Why has the NRA been cozying up to Russia?

The Right to Bear Arms in Moscow enjoys a close relationship with America’s leading gun-rights group.

Photo Illustration by Adam Peck. CREDIT: AP Images/Maria Butina
Photo Illustration by Adam Peck. CREDIT: AP Images/Maria Butina

Throughout the 2016 presidential campaign, there was a steady stream of stories published about Donald Trump, his second campaign manager, his supporters at Wikileaks, and the ties they appeared to have to Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Russian Federation. Reporting also highlighted that, more than any other national organization, the National Rifle Association (NRA) went all-in to elect Trump.

But no attention was given to the ties between the NRA, a Russian gun-rights group run by a twenty-something gun activist named Maria Butina, and her close friend and boss, the deputy governor of the Russian central bank, Alexander Torshin.

Why does an American gun group that promotes gun rights as a defense against tyranny align itself with a group with close ties to an authoritarian regime? Why would Putin allies build a grassroots non-profit to loosen Russia’s gun laws, rather than just enact them? Experts who spoke to ThinkProgress say they are not sure, but they discussed whether the whole arrangement is a cover for a larger effort to undermine American sanctions against Russia.

A meeting in Moscow

On December 11, 2015, in the depths of a biting Moscow winter, The Right to Bear Arms hosted a delegation from its American counterpart, the NRA. David Keene, an NRA board member and former national president of the organization, flew to Russia to attend the event. Also at that meeting were NRA First Vice President Pete Brownell, CEO of the world’s largest firearm accessories supplier; NRA funder Dr. Arnold Goldschlager and his daughter, NRA Women’s Leadership Forum executive committee member Hilary Goldschalger; and Outdoor Life channel head Jim Liberatore. Perhaps the most famous guest at the gathering, trading his customary uniform for a black leather vest over a button-down shirt, was Milwaukee County Sheriff and Fox News regular David A. Clarke.

Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke at the National Rifle Association’s 2014 convention CREDIT: AP Photo/AJ Mast
Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke at the National Rifle Association’s 2014 convention CREDIT: AP Photo/AJ Mast

Clarke said little publicly about the event. Two weeks earlier, his office put out a vague press release noting that he would “travel to the Middle East and Asia beginning November 28, 2015 and returning December 13, 2015,” including that he’d “receive briefings on issues facing those regions and visit historic sites.”

But the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Daniel Bice noticed that Clarke’s January 2016 ethics disclosure filing shed some light on the trip. Part one was $20,155 trip to Israel, paid for by the NRA Ring of Freedom. During his week-plus of travel there, he did a remote interview from Jerusalem for Fox Business Network. The remaining days were spent in Russia. His airfare to Moscow and visas, totaling $13,785.10, were paid for by Brownell; his $6000 worth of meals, hotel, transportation, and excursions were provided by the “All-Russia Public Organization ‘The Right to Bear Arms.’”

Clarke’s office declined to release any records to Bice about the trip, the reporter wrote, “saying it was personal — not official — travel, even though personal trips (a.k.a. vacations) are not supposed to be listed on the ethics form.”

At that conference, according to a post on the Right to Bear Arms’ Facebook page, in addition to group’s chairman and founder Maria Butina, a welcoming speech was delivered by honorary member of The Right to Bear Arms Alexander Torshin.

CREDIT: The Right to Bear Arms Facebook page
CREDIT: The Right to Bear Arms Facebook page

The Godfather and the Godmother?

Maria Butina grew up in Altai, a mountainous area in southern Siberia, but moved to Moscow when she was 22. Almost overnight, she gaining notice as the founder and chair of Russia’s gun-rights movement. Reportedly a strong supporter of Putin and his United Russia Party, she helped start The Right to Bear Arms about five years ago as a non-profit organization. The group, she vowed, would not be a front for “any bloody lobby” and would be funded through dues from members. “I personally have a furniture and household appliances business,” she told Russian newspaper Izvestia.

“People who give us money for work, they are usual gun owners because to have a gun in Russia is very expensive. So these people, they have money and they give us money,” Butina explained in a 2014 interview with Townhall’s Katie Pavlich. “We have no money from government, not one coin from government.” The group now claims 10,000 members.

