NRA's Last Hurrah? - Rolling Stone
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NRA’s Last Hurrah?

Bob Dole may have spurned the National Rifle Association and its fanatical opposition to gun control, but this fall the organization is poised to spend more than ever to elect extremists to Congress. Is the NRA shooting itself in the foot?


Fresh Bullet


If I were king, Janet Reno would be behind bars.” The speaker is 36-year-old Al Salvi, a well-heeled lawyer from Lake County, in Illinois, outside of Chicago. Last winter, when he uttered this line at a local meeting of the Illinois State Rifle Association, only a few people in the state — most of them gun nuts — had ever heard of Al Salvi. This fall, thanks in large part to the National Rifle Association, Salvi is the Republican nominee for the Senate seat being vacated by Paul Simon, even though Salvi makes Illinois GOP leaders squirm. Salvi wants to repeal the five-day waiting period on gun sales imposed by the Brady Bill, supports laws that would allow gun owners to carry concealed weapons and blames federal police agencies for “frightening abuses of federal power,” such as those at Waco and Ruby Ridge.

A hard-right firebrand, Salvi has attracted the support of the Christian Coalition, right-to-life and right-to-work groups, term-limits advocates and anti-tax crusaders. But the core of his support comes from the NRA, which is mounting an all-out national effort this year to increase the pro-gun majority in Congress. In a score of Senate races, and in hundreds of House contests, the NRA is pouring money and materiel into an effort to repeat the stunning success of 1994, when it helped to finance the Gingrich revolution. In Salvi’s primary campaign, for instance, the NRA kicked in $4,950, spent another $53,000 on mailings and phone banks, and called on thousands of its approximately 130,000 members in Illinois to get him the nomination.

Under the guidance of the NRA’s all-powerful first vice president, Neal Knox, the Wizard of Oz-like mastermind who controls the NRA from just offstage, the gun lobby has moved from its historical mission — defending gun owners’ rights — to outright zealotry. In this year’s election contest, for which the NRA is mobilizing millions of dollars and a formidable network of grass-roots activists, Knox has made the legality of military-style assault weapons the NRA’s defining issue. And in so doing, he has raised the stakes so high that the outcome could determine if the organization survives in its present form.

In 1994, the first election year in which Knox and his allies had control of the NRA’s board, the NRA bet its PAC money on a crop of radical-right Republicans running for House seats, along with a smaller contingent of pro-gun Republican Senate candidates from Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, Tennessee and elsewhere. Against all odds, these candidates won. Whether Knox was a political genius — or just got lucky — is debatable. But Knox clearly believes the former and this year has decided to leave his money on the table and let it ride.

The NRA is placing its ’96 bets in a political environment that has changed greatly since 1994. House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s hardy band of revolutionaries has fallen out of favor, leaving many of the NRA’s closest allies facing uphill struggles to win re-election this year. The April 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and the subsequent attention to the skulking underworld of paranoid militias has highlighted the NRA’s lunatic fringe. If the NRA registers another sweeping win, or even manages to just break even, Knox and Co. will be vindicated. But if Clinton is re-elected, if Democrats and anti-gun Republicans win elections to Congress, if a host of cherished NRA supporters are chased from office, the political damage to the NRA, and its leadership, could be incalculable. 1996 could go down in history as Knox’s Folly.

In midsummer, the NRA was rocked when Bob Dole announced that he could no longer support what has become the central plank in the NRA’s 1996 platform: repeal of the semiautomatic-weapons ban. Though Dole had never been particularly close to the NRA, his defection enraged its leaders. In Michigan, a crucial battleground state that is one of a handful of Midwestern states that Dole must win in November, James Church, a member of the NRA’s board of directors, calls Dole a “betrayer.” In Ohio, NRA board member Mike Beko says bluntly, “The guy’s unelectable. . . . And we don’t trust you, Bob.” Chief strategist Tanya Metaksa of the NRA’s lobbying arm, the Institute for Legislative Action, began putting out the word that the NRA would concentrate its resources in the fall on House and Senate races. And Knox, who calls the shots, made it clear that the NRA would not endorse Dole. In a widely read column in the gun-owners’ publication Shotgun News headlined Dole Blows It, Knox said acidly, “Bob Dole probably threw away his chance to be president when he said yesterday on CBS that he would not sign, and would probably veto, the House-passed repeal of the ban on over-10-shot magazines and military-look semiautos.”

