New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo says the National Rifle Association's federal lawsuit against him is "frivolous." The lawsuit claims that Cuomo's policies are trying to deprive the NRA of its First Amendment rights by making it more difficult for the organization to function in the state.
Cuomo described the NRA as a "group of extremists" and says he hopes that his actions against the group will expand to other states.
"I'm hoping to extend this all across the country," he said in an interview with All Things Considered. "And if they think New York hurt their pocketbook, let's see what happens when the other states also join in."
Part of the lawsuit focuses on an NRA-branded insurance program called Carry Guard, which the state's Department of Financial Services took action against earlier this year. For example, in May, the DFS imposed a $7 million fine on the program's underwriter Lockton Cos. because the insurance covered "certain acts of intentional wrongdoing" which the state found to be unlawful.
Critics of this kind of insurance policy have called it "murder insurance."
"I do plead guilty to stopping the NRA from conducting illegal activity in the state of New York. That I will plead guilty to, proudly," Cuomo said.
"They're complaining that they lost the commission from selling an illegal product," he added. "It's like a 21-year-old who is selling drugs complaining about the loss of revenue, when the drug sales are stopped."
Cuomo has previously tangled with the NRA, including enacting stricter gun laws in New York that he describes as "one of the proudest things that I did."
In court documents, the NRA characterized him as a "political opportunist who has consistently sought to gain political capital by attacking the NRA."
Cuomo dismissed the notion that his actions against the NRA are comparable to Republican governors taking action against groups such as Planned Parenthood.
"The law is the law, red or blue, Democrat or Republican. The law is the law, and this is a product that violated the law and the insurance company itself paid a fine to that effect and the NRA was a broker," he told NPR. "So I don't believe there's any political pressure."
Cuomo's actions, the subject of the NRA's lawsuit, are broader in scope than the controversy over the Carry Guard insurance policy.
In April, he issued a statement saying that he was directing "the Department of Financial Services to urge insurance companies, New York State-chartered banks, and other financial services companies licensed in New York to review any relationships they may have with the National Rifle Association and other similar organizations."
Then, he said at the time, "the companies are encouraged to consider whether such ties harm their corporate reputations and jeopardize public safety."
The NRA has said this is basically the equivalent of blacklisting the group. It's characterizing Cuomo's actions as an "attempt to chill the NRA's political speech." It added that making it more difficult to obtain insurance coverage could force the group to shut down NRATV and print publications and magazines.
"If the NRA is unable to collect donations from its members, safeguard the assets endowed to it, apply its funds to cover media buys and other expenses integral to its political speech, and obtain basic corporate insurance coverage, it will be unable to exist as a not-for-profit or pursue its advocacy mission," the NRA said in its lawsuit.
In the wake of the shooting in Parkland, Fla. in February that killed 17 students and staff, dozens of companies stopped doing business with the NRA.
At the same time, the NRA is generally viewed as flush with cash. As NPR has noted, the group "enjoyed record fundraising success after the Florida shooting."
The NRA's alleged financial concerns are drawing mockery on social media. For example, Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr tweeted, "Don't send money......thoughts and prayers should suffice."
Does Cuomo think his policies are threatening the existence of the NRA? "I would like to believe it's true," he said, laughing. He said funds, including those from the Carry Guard policy, are a vital tool the group uses to "bully" and "browbeat" politicians. "They need to raise money, otherwise they can't threaten."
DON GONYEA, HOST:
The National Rifle Association says it's facing financial trouble and that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is to blame. In a lawsuit, the NRA claims Governor Cuomo discouraged insurance companies and other financial institutions from doing business with the NRA, violating First Amendment rights. The NRA is asking for an immediate injunction that would prevent New York state officials from, quote, interfering with, terminating or diminishing any of the NRA's contracts and/or business relationships with any organizations. Governor Andrew Cuomo is on the line now from New York.
ANDREW CUOMO: Thank you for having me. My pleasure.
GONYEA: So, first, can I get your response to the lawsuit?
CUOMO: Well, the lawsuit is frivolous, but I do plead guilty to stopping the NRA from conducting illegal activity in the state of New York. That I will plead guilty to proudly. The situation is, states, as you know, license insurance companies. And there was an insurance product that was being sold through the NRA called Carry Guard. It was an insurance policy designed for people who carry guns. And the insurance policy would have actually covered the policyholder for intentional wrongdoing. In New York state, it is illegal to insure someone for intentional wrongdoing - in many other states, also. And the state brought an action against the insurance company. The insurance company was fined, agreed to stop selling the product.
And that was a major line of business for the NRA, was selling this insurance product. So they are now saying that they are incurring financial hardship. And I say, frankly, too bad. This was an illegal product. It was illegal to sell the product, and, to the extent the NRA was profiting from it, they were profiting from illegal activities.
GONYEA: The NRA is a very wealthy organization - millions - tens of millions spent on lobbying, even more spent on campaigns. But they argue that your actions are such that they threaten the NRA's very existence. Do you buy that?
CUOMO: I would like to believe it's true (laughter). To tell you the truth, we have stopped them from selling this illegal insurance policy. I'm sure they were making money from that. But they need the money to survive is what they're saying. Because the way they bully and browbeat is, they say to these politicians, if you don't support the NRA position, they will campaign against you. I know they do that because they've done it to me.
Tell you what, Don - I'm going to be speaking with the other governors and the attorneys general across the country. This insurance product is sold in other states. And I believe it violates the law of many other states, and I'm hoping to expand this all across the country. And if they think New York hurt their pocketbook, well, let's see what happens when the other states also join in. I think we could make a serious dent on their coffers, and that would be good for everyone.
GONYEA: Let me just turn this on its head for a moment. If a Republican governor of a red state did something using regulatory power to pressure insurance companies and banks to stop doing business with some group - what if it were planned parenthood or the ACLU, and they suddenly couldn't get insurance or banking services? Would that be a legitimate use of government power?
CUOMO: Well, the - it's not a hypothetical, Don, when you're posing it with Planned Parenthood, right? We know what the federal government has done to them. Take the NRA out of it for a moment. The actual insurer, the company that sold the product, paid a fine and agreed to stop selling it because it violated the law. So the NRA's (unintelligible) their revenue from selling an illegal product. And I don't think that's an especially sympathetic claim.
GONYEA: You have tangled with the NRA before. In 2013, you pushed through what was one of the toughest gun laws in the country. And, in some of the rural counties in upstate New York, your popularity dropped sharply at about that point. Any regrets about that? Not the way you angered the NRA, but the way you've angered some of your own constituents who own firearms?
CUOMO: Any regrets? No. As a matter of fact, Don, it's one of the proudest things that I did. You're right. My entanglement with the NRA goes back. I passed the toughest gun control law in the country. It did hurt me politically to this day. But I believe it's set a model for the nation. I believe the law is the right thing to do. I believe, as time goes on, it's even shown itself to be more and more correct.
But there is a political price here, Don, and that's what people have to understand. When you take action, there are going to be people who are annoyed and who believe the Second Amendment is sacrosanct and slippery slope, etc. And politicians don't want to pay that price. I understand that it hurts when you look at those polls, and you see (laughter) your numbers have gone down. But if you are in this business only to keep your polls high, then you are in the wrong business.
GONYEA: New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, thank you for being with us.
CUOMO: Thank you for having me, Don. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.