Though Russia’s constitution does not contain Second Amendment-like gun rights, her rhetoric is remarkably similar to the NRA’s. “More legal guns equal less crime,” she told the Moscow Times this year, “If a country bans guns, only criminals have access to them.”

After the Sandy Hook mass shooting in 2012, her group criticized gun-free school zones as ineffective prohibitionist policies. “In this shooting six teachers died, six people who could literally use only their hands to defend children… The murderer planned this knowing that no one would be armed,” she told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. “What is the right to life, ingrained in our constitution, if you don’t have the right to bear arms? If a person wishes to defend himself, he has no means for protection.”

Like the NRA, Butina tends to dismiss the connection between guns and death, including suicides. “People online take facts from my blog, turn them upside and scream ‘Just look at this! In the States, 30,000 people die from firearms every year! How awful!’ But so what?” she told the New Republic in 2012. “Switzerland has the most suicides using a gun, and yet, Switzerland has the least number of total suicides. Moreover, a gun is the most humane weapon for suicide compared to all the other methods that exist.”

The same article noted that, early on, Butina “gained a powerful ally”— Alexander Torshin, who is an NRA Life Member, a “high-ranking member” of Putin’s United Russia and, at the time, the first deputy speaker of the Russian senate.

The NRA took note when Torshin authored an unsuccessful bill that year that would have allowed public use of firearms. When he presented the bill to his colleagues, days after the Aurora, Colorado, movie theater shooting that left a dozen dead, his colleagues were not sold. They feared Russians, too, would all shoot each other. “How can you have so little trust for yourself, for your people,” he asked them. In 2014, however, Putin’s government did change the law to allow licensed gun owners to carry weapons in public for self-defense.

After years serving in the upper house of parliament, in 2015 he was appointed deputy governor for Russia’s central bank. Butina was appointed “special assistant” to Torshin at the bank.

Their close relationship is evident in their work and social media presence. In 2014, she praised him as a “great gun lover” who supports both The Right to Bear Arms group and the NRA. Last month, Torshin tweeted a photo of her holding a baby, calling her “the godmother” of the child.

Torshin also has been called “the godfather.” While he’s only admitted to having been a godfather in the religious sense, Spanish investigators claimed in an August report that the “Russian politician Alexander Porfirievich Torshin stands above [an alleged figure in the Moscow-based Taganskaya crime syndicate], who calls him ‘godfather’ or ‘boss’” and conducted on his behalf “activities and investments.” Torshin denied the allegation, telling Bloomberg “I’m a public individual and I’m not hiding anywhere.”

Torshin told the New Republic’s Julia Ioffe in 2012 that he admires the NRA because it represents “‘stability’ — the credo of Putin’s reign.”

The Keene connection

In May of 2013, Torshin traveled to the NRA convention in Houston. Months later, he wrote about it in an Washington Times OP/ED about the passing of Mikhail Kalashnikov (the inventor of the AK-47). “Last year, I had the pleasure of attending the National Rifle Association’s annual meeting in Houston,” he recounted. “Kalashnikov couldn’t join me, though we have both been ‘life members’ of the NRA for years. At 93, his health was even then beginning to fail, but I thought of him as I toured the exhibit area where I saw dozens of AK-47 clones.” The opinion editor for the paper is the NRA’s David Keene.

In between, Keene traveled to Russia for a fall 2013 gun conference, hosted by The Right to Bear Arms. Butina’s online advertisements for the event specifically highlighted his participation, calling him “the former president of the legendary NRA.” She chaired the event, Torshin attended, and Keene spoke. Keene posted a picture of his visit with Torshin on his personal website and shared it on Facebook. Weeks after the conference, Butina explained in a LiveJournal post that just because a foreign citizen is an NRA member, that does not necessarily mean they are a spy.

In April of 2014, Butina traveled to the NRA’s annual meeting in Indianapolis. She was given the “rare privilege” of ringing the organization’s replica of the Liberty Bell and presented a plaque to NRA President Jim Porter. She attended a women’s luncheon as the guest of former NRA President Sandy Froman and participated in the general meeting as Keene’s special guest.

Butina blogged about her trip, noting that she was invited to speak at the exclusive Ring of Freedom dinner with “the patrons who donated” more than $1 million to the NRA. Before leaving the country, she stopped by the organization’s national headquarters in Fairfax, Virginia, and posed for a picture with Keene.

