical link between the NRA and the Black struggle? In the six years after it was founded in 1871, the NRA kept busy. It took the organization two years, after lobbying for funding from Albany, to finally open its first range, known as Creedmoor, in what is now Queens in 1873. Over the next four years, NRA shooters honed their skills, defeating first the Irish and then the “Imperial Team” of their Royal role models, both times at Creedmoor, to become the undisputed rifle champions of the (English-speaking) world in 1877. It was an American triumph in the Victorian Era, and the early NRA’s greatest accomplishment. Yet, like most of the NRA’s actual history, this is something that the modern NRA would prefer to forget.

It is also true that co-founder William Conant Church and other early NRA leaders, all based in New York, supported President Ulysses S. Grant’s efforts during Reconstruction to crush the Ku Klux Klan, in order to put an end to ongoing Southern resistance. The filmmaker Michael Moore’s insinuation in his 2002 film Bowling for Columbine that the NRA and the KKK were somehow linked, because they were founded five years apart, is another canard, one flying in the other direction.

The use of Black Codes to outlaw gun ownership by freed slaves in the South was painfully real. But even this important issue was not raised by the early NRA or the men who founded it. Church, an unabashed Grant admirer, wrote one of the first books about the Civil War and its aftermath, titled Ulysses S. Grant and the Period of National Preservation and Reconstruction. In it, Church dealt explicitly with the challenges faced by freed slaves, including violence by Southern groups and authorities:

The negroes had ceased to be slaves, but they had not yet become free men, and there was no guaranty that they might not be subjected to some new form of oppression …[O]ne Southern State after another passed laws designed to perpetuate the scheme of enforced labour by establishing a system of apprenticeship, more heartless and cruel than slavery had ever been, and lacking the ameliorating features of the ‘patriarchal institution.’ . . . Negroes were killed in large numbers throughout the South without even an attempt to hold any one responsible for their murder.

Church made no mention whatsoever of any group, whether private or governmental, coming to the aid of freed slaves by helping to arm them. (Although he did mention the Union Army’s decision during the war to start “arming the negro” to add “a powerful ally” and “make good soldiers.”) Nor did he mention any need to arm freed slaves, or even any discussion about the matter. As a matter of fact, Church did not mention the National Rifle Association at all.

Eighty years after Reconstruction, however, at the start of the Civil Rights era, there was a case that involved the NRA and the KKK. A Black man named Robert Williams, who had served as a Marine in a segregated unit during World War II, became the president of the local NAACP chapter in Monroe, North Carolina. He helped integrate the town library, but trouble started when he and other activists tried to desegregate the town’s swimming pool after several Black children drowned in nearby swimming holes. The local KKK mobilized in response. “So we started arming ourselves,” said Williams. “I wrote to the National Rifle Association in Washington which encourages veterans to keep in shape to defend their native land, and asked for a charter, which we got. In a year we had 60 members.” They called themselves Monroe’s Black Armed Guard.

In 1957 a group of hooded Klansmen fired shots at the home of a Black doctor who was another local NAACP leader. They were surprised when “Williams and the black men of Monroe fired back from behind sandbags and covered positions,” wrote Nicholas Johnson, a Fordham University law professor and the nation’s leading African American scholar on gun rights. The firefight was covered by newspapers as far away as Norfolk, Virginia, with the headlines “Citizens Fire Back at Klan” and “Shots Exchanged Near Residence of NAACP Head.” But the American Rifleman said nary a word, and the NRA did nothing subsequently to support its Black Monroe chapter, either.

The NRA did support at least one African American group in the South during the Civil Rights era. A half century ago it sold surplus government ammunition to the Deacons for Defense and Justice in Jonesboro, Louisiana. The group “provided their own guns.” Yet today’s NRA falsely claims that “the NRA was their arsenal of democracy.”


The NRA’s use of the Holocaust myth began, as so many things do in the world of conservative politics, with a think tank.