So the NRA, facing the most dramatic, hard-fought and potentially devastating political struggle in its history, will likely do so without a presidential candidate to support. All of the NRA’s troops and munitions will be targeted on congressional campaigns.

Nonetheless, the NRA is well-equipped to do battle. Its network is vast: millions of members; one of the richest PACs in Washington, D.C.; and a grassroots organization that reaches every state in the country. In 1994, the NRA spent a staggering $5.3 million to elect pro-gun candidates — more than 80 percent of them Republicans. This year, it’s poised to spend even more. As of July 31 according to the Federal Election Commission, the NRA’s Political Victory Fund showed a war chest of $2 million, compared with just over $1.5 million in 1994. Overall, the Political Victory Fund has raised nearly $3.7 million so far this cycle, as opposed to $3.9 million in ’94. By mid-1996 the NRA had already spent money for and against 208 House candidates and 49 Senate candidates.

It’s safe to say that 20 to 30 tight House races will turn on the gun issue. In close races, the NRA can often deliver enough gun activists and Second Amendment true believers to swing 2 percent to 3 percent of the vote, more than enough to sway the outcome. The NRA’s first priority is defending its allies. In the Senate, it contributes to Republicans like Phil Gramm of Texas, Jesse Helms of North Carolina, Strom Thurmond of South Carolina and Idaho’s Larry Craig — who even sits on the NRA’s board of directors. The NRA is picking its battles in open-seat races like the one in Illinois but is also supporting Republican challengers against Democratic incumbents in the West and Midwest like Tom Harkin of Iowa, Carl Levin of Michigan and Max Baucus of Montana.

In the House, the NRA will concentrate its active support on a bloc of House freshmen, again all Republicans, who voted to repeal the assault-weapons ban, especially those who are running in tough races against challengers who are using the freshmen’s votes on assault weapons against them.

The NRA traditionally is strongest in Southern and Western states, and in rural areas. “Generally, we’re willing to concede the rural areas to the NRA,” says Mike Beard, a veteran gun-control activist, “and the cities belong to us. It’s in the suburban districts, especially ones where the suburbs gradually mix with rural areas, where the fight is.” Kellyanne Fitzpatrick, a conservative pollster, agrees: “Around the state capitals and the 12 major cities, the gun issue is a tough sell. What’s up for grabs is the suburbs.”

In the end, the NRA’s success may depend on its ability to deliver the votes of traditional, Democratic-leaning labor voters to the GOP. Charles Cook of The Cook Political Report says that polling done for the AFL-CIO in 1994 showed that the single biggest reason union voters cited for defecting from the Democrats was gun control. In Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Jersey — key states where Dole hopes to turn the election against Clinton — the NRA’s influence among certain union labor voters could be critical. “A lot of people concerned about the Second Amendment are people that used to be Democrats,” says Trent Wisecup, press secretary to Michigan’s Ronna Romney, who is challenging Senator Levin. “A lot of the so-called Reagan Democrats in Macomb County [north of Detroit] are union members who feel that the Democratic Party has left them behind. To win in Michigan, you have to peel off the conservative Democratic voters, and a lot of them are concerned about the Second Amendment.”

Because the gun issue is so unpopular with many voters, it is common that the ads the NRA pays for never even mention guns. In 1994, for instance, NRA ads routinely “morphed” Democratic candidates into likenesses of President Clinton, most notably in Oklahoma, where the NRA helped torpedo the Senate campaign of Rep. Dave McCurdy by calling him a “Clinton clone.” This year, the NRA’s shadow issues will be crime and family values. During last winter’s special election for the seat vacated by Oregon Sen. Bob Packwood, the NRA ran ads on behalf of Gordon Smith, the ultraconservative (and losing) Republican candidate who battered his opponent for being soft on crime, sentencing and the death penalty.

