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Keene On Leading


by Henry Martin

David A. Keene, political veteran and incoming NRA president, reveals his plans for strengthening NRA and the Second Amendment.

When new National Rifle Association President David Keene entered the political arena some four-plus decades ago, there was no need for today’s NRA. In fact, nothing like today’s NRA even existed.

It was a different world, when presidents as diverse as John Kennedy and Dwight Eisenhower carried NRA membership cards.

“[The Second Amendment] really wasn’t a political issue,” Keene said. “Leaders of both parties were members of the NRA. They were hunters and sportsmen and interested in and supportive of gun rights.”

But mounting political division over the Second Amendment came to a furious head in 1968 with the passage of the Gun Control Act. Sen. Ted Kennedy proclaimed it was just the beginning for a gun control movement he was sure would sweep the country.

“From 1968 to the mid-’70s, if you went back there today, most people were extremely pessimistic about Second Amendment rights,” Keene said. “The Gun Control Act of 1968 had passed overwhelmingly in Congress. The Johnson administration and then the Nixon administration were pushing the ball forward in terms of restricting Second Amendment rights. It was sort of a bipartisan sport.

“[Second Amendment opponents] didn’t realize that the beginning was, in fact, the high-water mark of the gun control movement,” Keene recalled. “They were generating a backlash that they wouldn’t be able to control.”

Of course, the NRA dramatically responded and addressed those threats. The organization restructured, established the NRA Institute for Legislative Action and fought back.

Forty years and countless battles later, Keene calls 2012 “perhaps the most crucial election, from a Second Amendment standpoint, in our lifetimes.”

It’s a bold statement. But Keene, a consummate political veteran, has spent the past four decades guiding a movement rooted in individual freedom and responsibility.

In 1968, he served as a special assistant to Nixon’s Vice President Spiro Agnew, and since then he has worked on the presidential campaigns of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Robert Dole.

In 1984, he became chairman of the American Conservative Union and, over the next 26 years, transformed its Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) from a small gathering into one of the political calendar’s most important annual events.

“In all the years I have known him, David Keene has always been a tireless and eloquent crusader in defending the Constitution and the Bill of Rights,” said NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre.

Keene will need to rely on his reservoir of political experience and ability to guide the Association through this critical time.

Rising Threats
Recently, President Barack Obama, in talking with Sarah Brady of the anti-gun Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said he was going after Second Amendment rights “under the radar.”

“He can’t do it openly because NRA members, gun owners and Second Amendment supporters won’t allow it to happen,” Keene said. “And he can’t win a confrontation in Congress because he just doesn’t have the votes.”

For now, he’s forced to subtly subvert the Second Amendment.

“He used the crisis in Mexico,” Keene explains, “as an excuse to say that perhaps we ought to restrict gun sales in the U.S. because his administration believed that these guns were going to Mexico.”

Of course, now it’s clear that the law-abiding gun store owners near the border who were painted as villains were actually set up by the Eric Holder-led Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to build support for more restrictive gun laws.

Keene, a former delegate to the United Nations Small Arms Conference under the Bush administration, also closely watches the White House’s overtures to the U.N.

“The administration has signaled to the United Nations that we no longer take the position we took under the previous administration, when U.N. Ambassador John Bolton said the United States would not accept any proposal that impacted the Second Amendment rights of American citizens,” he said.

Perhaps the scariest possibility, though, is an Obama appointee shifting the Supreme Court’s tenuous balance.

“If President Obama gets an opportunity,” Keene warned, “he would be able to appoint someone who would reverse [the critical pro-Second Amendment Heller and McDonald decisions] and set us back in ways that we can’t even imagine.”

Make or Break in 2012
Keene, perhaps as much as anyone, understands the grave importance of next year’s elections. The tremendous progress Second Amendment supporters have made since that galvanizing moment in 1968 is at stake. For as many victories as the NRA has won over the past 30 years, a two-term Obama administration could quickly take it all back.