Stephen P. Halbrook, a senior fellow at The Independent Institute in Oakland, California, has been described by the UCLA law professor Adam Winkler as “the nation’s leading expert on the right to keep and bear arms.” Halbrook filed an amicus brief in Heller vs. District of Columbia, the watershed Supreme Court case that established that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to keep arms, on behalf of 250 members of the House of Representatives, 55 senators, and president of the Senate, Vice President Dick Cheney—all without making any mention of having received nearly $300,000 in NRA funding. Justice Scalia’s majority opinion in Heller cited Halbrook’s brief twice. Halbrook was later one of the attorneys representing the NRA in the McDonald v. Chicago, which extended the Heller ruling throughout the nation.

In 2013, The Independent Institute published Halbrook’s book Gun Control in the Third Reich: Disarming the Jews and ‘Enemies of the States.’ “Based on newly discovered secret documents from German archives, diaries and newspapers of the time,” the book “presents the definitive, yet hidden history of how the Nazi regime made use of gun control to disarm and repress its enemies and consolidate power,” read the review of the book in the NRA’s American Rifleman. “While voluminous scholarship has documented the Third Reich and the Holocaust, this is the first thorough examination of the laws restricting firearm ownership that rendered Hitler’s political opponents, as well as the Jews, defenseless.”

The Washington Times, the conservative daily controlled by the Unification Movement (associated with the late Sung Myung Moon), also reviewed it, but notably hedged the book’s extravagant claim that gun suppression was pivotal in setting the Holocaust in motion.  “There is no way to prove it,” Robert VerBruggen wrote of the book’s thesis. But he did note that the book provides an “extensive history” of the matter.

Halbrook’s book glosses over evidence that prior scholars like Raul Hilberg have established that would seem to counter, if not disprove, his thesis. “Preventive attack, armed resistance, and revenge are almost completely absent in two thousand years of Jewish ghetto history. Instances of violent opposition, which may be found in one or another history book, are atypical and episodic,” Hilberg wrote in his 1961 book The Destruction of The European Jews. “The critical period of the 1930s and 1940s is marked by that same absence of physical opposition.”

The biggest hole in Halbrook’s research is one he admits himself, albeit in the pages near the back of his book. Halbrook notes that, “Police were required to list all weapons taken from Jews and to send the weapons seized and listing to the Gestapo.” Yet he has failed to locate any significant records of seizures of weapons from Jews, and no large caches of any weapons at all. As Halbrook writes:

Police reports listing weapons seized from Jews have been difficult to locate. Many such records may have been destroyed during the war, either by the Nazis themselves or due to Allied bombings. Routine police reports mention arms and seizures along with other incidents. For example, a report to the commander of the municipal police in Leipzig dated November 29, 1938, noted: “Based on the decree regarding the surrender of weapons in possession of Jews, three Jews surrendered their slashing and thrusting weapons and one Jew surrendered his hunting rifles. Two bayonets and a 85 mm grenade were reported found and surrendered.”

If this all seems rather cracked, which it is, consider that this issue came up in the last election cycle when Ben Carson, now Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, suggested on CNN that gun control led to the Holocaust. His claim prompted a response from Alan E. Steinweis, a professor of history and Holocaust studies at the University of Vermont, that this argument “is strangely ahistorical, a classic instance of injecting an issue that is important in our place and time into a historical situation where it was not seen as important. I can think of no serious work of scholarship on the Nazi dictatorship or on the causes of the Holocaust in which Nazi gun control measures feature as a significant factor.”


The “slippery slope” and its theoretical underpinnings are fueling today’s armed right. They disagree over matters from hate speech to the rules of engagement for use of force, with some openly advocating opening fire on BLM marchers. But what unites them is the shared notion that they are on the right side of history. The NRA-boosted myths about Reconstruction and the Holocaust reinforce their claim that it is not them, but gun control itself that is racist. “Thank God that the NRA was able to come to the black community’s defense” during Reconstruction, posted Old North State Patriots on Facebook in 2019. “There’s a reason that Hitler did it,” said former White House adviser Sebastian Gorka on Fox News the same year, referring to the Fuhrer’s alleged gun control to disarm the Jews. “This isn’t a theory–It’s history.”