This fall, expect to see more of the same. Even though it will not be officially endorsing Dole, the NRA would clearly prefer him to Clinton in the White House. Grover Norquist, a Republican strategist and the head of Americans for Tax Reform, considers the NRA an ally in what he calls the “leave-us-alone coalition,” an affiliation of like-minded right-wing causes (anti-tax groups, anti-regulatory groups, home-schoolers and anti-abortionists). He predicts that the NRA will help spark what he calls a “coattails up” phenomenon, in which grass-roots GOP candidates carry the vote for Dole, rather than the other way around. Not surprisingly, local gun-lobby activists agree. “If Bob Dole carries the state,” says Pat Valentino of the Illinois State Rifle Association, “it will be because Al Salvi carried it for him.”

In states such as Illinois, Kansas and Georgia, the NRA is joining forces with the Christian Coalition and other right-wing allies, including bikers opposed to motorcycle-helmet laws. And despite Dole’s backing away from the NRA, the Republican Party, desirous of all those union votes, is entwined with the gun lobby at the state and local level. “The NRA has a huge, broad membership,” says Mary Crawford, a spokeswoman for the Republican Party. “They represent millions of people across this country who feel strongly about their right to keep and bear arms. And they have been very supportive of many Republican candidates.” Asked if the NRA is too radical, too extreme, Crawford demurs: “Is it fair to paint that picture? I don’t think it is.” She criticizes the Democrats for claiming that the NRA leadership is more radical than its membership. “They’re voluntarily members,” she says.

Voluntary memberships notwithstanding, the NRA leadership is dominated by zealots who view their organization’s members as the shock troops for a right-wing takeover of the American body politic, a viewpoint that is indeed far more radical than those of most rank-and-file members. Neal Knox takes advantage of the NRA’s bylaws to exercise ironclad control over who is elected to the board of directors. Opponents of Knox charge that he demands an assurance of personal allegiance from each prospective board member before he’ll endorse their candidacy. Since less than half of NRA members, those with lifetime or long-term memberships, are allowed to vote, Knox can count on being able to mobilize fanatics and activists in NRA elections. In the 1996 elections for the NRA board, less than 6 percent of eligible NRA members (about 3 percent of the full NRA membership) actually voted. Currently, 72 of the 76 members of the board owe their positions to Knox. He dismisses the critics who say that he packs the board with acolytes, adding, “The members elected me and the folks I supported because they’ve had 30 years to read my stuff. They believed what I’ve said. They know what I think.”

So, in a sense, Knox is the NRA. Yet shadowing Knox is a growing chorus of Old Guard NRA leaders, former board members and dissidents who want to return the NRA to its less radical days. Not only are they concerned about Knox driving the organization too far to the right, they worry that the NRA is quickly bankrupting itself. As recently as 1991, the NRA sat atop more than $100 million in financial reserves. Five years of frantic spending — on politics, direct-mail membership and fund-raising drives — have drained the NRA’s coffers. The organization now claims reserves totaling more than $40 million, but some $35 million of that is pledged as collateral for its palatial new headquarters, in Fairfax, Va. Membership, which peaked in 1995 at 3.5 million, is now well below 3 million.

The NRA’s financial condition has deteriorated so rapidly that at the September meeting of the board of directors in Virginia, Wayne LaPierre, the executive vice president, presented a report detailing the organization’s dire financial straits: More than 100 people — as much as 25 percent of the NRA’s staff — had been laid off recently.

Dave Edmondson, a former NRA board member, says bluntly, “Knox has destroyed the NRA. He’s done it.”

Al Salvi could be the poster boy for the NRA’s big gamble of 1996. In the primary campaign, he appealed directly to gun owners and other elements of the hard-right coalition, even winning the endorsement of the ultraright Council on Domestic Relations (which mutters darkly about a conspiracy involving George Bush to engineer microbes that attacked U.S. soldiers in the Persian Gulf War). The NRA was with Salvi from the start. In December 1995, long before he showed up on either Republican or Democratic radar screens, the Institute for Legislative Action, the NRA’s Virginia-based PAC, made the first of two $4,950 contributions to Salvi’s campaign.

“I’ve known Al Salvi for years,” says the Illinois State Rifle Association’s Valentino. “We helped get him elected to the Statehouse four years ago.” A year before the March 19, 1996, primary, a “round table” of conservative activists — flat-taxers, anti-abortion activists, the NRA and others — met in a Chicago Marriott to hammer out a strategy for the ’96 Senate race in Illinois, Valentino says. Ignoring the GOP’s centrist leadership — the “country-clubbers” — the radical-right coalition settled on Salvi as its standard-bearer, not altogether ignoring the fact that he was prepared to spend $1 million of his own money on the race.

