When the weather’s good, Jim Middleton heads to Fulton’s Pathfinder Fish and Game Club about once a week. “I shoot at the target,” he said. “I just try to see how close I can get to the bull’s eye. I enjoy going to the range and shooting pistols and rifles.”
Middleton, a retired welder who lives in Phoenix, also hunts deer, although he does that less since a problem with his right eye required he shift to left-handed shooting. “I don’t get into shotgun shooting,” he said. “I could never hit the broad side of a barn with a shotgun.”
Middleton, a lifetime member of the National Rifle Association (NRA), is serving his ninth year on the Central New York Friends of NRA committee. The group’s 26th annual banquet is Friday, May 4, 5:30 p.m., at Barbagallo’s Restaurant, 6344 E. Molloy Road, East Syracuse. (Visit friendsofnra.org for information.) The banquet funds gun safety and education, and programs that support shooting sports, not the politics of the NRA, Middleton said.
The CNY Friends group staffed a table at the April 18 and 19 Syracuse Gun Show at the New York State Fairgrounds. “If anyone starts talking politics, we’re supposed to say, ‘Go to another NRA person,’” Middleton said. “It’s just their policy.”
The East Syracuse event is one of dozens across the country organized by Friends of NRA, volunteer groups “fundraising for the future of the shooting sports,” according to the NRA website. Eleven New York Friends’ events, from May through September, are listed on the website. Since 1992, the NRA Foundation has awarded nearly $335 million through more than 42,000 grants, according to the NRA website.
The NRA’s language suggests that Friends’ events do stress safety and education, but their underlying purpose is political: to defend the Second Amendment, which the NRA increasingly sees under attack. “We face a well-orchestrated, coordinated, deliberate effort to demean and diminish the NRA out of existence,” Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president and NRA spokesperson, says in the May American Rifleman, the monthly magazine of the NRA.
“The core focus of Foundation grants remains strong: Teach Freedom,” says the foundation’s 2016 annual report. “Your leadership and extraordinary support of Freedom’s cause are making a huge difference in our commitment to promote this country’s treasured traditions and the Second Amendment,” LaPierre said in that report.
Money raised at Friends’ dinners goes to the NRA Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that raises and donates money to outdoors groups and organizations like 4-H, Cooperative Extension and Boy Scouts. “A 501(c)(3) organization may engage in some lobbying, but too much lobbying activity risks loss of tax-exempt status,” according to the website of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).
The NRA, however, is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit and enjoys tax-exempt status as a “social welfare” organization. “Seeking legislation germane to the organization’s programs is a permissible means of attaining social welfare purposes,” according to the IRS.
The NRA Foundation awarded $303,335 to New York state programs in 2016, the most recent year for which public information was available. Central New York organizations receiving funding that year include the Baldwinsville Rod & Gun Club, the Longhouse Council of the Boy Scouts of America, Camillus Sportsmen’s Club, DeWitt Fish & Game Club and Fowler High School.
New York State Rifle & Pistol Association, New York’s official NRA-affiliated group, also received a 2016 NRA Foundation grant, according to the annual report. The state organization sued Gov. Andrew Cuomo and other state leaders in March 2013, two months after Cuomo signed into law the New York Secure Ammunition and Firearms Act. That state legislation followed the December 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, which left 20 children, six adults and the shooter dead.
Neither Jason Brown, a national spokesman for the NRA, nor Bruce McGowan, NRA field representative for the region that includes Central New York, agreed to be interviewed for this story. Neither responded to emailed questions about the foundation’s structure, finances and relationship to the NRA.
“It’s not something we want to talk about at this time,” Brown said in a brief telephone conversation. “I’m taking a more skeptical approach to local stories. They’ve been spun.”
The Central New York Friends of NRA event typically draws about 200 people, most of whom are NRA members, Middleton said. Tickets are $45; the event includes games of chance, auctions and raffles. The local group purchases many raffle and auction items from the NRA. They are “unique, custom, or limited-in-production, and in some cases, available only at Friends of NRA events.” Items include the Gun of the Year Set: Kimber Custom II .45 ACP and Silver Stag Knife with Display Case and other firearms.