The Oath Keepers/Patriot Movement in 2008 adopted the “Hitler took guns away” argument to Hillary Clinton’s campaign: “Imagine that Herr Hitlery is sworn in as president in 2009. After a conveniently timed ‘domestic terrorism’ incident (just a coincidence, of course) … she promptly crams a United Nations mandated total ban on the private possession of firearms.” The idea has become a fixture on Fox News, with host Andrew Napolitano extending the example to include Mao, Stalin, and Pol Pot. Conspiracy theorist Alex Jones took up a similar line, telling Piers Morgan in 2013, “Hitler took the guns, Stalin took the guns, Mao took the guns, Fidel Castro took the guns, Hugo Chavez took the guns, and I’m here to tell you, 1776 will commence again if you try to take our firearms!”

Many of today’s paramilitary groups keep a low profile. Instead of their own banner, many fly the Gadsden flag, a yellow militia banner of the Revolutionary War with a coiled green snake over the words “DONT TREAD ON ME.” Cadres greet each other online and in person through shared phrases, insignias, and other signs, creating a rich environment for racist extremists to operate. What else unites the armed right is their ongoing support for President Trump. He has called forth a movement bigger than himself, one that seems likely to outlast him.

America’s pro-Trump armed right would not be the first to invent a new ideology to justify  in advance their violence against others. Genocidaires developed propaganda ahead of the mass violence in late-1930s Germany and early-1990s Rwanda. The modern NRA’s whitewash of history today helps armed right-wing gangs from neo-Nazis to Three Percenters rationalize their intimidation and violence against others, including fellow Americans exercising their First Amendment rights to free speech. Many of the same pro-Trump paramilitaries, who will be self-policing voters on election day, may grow more aggressive after the votes are tallied, especially if the top of their ticket comes up short.

It no longer matters to many of them, either, that the same NRA that helped inspire them is now nearing the previously unthinkable possibility of default. Unlike the NRA, which worked largely within the system, these armed gangs—with or without Trump—say they are ready to overthrow it.

Research for this article was supported by a Logan Nonfiction fellowship.

Frank Smyth is the author of The NRA: The Unauthorized History.

Behind the Badge: Meet the GOP’s Law Enforcement Front Group

Original story found here.

Kirk Watson cannot forget the first time he saw it. Watson, a former Austin mayor, was running as the Democratic nominee for state attorney general. Only about 10 days remained before the 2002 November election. His campaign was in full gear. On that Sunday, Watson planned to visit dozens of churches. It was early in the morning in a Dallas hotel room and the candidate was shaving with the television on in the background.

He didn’t see the initial visuals of the commercial as the screen scrolled past stirring images of surgeons saving lives and the state Capitol building. A somber voice intoned “Personal injury lawyers like Kirk Watson have made millions suing doctors, hospitals, and small businesses, hurting families and driving up the cost of healthcare. Greg Abbott is different.”

By this point Watson was standing before the television, holding his razor, his face still lathered. “A respected Supreme Court Justice,” the voiceover in the ad continued, “Greg Abbott believes in common sense lawsuit reform and Greg Abbott supports the swift and aggressive prosecution of sexual predators and child pornographers. Greg Abbott has a plan for Texas. To learn more, log on now. [] Law Enforcement Alliance of America.”

Watson rapidly called his campaign manager, smearing the phone with shaving cream. He had only one question: Who in the world was the LEAA?

“We have to find out,” he told his campaign manager.

Over the remaining 10 days leading up to the election, the mysterious group with the strong law-and-order moniker spent about $1.5 million for ads that ran in every major media market in Texas, gunning down Watson and lifting up the GOP’s Abbott (Ironically, it was Watson who had received an honorary commission in the Austin Police Department while Abbott sued and won millions on a lawsuit after a falling tree left him paralyzed). While the Texas media buy in the Abbott-Watson race seems to have been the largest for any single state, the LEAA also spent millions for commercials against candidates in at least four other states in 2002. In some places, like Mississippi, the LEAA dropped more money on ads than all the candidates combined.

And Watson is still waiting for an answer to his question. The former mayor notes that he, not Abbott, received the endorsement of the Combined Law Enforcement Association of Texas, which is the largest police group in the state. Two years later, he still wants to know who was behind the LEAA? Who funded the campaign against him and why?

