The state of Illinois’ gun advocacy networks

By Kallie Cox, Editor-in-Chief

National and state gun lobbying and advocacy have taken on a different dynamic in the age of social media and “fake news.” Now with the click of a button, advocacy groups are able to send out petitions and messages that outrage thousands a day.

Illinois State Rifle Association-ISRA

The Illinois State Rifle Association was founded in 1903 and was originally affiliated with the United States Army, according to Executive Director Richard A. Pearson. Since then, the group’s membership has grown and it now has approximately 29,000 members throughout the state.

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“Our mission was to train, and still is our mission, was to train civilians before they go into military service in marksmanship skills because it takes a long time to learn those and so the more training you get the better off you are,” Melnick said.“We offer classes in about everything, it would have to pertain to shooting, and also range safety.”

Now in addition to training and the 400 various events the ISRA holds each year, they also engage in political activism and have five lobbyists in Springfield. 

“Our job is to protect the second amendment rights of law abiding citizens and so a lot of the laws that are proposed claim to be directed at the criminals but it actually affects law abiding gun owners and criminals pretty much don’t care,” Pearson said. “I guess that’s what makes them criminals.”

In addition to the five lobbyists, the ISRA encourages its members to take an active role in advocating for the Second Amendment by contacting their legislators and filing witness slips.

“We advocate for legislation of course you have to talk to legislators individually about that. Sometimes in groups,” Pearson said. “You know we want to make sure that the law abiding person can practice their second amendment rights without a lot of interference and we also want to make sure that the criminal element isn’t able to do that so we know criminals affect all of us, affect our rights and when people pass legislation they, intentioned or not intentioned, they actually target the law abiding gun owners and not the criminals most of the time.”

To keep members up to date on what is happening with Second Amendment Legislation and with the organization, the ISRA publishes a quarterly journal known as the Illinois Shooter. 

It has over 30,000 current subscribers and its Winter edition’s front page ran three featured stories: It’s main was “Michigan Senate’s Election Fraud Hearing” Side bar: “Media Spikes Stories Helpful to Trump: Skews Election” and below the fold: “Justice Alito Warns of Threats to Our Rights.” 

(See more: The right ditches ‘Facist Book’ finds new ways to communicate after Jan. 6. Insurrection).

In between these editions it sends members a weekly newsletter to their emails with updates. Members can also view action alerts on the ISRA’s website letting them know when legislative action is being taken and prompting them to sign witness slips sending an opinion to their legislator, or take action.

ISRA also partners with the National Rifle Association, Illinois Department of National Resources, the Second Amendment Foundation and other Second Amendment organizations within the state.

Guns Save Life-GSL

GSL was founded roughly twenty years ago and has grown to be one of the largest gun advocacy groups in the state. 

The group’s mission statement is “We defend your right to defend yourself.” 

While it maintains a separate identity, the group often works with and sponsors the NRA, ISRA, the NRA’s institute for legislative action, friends of the NRA, Jews for the Preservation of Firearm Ownership, The Well Armed Woman, Project Appleseed and others throughout the state.

John Boch, the executive director of GSL, said the organization originally started as the Champaign County Rifle Association, but now it meets in six cities across the state and has members all over.

The organization hosts meetings, social gatherings and is politically active within the state.

“We don’t have specific programs, you know everyone is welcome at our meetings and we encourage women and minorities and so forth to come everybody from trans individuals to people of color to women to just about you name it you know, different religious persuasions and so forth you know we have a broad tent for everyone who supports the right to keep and bear arms and the right of self defense,” Boch said. “We don’t care who you sleep with or who you worship or what you do for a living. We welcome everybody that supports our right to defend ourselves, protect our families.”

One thing GSL has become known for in the state is its participation at local gun buyback events where members take broken down guns and sell them for cash to fund youth shooting events.

Boch is also the editor emeritus of Gun News, the organization’s monthly publication that keeps readers up to date on political issues that deal with the Second Amendment and the organization itself. Currently Boch said they distribute roughly 17,000 copies each month across the state.