In Central New York, it’s a casual affair. “We wear gray short-sleeved pullover shirts,” Middleton said. “If you want to see fancy clothes, you have to go up to the Orange County Friends of the NRA. The guys wear tuxes and girls wear evening gowns.”
For at least 12 years, the CNY Friends volunteers earned “high-caliber committee” status for raising more than $25,000 for the NRA foundation, according to Middleton. His wife, Gail Middleton, is the group’s treasurer; their 35-year-old son handles tickets for the event.
As of last Friday, reservations were low, Middleton said. “I’m not sure why,” he said. “Maybe people are afraid of what might happen if protesters do show up. Maybe some people are afraid they are going to lose their guns. It could be the economy.”
He’s unaware of any state or federal officials attending this year. But he said state Sen. John DeFrancisco, who opposes the SAFE Act, would be welcome, as would Republican Rep. John Katko. The NRA has given Katko a total of $12,900 in the last three congressional election cycles, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Asked about his views on gun laws, Middleton said, “I don’t pay much attention to politics.” After a pause, he added, “It’s not the guns that are bad. It’s the people that are bad. In my way of thinking, it doesn’t matter how many gun laws they enact, I don’t think they’ll do any good.”
Tony Dennison hasn’t missed many CNY Friends of the NRA dinners. “A bunch of us from the (Pompey) Rod and Gun Club go,” he said. “We have a hell of a good time and it’s standing up for the NRA, which is very important.”
He’s irritated at the backlash gun owners are facing after the October 2017 Las Vegas massacre (58 people dead and 851 injured) and the Feb. 14, 2018, shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. (17 dead and 17 injured).
“The gun has absolutely nothing to do with the crime,” Dennison said. “If they don’t have a gun, they’d use a hammer. If they don’t have a hammer, they’ll use a car.”
The solution, he said, is not restricting gun access, but better communication among agencies. “If the government and the law enforcement talked to each other, those people would not have had guns,” he said.
Dennison is not shy about sharing his opinion. But not everyone wants to hear it, he said. Last week he and some friends were in a local restaurant talking about hunting, fishing and President Trump.
“A man and his wife overheard our conversation and came over and told us what they thought about it,” he said. “The lady said something and gave us the finger and her husband made some snide remark. She walked out giving us the finger all the way out. We’re still laughing about it.”
Dennison, 82, retired as foreman at Allied Chemical. He grew up in Syracuse; at about age 8 he started hunting at his grandmother’s farm in New Woodstock. He hunts deer, bear, pheasants, grouse and wild turkeys. He also enjoys trap and target shooting.
In a few months, he’s heading to Africa for his eighth hunting trip — this time to dart a rhino. “You dart them and put them to sleep,” he explained. “They make a replica.”
If he’s successful, he will have shot Africa’s Big 5 Game: lion, elephant, leopard, Cape buffalo and rhinoceros. “The only one I didn’t kill would be the rhino,” he said. “The elephant goes to the people for the food. A five-ton elephant feeds a lot of people.”
Hunting “gets you out in the country and you see a lot of stuff,” Dennison said. “I take a lot of wildlife photos, too. I meet a lot of interesting people.”
His collection includes 60 rifles and shotguns. “That doesn’t count my pistols,” he added. “Some people think I have too many. I like to look at them. I shoot them all. For different animals you need different calibers.”
Dennison supports the NRA because “they do a lot to teach shooting and they kind of protect our rights,” he said. “The NRA teaches safety. They protect the fact that liberals and Democrats would love to take your guns away. That’s exactly what they want.”
NRA Foundation grants “teach the kids coming up about safety and the Second Amendment,” he said. As for the dinner, he goes “for the camaraderie of the guys. We laugh at each other when we don’t win anything. The food’s good. The people you meet there are great.”
He expects to spend $200 to $300 at the event. “Sometimes I do win, but you don’t do that stuff to win,” he said. “I usually participate in any raffle there is to help the cause.”
Renée K. Gadoua is a freelance writer and editor. Follow her on Twitter @ReneeKGadoua.