One agency tasked with policing groups like the LEAA is the Internal Revenue Service. But the IRS doesn’t appear to be interested. It has designated the non-profit LEAA as “a social welfare organization.” Under this tax designation, the LEAA can legally “educate” voters about issues but, it cannot advocate for the election or defeat of a candidate. The IRS forbids such organizations from “direct or indirect participation or intervention in political campaigns on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for public office.” When big money is the key to demolishing political opponents, the biggest advantage that any “social welfare” group like the LEAA enjoys is that it is legally allowed to keep all its donors, even the largest ones, hidden.

Currently, the LEAA is under investigation by a Travis County grand jury as part of a wide-ranging inquiry into the 2002 campaign. Did the LEAA cross the line between “education” and “advocacy?” Did the LEAA serve as a key component in a coordinated GOP plan to skirt campaign finance laws and funnel prohibited corporate money into Texas politics? Was the author of that plan U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Sugar Land), whose principle objective was to redraw congressional lines so that more Republicans would be elected?

Those who track campaign money believe that the LEAA represents a troubling trend. “LEAA is one of a new breed of shadowy front groups that is willing to serve as a corporate money conduit and attack dog to benefit GOP candidates,” says Craig McDonald of the public policy organization Texans for Public Justice. “Its ‘issue ads’ are a mere hoax. When GOP candidates need a political attack from a so-called law-and-order group, they appear to funnel money to the LEAA to carry it out.”

What’s beyond dispute is the result of Greg Abbott’s ascension to attorney general. Without the attorney general’s approval, DeLay never would have been able to push through his redistricting plan. It was Abbott who was the first to rule that the state could pursue mid-decade congressional redistricting. This November, if Republicans do as well as expected, the GOP could lock in their controlling majority in the House of Representatives for years to come.

One day in late May, I decided to pay the LEAA a visit, so I drove less than 20 minutes from my office in Washington, D.C., to the edge of the I-495 beltway around the capital. I parked my car in a lot next to a northern Virginia office building filled with medical, accounting, and employment firms and the headquarters of the LEAA, an organization that bills itself as “the nation’s largest non-profit, non-partisan coalition of law enforcement personnel, crime victims, and concerned citizens.”

I took the elevator to the LEAA’s suite 421, consisting of a handful of cramped offices.

By this point, I had already called the headquarters and sent a fax, on both occasions, with the same request. What I wanted was the LEAA’s Form 990s. These publicly available tax documents, while not naming contributors, list how much the organization spends and where the money goes. By law, one can show up in person at the IRS-registered address of any non-profit group and simply ask for its Form 990. The law requires the group to provide a copy “generally” on the “day of the request.” There are even minor fines for not doing so.

The receptionist said that LEAA Operations Director Ted Deeds was not in. I showed her a copy of IRS regulations. I pointed out that now I was here in person, and was legally entitled to walk away with the form. There was another person in the office, who identified himself as the webmaster of While I waited, he went to call Deeds. He returned and told me “Mr. Deeds would honor my request.” When I pressed for more information, he said that there was no more.

On June 4, I sent Deeds an e-mail requesting the same information, which I copied to the IRS Media Relations Specialist for northern Virginia, James C. Dupree. In keeping with IRS policy, regional spokesman Dupree declined to say what, if anything, he or the IRS did with my request. To ensure that the IRS got it, I sent a letter of complaint to the IRS enforcement office for non-profit groups, which is based in Dallas, Texas, on July 1. I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but a researcher at the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit watchdog Public Citizen had already complained in writing about the LEAA to the same IRS office on May 14 (Public Citizen eventually obtained some of the LEAA’s older Form 990s from the IRS).

At press time, the fines that could conceivably be levied against Chief Operating Officer Ted Deeds for ignoring two separate and ongoing requests for the LEAA’s 990 are more than $3,600, if the IRS were to enforce the law. “Responsible persons of a tax exempt organization who fail to provide the documents as required may be subject to a penalty of $20 a day for as long as the failure continues,” reads the tough language on the IRS website. “There is a maximum penalty of $10,000 for each failure to provide a copy of an annual information return.”

Four grand is no more than petty cash for a multi-million dollar non-profit like the LEAA, which had a budget in 2001 of nearly $5 million, according to a Form 990 obtained by Public Citizen. But $3,600 is not necessarily an insignificant amount for Ted Deeds, who is the official responsible, and who earned $82,500 operating the LEAA in 2001, according to the same form 990.

