Washington, D.C. – November 4, 2023
The U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to review a case that revolves around the National Rifle Association (NRA) and Maria Vullo, a former New York state official. Vullo is alleged to have obstructed the NRA’s utilization of its First Amendment right to free speech by exerting pressure on financial institutions to cut connections with the influential gun rights organization.
This case represents the latest legal battle involving the NRA, a group closely aligned with Republicans that has opposed gun control measures and championed lawsuits that have expanded gun rights in the U.S.
Founded in New York in 1871, the NRA is a nonprofit organization that filed a lawsuit in 2018, seeking unspecified monetary damages. The suit alleged that Vullo unlawfully retaliated against the NRA for its constitutionally protected gun rights advocacy by implementing an “implicit censorship regime.”
The central issue in the case is whether Vullo used her regulatory authority to force New York financial institutions to terminate their relationships with the NRA, thereby violating its First Amendment rights.
In 2018, following a mass shooting incident in Parkland, Florida, which resulted in the deaths of 17 individuals, Vullo urged banks and insurers to consider the “reputational risks” of conducting business with gun rights groups.
She later imposed fines exceeding $13 million on Lloyd’s of London and two other insurers for offering an NRA-endorsed product known as “Carry Guard,” which New York authorities deemed in violation of state insurance law.
The product provided liability coverage for policyholders involved in injuries caused by firearms, even in cases of wrongful firearm use. The insurers agreed to cease selling NRA-endorsed products considered illegal by New York.
The NRA’s lawsuit contended that the state’s “blacklisting” campaign would deprive it of essential financial services and jeopardize its advocacy work. The organization’s attorney, Eugene Volokh, expressed satisfaction with the Supreme Court’s decision to hear the case, emphasizing the importance of addressing the question of whether the government can pressure companies to terminate financial services to a controversial First Amendment-protected advocacy group.
The NRA, as the largest and most influential gun rights organization in the United States, has played a pivotal role in preventing gun control measures supported by Democrats in Congress. Gun rights continue to be a highly polarizing subject in the United States, even though the Supreme Court, currently led by a conservative majority with a 6-3 balance, has embraced an expansive interpretation of gun rights.
Vullo argued in court documents that her statements encouraging financial institutions to evaluate their associations with pro-gun organizations after the Parkland shooting did not cross the line between permissible persuasion and unconstitutional coercion.
In 2021, a federal judge dismissed all claims against Vullo, except for two free speech claims. However, the “2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals” in 2022 ruled that those two claims should also be dismissed, prompting the NRA’s appeal to the Supreme Court. The lawsuit originally named Vullo’s department and former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo as defendants but was subsequently narrowed down.
The NRA has been involved in an extensive legal battle with New York State separately from the case involving Vullo. The state’s attorney general, Letitia James, a Democrat, filed a lawsuit in 2020 seeking to dissolve the NRA, alleging that it misappropriated millions of dollars for the benefit of senior officials, including lavish expenditures and questionable contracts. Despite a judge’s acknowledgment of financial irregularities, James’s attempt to dissolve the NRA was rejected in 2022. Additionally, the NRA’s effort to reincorporate in Texas through bankruptcy proceedings was unsuccessful after James initiated her lawsuit.