Some of the stories in their recent editions included: “The good American” a column essentially  denying the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol was an insurrection, and comparing those who called it an insurrection to “Nazis” and fascists from 1933 Germany. Another story said antifa orchestrated the attack – which is not true. Another story was headlined, “Hope for the best, prepare for the worst. Got shovel? Strategies to avoid the loss of your guns.” It had  detailed instructions on how to bury guns in safe containers made of do it yourself materials or piping. At the bottom of the page there is a graphic with two rifles and the caption says “when democracy turns to tyranny… the armed citizen still gets to vote.” 

 (See more: The right ditches ‘Facist Book’ finds new ways to communicate after Jan. 6. Insurrection).

Illinois Gun Owners Together-IGOT

IGOT is a group of gun enthusiasts who participate in social activities, training, outreach and political advocacy. According to the groups website, it’s membership exceeded 8,500 in 2020. 

Marcus Melnick, an administrator for the group, said membership exploded around three years ago and in the past, before being shut down by Facebook, the group had over 10,000 members. 

Melnick said the group focuses on social gatherings where they host shooting events and advocacy and outreach work.

“Originally we were just a bunch of people who were interested in firearms who would just, it was kind of a social network. And it grew from that,” Melnick said.

While the group isn’t an official and registered lobbying organization, they do advocate for pro-second amendment legislation and participate in rallies and town halls including the annual IGOLD, or Illinois Gun Owner Lobby Day.

The group was originally founded by Carl Arriaza who was recently doxxed and called an extremist by Anne Frank’s Army, a leftist group.

Anne Frank’s Army took an in-depth look at the social media postings of IGOT and said:

“Illinois Gun Owners Together (IGOT) is a gun owners rights club with a presence on Facebook, whose members-only group is a hotbed of far-right and fascist militia thought and activity. The group is founded and led by Carl Arriaza, who is a temperamental and reactionary gun nut who uses his platform to recruit people for antagonistic operations against protest movements in the Chicago area. Other members have been using IGOT as a recruiting ground for local militias, including Patriot Front Illinois, the We The People (WTP) III% Militia, and also the Proud Boys.”

Melnick said this isn’t true and the group has rules against posting offensive content. 

 “We monitor what’s posted, if something is inappropriate whether it’s anti-African American, anti-semetic, anti-LGBTQ we get rid of the post. We delete it, there are consequences for the member,” Melnick said.

However the group doesn’t seem to follow these standards of conduct on their MeWe group page, where members and administrators post transphobic, COVID-19 denying and anti-Black Lives Matter posts on the regular.

Some of these posts include: A photo of Kyle Rittenhouse, a teen from Illinois who is charged with killing two protesters in Wisconsin last summer, with his gun with a depiction of Jesus over his shoulder whispering in his ear “You see that man over there? He’s a pedo. That guy over there, he beats his girl. This other kid is not a medic he’s a burglar.” Captioned by an administrator named “Panda Man” to say “Kyle is a god Damm hero.”

Another post by someone with the username Mary Jene Howe with a photo of a statue with a woman on her knees who appears to be giving a man a blowjob with the caption “They made a statue to honor Kamala Harris.”

And another Captioned “Why does anybody need 30 rounds?” With a photo of 30 masked individuals who seem to be peaceful protesters. 

IGOT, ISRA and GSL all participate in IGOLD, the Illinois Gun Owners Lobby Day. This event is held every year in Springfield and thousands of gun owners who are members of various organizations come together to rally in favor of the Second Amendment.

Lobby groups and 501c4 organizations like the NRA are able to funnel dark money into campaigns and super PACs.

According to Brendan Quinn, who works with the Center for Responsive Politics, these groups are able to spend mass amounts of money either on political expenditures themselves, advocating for a candidate, or giving money to super PACs and they don’t have to disclose their donors so long as they don’t spend more than half of their funding on political advocacy. 

Dark money plays a large role in election cycles in the U.S. and Quinn described it as a mysterious process.

“Dark money is money that is spent with the intent of influencing a voter where the source of that money is unknown,” Quinn said. “Dark meaning mysterious, we don’t know where the original source of that money comes from. So 501c4 groups like the NRA, they don’t have to disclose who their donors are.”

In the 2020 election cycle gun rights groups spent $10,205,036 on lobbying efforts compared to $12,166,438 in 2019, according to Open Secrets.

Editor-in-Chief Kallie Cox can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @KallieECox.

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