What Deeds has yet to provide to either the Observer or Public Citizen is the LEAA Form 990 for 2002. This is just one of the reasons why, according to Taylor Lincoln, a senior researcher at Public Citizen, the LEAA is the worst of its breed. Lately, Public Citizen and Lincoln have been collecting data on 30-odd non-profit groups involved in political campaigns, asking each one for copies of their Form 990s. “[The LEAA] are the only group which has not abided by its obligation to provide the form,” said Lincoln.

“A social welfare organization” like the LEAA is not supposed to be involved in politics, at least not full-time, according to the IRS website. “[A] social welfare organization may engage in some political activities, so long as that is not its primary activity.” Moreover, “any expenditure it makes for political activities may be subject to tax.”

One way to tell whether an activity is “primary” is how much the group spends on it. The LEAA spent only $43,050 on “political expenditures” according to its Form 990 in 2000, and far less, only $2,500, on “political expenditures” in 2001. But in both years the LEAA spent $2.43 million and $3.47 million, respectively, on what the LEAA told the IRS was “enhancement and education to further the understanding of and the need for revision in the current criminal justice system and education of the public into second amendment rights.”

The certified public accountant who prepares the LEAA’s IRS filings is Nanette K. Miller, whose office is in Washington, D.C. I asked her whether these “enhancement and education” expenditures were properly filed, or whether they should have been recorded instead as “political expenditures.”

“He’d be the one you have to ask,” she said, referring to LEAA Operations Director Ted Deeds. “I can’t disclose anything without talking to him, anyway.”

Deborah Goldberg of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University said that groups like the LEAA are taking advantage of a loophole involving the difference between federal and state laws. Since the Supreme Court upheld the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform legislation in 2003, it no longer matters what “magic words” groups like the LEAA use, says Goldberg. Whether or not they run “issue ads” or explicitly endorse a candidate, such groups must disclose their contributors for any ads they run during federal races. But they only need to do so for ads they run during state races if the state itself has such a law. “Both Texas and Mississippi,” said Goldberg, are among the states that do not.

Of course, the LEAA is hardly the only IRS-registered “social welfare” organization doing “public education.” One such group on the opposite side of the nation’s political fence is MoveOn.Org, which had a budget of $4.48 million in 2003, on par with the LEAA’s budget in 2001. While LEAA refuses to disclose its latest balance sheet, MoveOn.Org provided its Form 990s in compliance with the law. Moreover, while the LEAA has no “political” entity registered with the IRS, MoveOn has two other registered political groups, a Voter Fund and a Political Action Committee, both of which are required by law to disclose every contributor who donates $200 or more.

IRS officials confirm that the LEAA filed a balance sheet with the IRS for 2002. By law, anyone should be able to obtain this form from the IRS. But after more than four months, the IRS has still failed to produce the document in a “timely manner” in violation of the laws governing the agency.

A month ago, Mark W. Everson, the man President Bush tapped to be commissioner of the IRS, promised Congress that the agency was finally going to clean up dirty non-profits. “It’s fair to say this problem has crept up over time, and our response has lagged,” replied Commissioner Everson under questioning from senators, adding that the IRS would be reviewing non-profit groups as soon as this summer to start enforcing the law.

“It’s obvious from the abuses we see that there’s been no check on charities,” complained the chairman of the finance committee, Senator Charles E. Grassley, an Iowa Republican. Chairman Grassley went on, “Big money, tax free, and no oversight have created a cesspool in too many cases.”

But which non-profit “cesspools” will the IRS clean up first?

IRS officials said that Commissioner Everson is most concerned about non-profit groups and their affiliates whom the IRS suspects of either engaging in criminal fraud to deceive contributors or of hiding taxable income from the IRS. The latter includes environmental trusts, said the IRS official, who added, “[Everson] was not talking about the issue you raise.”

What about a little enforcement when the “law-and-order” group breaks the law?

“It would be a violation of federal law for us to comment on a specific entity,” said Bruce Friedland, public affairs specialist at IRS headquarters in Washington, D.C., declining to answer questions about why the IRS has failed to sanction the LEAA. All Friedland would say was, “This is a matter that the IRS takes very seriously.”