“The Republican establishment didn’t take Salvi seriously enough because he was such an extremist,” says Dan Kotowski, an Illinois gun-control leader. Kotowski points out that the Illinois State Rifle Association shares members with the Gun Owners of America, whose leader, Larry Pratt, was co-chairman of Pat Buchanan’s presidential campaign until Pratt stepped aside amid charges of extremism. Grass-roots newsletters published by the Illinois State Rifle Association read like catalogs of hard-right paranoia: According to the gun activists, the federal government is developing a microchip to be implanted under one’s skin, “enabling those who control the chip to control the thoughts of the person in whom it is implanted.” They also contend that the plane crash in the former Yugoslavia that killed Commerce Secretary Ron Brown last spring somehow involved the U.S. government. The newsletters warn ominously about “dark, olive-green” helicopters engaging in night military-training exercises, adding, “it is difficult to see how these kinds of exercises would be of benefit in a war, unless that war was against the American people.”

The Illinois State Rifle Association maintains a network of volunteers and activists that reaches into almost every one of Illinois’ 102 counties. “A lot of our people become precinct chairmen,” says Valentino, “and quite a few are delegates to the [GOP] convention. They get out the vote, man literature tables at gun shows, put up signs.” Some, like Frank Allen, of Decatur, Ill., do double duty: Allen is statewide coordinator for the Illinois State Rifle Association’s grass-roots committees and also is a regional coordinator for Al Salvi’s Senate campaign, responsible for turnout in eight central Illinois counties in November. So important is a Salvi victory to the NRA that the $53,000 the NRA spent on mailings and phone banks was 41 percent of the grass-roots expenditures the NRA reported to the Federal Election Commission for the first three months of 1996.

In the general election, the Salvi campaign is trying to back off from the gun issue. His Democratic opponent, Rep. Dick Durbin, is a seven-term congressman from central Illinois who promises to chip away at Salvi’s extreme positions — his support for repealing the assault-weapons ban, his advocacy for a concealed-carry law. “These issues,” Durbin says, “just poll right off the chart.” What’s more, Durbin accuses Salvi of downplaying his Second Amendment views in front of general audiences. When Rolling Stone called Salvi’s campaign offices to ask about the candidate’s stance on guns, press secretary Dan Patlak responded: “This gun issue is not going to be an issue for us in the campaign. So we’re not going to be able to help you with the story.”

The Illinois State Rifle Association’s Valentino pooh-poohs that statement as “Patlak talking, not Al talking. He sounds like a picklehead. I was with Al and his wife, Kathy, last night, and I know that he is as strong as ever on our issue.” Valentino adds that she is bringing Charlton Heston, the conservative actor and NRA spokesman, to Illinois for a series of five Salvi fund-raisers before the election. “And [Heston] doesn’t do that for anyone who isn’t solidly pro-gun,” she says.

Another Salvi backer is Leroy Pyle, the only member of the NRA’s national board of directors who lives in Illinois. Pyle, a former California police officer who resigned after clashing with his chief over gun control, has worked closely with the Salvi campaign, traveling with the candidate and volunteering to man the phones in campaign offices. “Doing grunt work,” Pyle calls it. Calm and articulate, Pyle is nonetheless diamond-hard on gun-rights issues. With reckless glee, Pyle calls gun-control activist Sarah Brady and her husband, the wheelchair-bound former Reagan press secretary Jim Brady, “the ugly little cackler and her pull toy.”

Pyle understands the limits of the public’s tolerance of the gun issue. Asked whether Al Salvi’s far-right views will hurt him in the election, Pyle chooses his words carefully. “Extremism makes me uncomfortable,” he says. “But it is the extremists who control the middle-of-the-road agenda. The whole point is to move the middle of the road toward you. And that’s the role that the NRA wants to play.”