“Over the course of the next couple years, we have to make certain that [NRA members] are ready to get out and do what’s necessary to make sure that these threats don’t become reality,” Keene said. “That’s incredibly important.”

Should this administration retain the White House, he said, “they’ll have an opportunity to change things by changing the Supreme Court; they’ll have an opportunity to side with enemies of gun ownership internationally; and, absent the need to run for reelection again, they’ll have a chance to give up some of the president’s political capital to achieve his ideological goals, which include restrictions on the Second Amendment.

“The president keeps saying he just wants to have some common-sense gun control or gun regulations. The fact is that he and the people around him have spent a virtual political lifetime trying to restrict Second Amendment rights. And had they had the power, had they had the influence during the last few years to really take on the Second Amendment in a head-on manner, you can bet they would have done it.”

Growing the NRA
Winning in 2012 is Keene’s—and gun owners’—top priority. But after spending a lifetime fostering the conservative movement’s rise, he understands that success without a growing membership is impossible.

“My political hero,” he says, “was always Ronald Reagan. And he said that the loss of freedom is always but one generation away. Because every generation has to fight the fights that previous generations won for them, or they’ll lose what was passed down to them.

“So we have to make sure that we’re continuing to grow,” Keene said, “that we’re continuing to recruit new people, and that we’re reaching out, particularly to young people, and bringing them into the NRA and making sure that they’re involved in the shooting sports.”

Part of the plan involves a focus on supporting and creating programs geared toward a younger audience.

“Years ago almost every high school had a rifle club,” Keene said. “That’s not the case anymore. But one of the things the NRA is very actively promoting is air rifle and pistol competition. You can bring people into the shooting sports through the use of air guns. And we’re doing that.”

Gun rights face particular trouble in urban areas, where restrictions are common and most people only hear about firearms on television crime reports.

“We need to continue to remind people that the problem is not the guns, the problem is the criminals,” Keene said. “And secondly, we need to find ways to reach out, particularly to younger people in urban areas, to get them out into the field to hunt—to give them an opportunity to involve themselves in competitive shooting.

“If we can make inroads in those urban areas, we’re not going to face the kinds of problems that we’ve faced in the past.”

Vision for the Future
David Keene has spent virtually his whole career juggling roles—adviser, chairman, author, speaker, strategist, lobbyist, leader. At 66 years old, after a half-century fighting in the political trenches, he sees the NRA presidency as the perfect way to top it all off.

“When the opportunity to serve the members of the NRA came along, I just quit everything else,” Keene explained. “Because this is the most important thing that somebody like me could do during this particular period of our history.”

He’s an endlessly interesting and experienced president. His political career has spanned so many years and ideological shifts that most people today can’t even conceive the state of gun rights when it began. Fortunately, it’s a perspective he’s eager to share.

In his April speech to the members at NRA’s Annual Meetings & Exhibits in Pittsburgh, Pa., he brought the crowd back to the scene of his entry into politics.

“It was a world in which citizens, judges and politicians honored the Constitution and accepted the obvious fact that the Founders meant it when they included the Right to Keep and Bear Arms in the Bill of Rights,” Keene reminded the audience. “The NRA was not founded as an advocacy or lobbying organization, and for nearly a century wasn’t much involved in defending our members’ Right to Keep and Bear Arms for one simple reason—we didn’t have to.”

Times, clearly, have changed. But only someone who witnessed the tide shift so powerfully can understand its potential to turn back.

“If we continue to win,” says Keene, “the public and the people who have been entranced by the ideological argument against guns will drop it. And we may find, in 10, 20, 25 years, we’re back to a point where gun rights are accepted on an across-the-board basis.

“Then our members could get back to enjoying their Second Amendment rights. They could get back to life as they like it, you know.”

That’s precisely what Keene sees himself doing. An avid fisherman and hunter, he says he’s planning on dedicating the next two years to the NRA presidency before heading off into the fields.

But for now, one of American politics’ most-traveled men has plenty left to do.