Commissioner Everson previously served in the Justice Department and in the Immigration and Naturalization Service back in the 1980s under Ronald Reagan. More recently, Everson left a job in Dallas as vice-president of a multi-billion dollar, Texas-based food service company, to serve President Bush first in the Office of Management and Budget, where he reportedly earned a reputation for efficiency.

But the IRS under his leadership hardly looks efficient when it comes to the LEAA.

The Law Enforcement Alliance of America was reportedly started in 1991 by a grant from the National Rifle Association (NRA), which set up the LEAA just eleven miles away from its own headquarters in northern Virginia. Tax records from both groups show that the NRA has continued to finance the LEAA. But the LEAA’s mission appears to have expanded since its early days, as a Republican election machine controlled from Washington, D.C., has increasingly come to rely on “issue” ads as part of its national strategy. The Law Enforcement Alliance has been allying itself with other groups connected to the GOP as part of this growing effort. In the process, the LEAA’s bank account has grown and its message has changed depending on the circumstance. Nowhere has this been more evident than in Texas, where the LEAA found new friends in the Texas Association of Business (TAB), and a political action committee called Texans for a Republican Majority (TRMPAC) founded by House Majority Leader Tom Delay.

In 2002, TRMPAC and TAB were busy supporting candidates and pushing “issue” ads in an effort to remake the Texas Legislature. And indeed, after a slate of 19 Republican state representatives and senators won victory, they proceeded to elect DeLay’s close friend Tom Craddick (R-Midland) speaker of the House and push through, not only mid-decade congressional redistricting, but a host of giveaways for the corporate financiers of the campaign. A central link among all these groups and a likely target of the Travis County grand jury is John Colyandro.

Colyandro was the executive director of TRMPAC. He also worked on Greg Abbott’s campaign. According to a deposition in a civil suit filed by some of the losing Democratic candidates, Colyandro admitted that he contacted the LEAA to see if they would get involved in Texas legislative races. He has denied involvement in the LEAA’s television ads against Watson. Remarkably, four ads created for the $1.9-million TAB “issue” ad campaign mysteriously ended up with LEAA logos on them.

The ads were hardly subtle. “Mike Head is on the side of convicted baby killers and murderers,” read one. “When suspected crack cocaine traffickers and marijuana dealers found themselves in jail, Paul D. Clayton came to their aid,” read another.

The movement of the ads between the groups seems to indicate coordination between them, which could violate their tax status. This could become an important point in the grand jury proceedings as it brings into question how “independent” their “independent expenditures” really were.

The LEAA may also be channeling funds into other state races for America’s largest “business league,” reported The Wall Street Journal. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce represents more than three million firms, and includes an Institute for Legal Reform that carries out what its spokesman calls “voter education” in both national and state elections across the nation.

While the LEAA’s big issue is gun rights and criminal justice, the Chamber’s big issue is tort reform and limits on lawsuit damages. The organization has spent millions to support candidates on the lawsuit-reform bandwagon. “There are 42 supreme court races, and 11 attorney general races” in different states this year, said Sean McBride, vice president of communications for the Chamber’s Institute for Legal Reform.

The Chamber, like the LEAA, favors unaccountable voter education drives. “We do not give contributions directly to candidates,” said McBride. “We take a hard look at those races in cooperation with business groups or other non-profits in those states.”

Do the non-profits include the LEAA?

Chamber spokesman McBride declined to comment.

When also asked about the LEAA, the Chamber’s General Counsel, Steve Bokat similarly replied, “I’m not at liberty to discuss it.”

No matter who is writing checks to the LEAA, its budget has increased nearly fivefold in just seven years. From 1995 through 1998, the NRA donated more than $500,000 a year to the LEAA, covering either nearly or slightly more than half of the LEAA’s budget, according to tax records from both groups obtained by the Observer. But the LEAA’s budget has swelled in recent years from $1.32 million in 1997 to $4.48 million by 2001. There is speculation the group spent even more money in 2002.