Three other senate races in the Midwest and South demonstrate the limits of the tricky game the NRA is playing; in short, it’s much easier to manipulate low-turnout primaries than a general election. In Michigan, the NRA-backed former talk-show host and Republican activist Ronna Romney defeated a centrist Republican and now faces incumbent Sen. Carl Levin. Though Levin expects the NRA to weigh in against him, Romney is considered a long shot. In Georgia, the NRA endorsed Guy Millner, a far-right Republican, in his GOP Senate primary victory over a moderate, pro-choice Republican. But Millner is considered unlikely to defeat his Democratic opponent, Max Cleland, who is ready to take on Millner over the issue of assault weapons. Wounded in Vietnam, where he lost both legs and an arm, Cleland calls his opponent an “extremist” and says, “I may be the only Senate candidate who has carried an assault weapon. They have only one purpose: the mass eradication of human beings.” Tim Phillips, Cleland’s campaign manager, adds that the NRA’s support for Millner on assault weapons “will make him easier to beat.”

In Kansas, the NRA is up against Jill Docking in the race for one of the state’s two open Senate seats. Docking looked like a perfect fit to the NRA. In late 1993, as Docking sat in a Wichita, Kan., restaurant with her two children, two armed men burst in. As they approached Docking’s table, all she could see was the barrel of the gun just inches from her little girl’s face. Docking handed over her wallet, praying that her children wouldn’t move, look the wrong way or say the wrong thing. Shaken and angry, Docking decided to buy a gun. “My reaction was to have a gun myself,” she says, “to learn how to use a gun and to teach my kids how to use a gun.” She called a man in Wichita, a gun instructor, to learn how to shoot. For the NRA, which recently installed a woman as president amid a campaign to recruit women members, Docking’s gut reaction was made to order. But then she began to have second thoughts. “My husband tried to reason with me,” says Docking. “I sat down and thought about it. We know children who have been shot in their homes by somebody misusing a gun.” Docking decided against arming herself.

But that was not the end of it. Soon afterward, Docking was asked by a friend, a Kansas state legislator, to testify at the state Capitol, in Topeka, in support of legislation that would allow Kansans to carry concealed weapons. The bill, strongly backed by the NRA, needed the support of women who would argue for armed self-protection. And that’s when Docking, a politically savvy businesswoman married to a former lieutenant governor of Kansas, started to think about the public-policy impact of more and more guns. Suddenly she was back in that restaurant. And she realized, “If we all had weapons, we would have had the shootout at the OK Corral.”

Now, Docking has a chance to become the first Democratic senator elected in Kansas in 60 years. Her opponent is Rep. Sam Brownback, a rambunctious Republican House freshman and an unapologetic opponent of gun control in any form. In March, Brownback voted to overturn the semiautomatic ban. In capturing the GOP’s Senate nomination, Brown-back received a big assist from the NRA.

“He literally had an army,” says Brett Cott, the Kansas Democratic Party’s executive director. “The pro-life people and the gun people got out and worked their butts off.” Because Kansas is the scene of two Senate races, it’s being heavily targeted by the NRA. In both cases the gun lobby is backing the Republican. Yet the NRA’s support for assault weapons is working against the NRA. “Women don’t buy this argument that if you take away our Uzis, it’s going to lead to the confiscation of all of our guns,” says Cott.

In the House, assault weapons may end up killing off some Republican hopefuls. Though the March 22 vote to repeal the semiauto ban was the NRA’s high-water mark in the 104th Congress, it was also an astonishing display of suicidal behavior by the House Republicans who voted for it — and many of them will lose in November. Take the three F’s: Jon Fox, Dan Frisa and Mike Flanagan. All are Republican House freshmen running in urban-suburban districts and are paying the price for dallying with deadly weapons.

Rep. Jon Fox, whose Pennsylvania district includes a large swath of the suburbs of Philadelphia, tried and failed to get his fellow Republicans to postpone the vote on repealing the assault-weapons ban. A freshman who received substantial backing from the NRA in 1994, including $8,450 in campaign contributions from the NRA’s PAC, Fox, apparently worried that voting against the assault-weapons ban would be the kiss of death for his re-election, chose to abandon the NRA, the only House freshman who received NRA support in ’94 to do so. Yet he is extremely defensive about the gun issue today, and despite repeated phone calls, neither Fox nor his staff would comment on the role of it in the campaign. His Democratic opponent this year in Pennsylvania’s 13th District, Joe Hoeffel, is not so reticent. “Our opponent is in bed with the NRA,” says Hoeffel’s former campaign manager, Andrew Sharpe. “We are going to make an issue out of it. Fox is in the position of a lot of Republican freshmen who found that in ’94 the NRA was really helpful but then discovered that this is a very different year.”