Butina returned the following April for the annual convention in Nashville. She marveled about winning a necklace and earrings at the silent auction, attending the women-only NRA women’s forum, and about the lack of democracy in decision-making. “In spite of all democracy, foreigners, even if the members of the NRA, can not vote for the adoption of decisions,” she observed, noting that at The Right to Bear Arms, “we maintain direct democratic elections. In my opinion, as the founder of the organization, it is more fair to the citizens.”

Torshin attended the May 2016 convention in Louisville, Kentucky, meeting with Trump and even sharing a table with Donald Trump Jr. at one of the dinners.

The Right to Bear Arms has a ways to go before they can develop the outsized level of influence its American counterpart enjoys. But in 2014, it successfully convinced the Russian parliament to pass a castle doctrine bill. Butina has talked a great deal about bringing the NRA’s successful programs, like the group’s Eddie Eagle curriculum for kids, to Russia.

A hidden purpose?

Butina’s interests appear to go beyond just guns. She frequently writes about her opposition to economic sanctions by the west, including those on Russian arms. In a 2015 article for The National Interest, she wrote, “It may take the election of a Republican to the White House in 2016 to improve relations between the Russian Federation and the United States.”

Not long after Butina’s 2014 visit, the NRA put out a little-noticed statement criticizing the Obama administration’s sanctions against Russia. Noting that the crackdown included Russia’s arms manufacturer, they wrote: “While the United States government blames the Ukrainian conflict for this latest move, gun control advocates will no doubt applaud the ban on importation of some of the very types of firearms at the center of recent domestic attempts to ban so-called ‘assault weapons.’” Weeks later, The Right to Bear Arms announced it would soon host another NRA representative in Moscow, “life member” Paul Erickson, for an “open meeting.”

In 2015, Butina traveled around country following Republican presidential candidates. She attended Gov. Scott Walker’s (R-WI) announcement speech in Waukesha, Wisconsin. As an audience member a Trump campaign event in Las Vegas, she asked the candidate about sanctions and his commitment to lift them if elected.

Josh Horwitz, executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, told ThinkProgress that U.S.-Russian economic ties, rather than gun rights, could be the real aim of The Right to Bear Arms. “I think the important thing is all those involved with this are close with Putin. If Putin wanted more guns in Russia, he doesn’t need to develop an NRA in Russia to push him,” he observed.

“What are the NRA officials doing cavorting around with people close to Putin? The NRA says they’re the nation’s oldest civil rights group. I could see them being in line with dissidents in Russia, who are out of power, discriminated against, and subjugated by the Russian government,” he continued. “But the idea that the NRA is running around with someone who is basically a dictator — the question is why. The people he’s running around with are all about removing sanctions on drilling and other things. I think this is more about getting out to the American Right the views about lifting the sanctions than anything about gun rights.”

Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the Violence Policy Center, added that the sanctions could be of key interest to the NRA’s financial backers as well. “The NRA is a gun industry trade association masquerading as a shooting sports foundation,” he observed. “The organization has received tens of millions of dollars in gun industry financial support from around the globe and has partnered with gunmakers on a wide range of marketing efforts. The NRA’s reasoning in working to establish a Russian beachhead could range from working to end Obama Administration sanctions that ban the import of Russian-made AK-47s and assault shotguns to hoping for new financial donors as the result of a loosening of the country’s gun laws.”

Butina told ThinkProgress in an email that there are no financial connections between the American and Russian groups. “The Right to Bear Arms and your American NRA are completely separate organizations. We have no political or financial ties of any kind,” she wrote, adding that they are “literally ‘comrades in arms’ in a shared belief that a right to own a firearm makes people safer.”

“I’m sorry to disappoint you,” she wrote, “but there is no international conspiracy at work surrounding the organization I founded, ‘The Right to Bear Arms.’” She added that her group’s payments for Sheriff Clarke’s visit and others in the NRA delegation were “something any decent host would do when friends visit,” but did not respond to questions about whether other American politicians had also been brought to Moscow at the group’s expense.

The National Rifle Association and Torshin did not respond to ThinkProgress inquiries about their relationship.

Now with Trump and Putin agreeing to normalize relations in the coming year, expect the already close relations between Trump’s friends at the NRA and Putin’s friends at The Right to Bear Arms to be closer still. Perhaps it will become evident just what these two groups are really up to.