In addition to its presence in Texas, the LEAA has fought hard in Mississippi, which has long been the scene of pitched battles between trial lawyers and business interests. Two years ago, the LEAA sponsored smear ads in Mississippi against one 12-year sitting state Supreme Court justice. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce was active in Mississippi Supreme Court races in years past as well, but, in 2002, neither the Chamber nor its ads were anywhere in sight, while LEAA ads were everywhere.

What was odd about the LEAA’s campaign against this sitting Mississippi justice, Chuck McRae, was that, unlike many previous targets of the LEAA, he was a proud gun owner and the LEAA had no beef with him about gun rights. However, many businesses and, especially, doctors opposed Judge McRae’s re-election, complaining that he was too plaintiff-friendly in his Mississippi Supreme Court decisions. The LEAA’s ads, meanwhile, attacked him that year for overturning at least one murder conviction, and for voting against the disbarment of an attorney charged with stealing money from his own clients.

“What we find with a lot of these ‘front groups’ is that they adopt innocuous-sounding names that your average person is more likely to identify with than the chamber of commerce,” said Public Citizen’s Taylor Lincoln. “Take the Law Enforcement Alliance of America. Who is against law enforcement?”

It’s unclear whether the Travis County grand jury has tried to contact John W. Chapman, the chairman of LEAA’s board of directors, to ask him what he knows about the 2002 Texas campaign. It wouldn’t be hard; he’s just up the road on I-35. Chapman is a former police officer for juvenile offenses in Killeen, Texas. He joined the LEAA after the mass shooting by a lone gunmen in a Luby’s cafeteria there in 1991. On the LEAA website,, Chapman can be seen in one photo shaking hands with then-Texas Governor George W. Bush, and in another photo with a past NRA President. (Chapman declined to comment for this story.)

State officials in Mississippi, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Kansas have accused the LEAA of illegally pumping money into their state’s electoral campaigns in violation of this group’s so-called “social welfare” status.

One judge in Pennsylvania’s Allegheny County, Paul F. Lutty Jr., issued a temporary restraining order against the LEAA over its ads in the Keystone State in 2001. But even those who disagreed with LEAA ads, like the editors of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, said the county judge’s ruling was a violation of free speech.

One of the largest LEAA campaigns after Texas was a 2002 attorney general race in Illinois, where the LEAA spent a reported $1.3 million. The group attacked a Democratic candidate, Lisa Magidan, telling voters that she “has never tried a single crime,” while pointing out that the Republican candidate, Joe Birkett, was an experienced prosecutor. This time the LEAA’s Executive Director James Fotis characterized the ads as “freedom of speech.”

Indeed they are. But since running such ads amounts, as the LEAA’s own IRS filings show, to the group’s primary activity, if the IRS were to determine that these expenses should be filed as “political” instead of “educational,” not only would the LEAA lose its “social welfare” status and be required to pay taxes on its political campaigns, but it would also be required finally to shed light on its contributors.

There are others who criticize the LEAA for different reasons. Jim Pasco is executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police. It’s the nation’s largest law enforcement association with more than 300,000 members. The Grand Lodge Fraternal Order of Police is based in Nashville, Tennessee, and has more than 2,100 local lodges nationwide. The FOP also has a National Legislative Office that occupies three floors of a Capitol Hill townhouse.

“It’s absurd to suggest that LEAA represents the law enforcement community,” said Pasco, who is himself a retired Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms special agent.

These two groups have worked together. Both the Fraternal Order of Police and the Law Enforcement Alliance backed a federal law, now awaiting President Bush’s signature, that will allow off-duty as well as retired police officers to carry concealed weapons in any state. But on other issues, from state supreme court to attorney general races, Pasco says the LEAA does not represent America’s law enforcement personnel.

“There is no way on God’s green earth that the LEAA could spend millions of dollars on campaign ads,” said Pasco. “It’s not their money.”

How much money the LEAA spent in 2002 and who provided it is anybody’s guess. Since the LEAA and the IRS refuse and fail, respectively, to give a proper public accounting, the mystery will remain unsolved for the time being. More importantly, in the absence of a legal deterrent, who knows what plans are being laid for the LEAA to strike once again in October, 10 days before the election?

Frank Smyth is a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C. His work can be seen at Additional writing and reporting for this article was contributed by Jake Bernstein.