When a person in a position of power argues there needs to be constitutional limits on their power, then this person is really worth speaking with. This, after all, is the kind of thing George Washington showcased by example. The idea that the layers of government in this democratic republic need men and women within them who understand, and insist upon, constitutional limits on their authority is critical. In order for us to safeguard our freedom for future generations, this concept is indispensable.
Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen (R) did this, as so many have in the course of American history, by gathering officials in other states together to write and sign a friend-of-the-court brief (otherwise known as an amicus brief) to the U.S. Supreme Court in support of the NRA in the critical First Amendment case known as NRA v. Vullo. (As this was going to print, the Supreme Court had accepted the case, but had not yet set a hearing date for oral arguments.)
A1F: Austin, I’ve wanted to speak with you for a while because you led 17 other states, so 18 states in total, including the state of Montana, to write an amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court arguing that the Court should take NRA v. Vullo, a First Amendment case against the state of New York. So here you are, a high-ranking state official, an attorney general, arguing that you should not have this power—that state officials should not have the power to silence their adversaries. We have the First Amendment for a lot of reasons. Is that the way you see it?
Knudsen: Yeah, absolutely. Government should not be able to come in and act like the mafia. And that’s really what this was. I mean, you had [now former Superintendent of the New York State Department of Financial Services] Maria Vullo come in and act like a mobster and basically threaten companies for doing business with the NRA and it wasn’t overt. It was found in the district court ruling that she never made any direct threats, but it was like a Tony Soprano situation. As in: You know, that’s a nice business you have there. It would be an awful shame if anything were to happen to it—wink, wink, nudge, nudge.
That’s how she operated. No state official, no government official, should have the power to threaten someone just based on their association. That’s clearly a violation of the First Amendment.
A1F: Right, Vullo did that as a state official. Also, former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) took credit at the time for directing Vullo to use her position to attack the NRA.
Knudsen: That’s why we thought this was so important to bring this up to the U.S. Supreme court. That’s why I’m absolutely thrilled that the Supreme Court granted cert and agreed to take this case. I think this is a really important issue, and we need them to rule on it.
A1F: This is a basic First Amendment case. If a government institution can destroy a large association like the NRA, if they can take away the right to free speech to anyone they might not like or agree with, then what else can they destroy? Any political adversary they have? And then where does America go from there? Nevertheless, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit attempted to make this vital First Amendment case go away by ruling that, in “an era of enhanced corporate social responsibility,” it is somehow permissible for state officials to use their regulatory power to single out and silence their political adversaries.
Knudsen: Yeah, that’s an incredibly dangerous statement that came out of the Second Circuit. You can see why we were so concerned about that and why so many of my colleagues jumped on this amicus brief on behalf of the NRA.
That’s incredibly dangerous language that fits right in with the Left’s entire narrative of, you know, environmental social governance, ESG. We’re seeing so much of that across the corporate spectrum right now.
And when you’ve got a Second Circuit Court of Appeals that steps in and says, well, yeah, given the culture today, that’s okay to do because of this notion of enhanced corporate responsibility, that’s pretty terrifying language. There’s nothing about that in the U.S. Constitution. That’s just really dangerous stuff and there’s just no precedent for it. I mean, the Second Circuit just flat got it wrong. This is not activity that government gets to engage in. They don’t get to bully; they don’t get to gestapo; they don’t get to use mob tactics to threaten companies.
A1F: It is a flagrant violation of the First Amendment freedom of association. Indeed, as a result of these actions from officials in the state of New York, the NRA was dropped by its longtime corporate insurance carrier. So, how hard was it to get 17 attorneys general to step up behind you and sign onto this amicus brief?
Knudsen: It wasn’t hard. Getting the number that we got was not difficult. This is the right argument to make. You’ve got a lot of Republican state attorneys general who are passionate about the Second Amendment. They’re passionate about groups like the NRA.
A1F: Right, this is a major freedom issue; even the ACLU put an amicus brief behind this case arguing that government can’t be allowed to just go after those it might not like in order to destroy them. Can you even imagine this kind of thing happening in Montana?
Knudsen: No, the people of Montana wouldn’t stand for it. I think the people of Montana would rightly rise up. This is not behavior that should be tolerated. That’s not just a Western thing. That’s not just a Montana thing. I think that’s an American thing. There are boxes that the government fits in and things that they get to do. I mean, I’ve said it before, acting like the mafia in this case is not something the government should be doing.
Look, I’m an NRA member. I have been for a long time. This is an important case. There are other civil-rights groups out there in this country that could be threatened if this attack on the First Amendment rights of the NRA isn’t checked. Regardless of what political party is in power, government should not have the power to come in and threaten, whether overtly or covertly, a person, association or corporation based on their associations. That’s why this was such an easy join for us. The fact that the Supreme Court took this case is encouraging. We’re cautiously optimistic for a good result.
A1F: So what do you see going forward in all the battles we’re fighting to keep this freedom?
Knudsen: Well look, first of all, I’m a gun guy. I’m a shooter. I’m a reloader. I’m a hunter. I’m a competitive shooter and collector. I spent a lot of time around the gun shops in Montana and around the gun industry. So, I am paying attention to these issues and I’m seeing this stuff even in Montana where gun shops and gun manufacturers are being impacted by attacks on this constitutional right.
Even in a pro-freedom state like Montana, some gun stores, manufacturers and others are getting their casualty insurance canceled. They’re having access to credit denied to them. They’re having access to debit-card processing and credit-card processing denied. This isn’t happening because they’re bad businesses risks; in fact, we’ve been able to show that a lot of these businesses are successful. They’re thriving. They’re a good credit risk. These are solid businesses. But their business relationships are being impacted because of the fact that they’re engaged in a Second Amendment-related business, whether it’s selling guns or making guns or parts or whatever.
These attacks are a part of a bigger push into the ESG world—the notion of environmental and social governance. And this is something that Republican attorneys general have really been diving into in the last two or three years. This has become a bigger and bigger concern of ours because, as I said, you’re seeing so many of these left-wing organizations and groups come to the realization that they can’t get their agenda passed through the Congress, so they’re turning to private businesses and they’re trying to push their agenda through boardrooms rather than through the halls of Congress.
That’s where I see the trend going. I don’t think it is going to change as long as Joe Biden is in the White House. I think we’re going to keep seeing more and more of this stuff.
A1F: I find it a strange culture war in that there are well over 100 million gun owners in America today and a huge number of them are Democrats and independents. The use of this right is hardly just a one-party thing. This just should not be a partisan issue. It wasn’t historically; it shouldn’t be now. Gun ownership certainly doesn’t reflect that. So, it is just so heartening to see a state like Montana behind gathering so many others in an amicus brief in defense of our freedom.
Knudsen: Like I said, I’m a gun guy and the Second Amendment is one I watch like a hawk and we’re in a very critical period. The nominations Biden has made are very concerning. His head of the ATF [Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives] is troubling, as are a lot of the rules that have come out of the ATF lately. We’ve been the lead on a lot of the challenges to these changes to the rules—on the bump-stock ban, on the pistol-brace ban, the 80%-lower ban—we’re the lead state on almost all of those briefs.
Backing the NRA in this critical First Amendment case was just a no-brainer for me. It’s one that means a lot to me, as it’s an important freedom is1sue. To see what we’re up to, go to austinformontana.com.