Rep. Mike Flanagan, a very conservative GOP freshman from Illinois’ 5th district, is the giant-killer who, with NRA support, knocked off Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, in 1994. This year, those ties to the gun lobby may be his undoing. Flanagan voted in favor of repealing the assault-weapons ban, perhaps unaware that few people in Chicago look favorably upon semiautomatic weapons. He was also caught doing the NRA’s bidding last year in a crucial committee vote on the so-called cop-killer bullets and was embarrassed enough to return a $3,000 NRA PAC contribution in 1995. Yet Flanagan is highly vulnerable on guns, and his opponent, Rod Blagojevich, says he will make it a campaign issue. “He’s a gun nut,” says Blagojevich.

Rep. Dan Frisa, a GOP freshman who represents the Long Island suburbs of New York’s 4th District, received $4,000 from the NRA in 1994 and voted in 1996 to repeal the semiauto ban. This fall, the Democrats are using that vote to try to destroy him. His opponent, Carolyn McCarthy, is running as a widow in the war against assault weapons — her husband was killed and her son was badly wounded in 1993 when Colin Ferguson, wielding a semiautomatic handgun, opened fire on a Long Island Rail Road commuter train. Against Frisa, McCarthy has made guns in general, and the semiauto ban in particular, the centerpiece of her campaign.

Give Frisa some credit for not running away from his principles. The NRA has nearly 30,000 members on Long Island, according to Richard D’Alauro, the NRA’s field representative there, and Frisa is leaning on them heavily. “We work in the campaign offices,” D’Alauro says. “This is a year-round thing for us. We run fund-raisers, get out the vote.” So far in 1995-96, the NRA has given Frisa another $5,900 in PAC funds. Through the New York State Rifle and Pistol Association, the NRA’s statewide affiliate, and two local organizations on Long Island, the Suffolk Alliance of Sportsmen and the Nassau County Fish and Game Association, the NRA is able to move a lot of people to the polls. But despite the NRA presence, gun rights are still a tough sell in the 4th District. “We are basically in an area with an anti-gun mentality,” says D’Alauro. “But if we can turn out a bloc of 15,000 votes, that can do it.”

Though it plays hardball, though it has a lot of money to spend and though it can mobilize pro-gun activists everywhere — even on Long Island — the NRA may give Democrats, including President Clinton, an opportunity to paint their opponents as tools of the special-interest gun lobby. “The [NRA] leadership is clearly extremist,” says George Stephanopoulos, a White House adviser. “It’s gonna backfire. Suburban voters are very concerned about crime, and they don’t buy the NRA’s mantra.”

In virtually every speech he gives, President Clinton promotes the fact that he took on the NRA over the Brady Bill and the semiauto ban. Says Charles Cook, the political analyst: “The gun issue is hurting Republicans. It’s positioning many Republicans out of the mainstream.”

For Neal Knox and his allies, the NRA’s ability to protect its pro-gun friends in Congress is critical. If they lose, and lose big, in 1996 — if Clinton is reelected; if pro-gun incumbents like Fox, Frisa and Flanagan go down; if NRA-backed challengers like Salvi lose; if Kansas elects a few Democrats to the House and Senate — then the NRA’s leadership could face a hostile government, angry NRA members who wonder about the organization’s political judgment, a restless board that could start talking to NRA veterans and a financial crisis that finally hits home.

What happens then is anyone’s guess. Two outcomes seem possible. One is that the NRA’s bankrupt political strategy and depleted treasury combine to help anti-Knox NRA conservatives oust him, installing a more balanced leadership. Already, says Wayne Ross, a former NRA leader and current board member, there is talk about an alternate slate of candidates running against Knox and his people later this year. The other possibility, which cannot be ruled out, is that moderate gun-rights activists will abandon the NRA altogether. With its membership eroding, and with more and more of the country turning against the NRA’s agenda, Neal Knox could find himself a year from now presiding over a much smaller organization.

But that organization, comprised almost entirely of hard-core activists and fanatics, would not only be leaner but meaner. It could become the nucleus of a nationwide band of armed, would-be militants, and that would be chilling indeed.

In This Article: Coverwall, NRA


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