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NRA fight on homefront: Keene

Mar 22, 2011

JEFFERSON - The fight to preserve Second Amendment rights must take place on the homefront, David A. Keene told Fort Atkinson Wisconservation Club members Monday evening.
Keene, a Fort Atkinson native and president-elect of the National Rifle Association, emphasized the importance of ongoing efforts by local groups such as the Wisconservation Club to preserve Americans' right to bear arms.
He was the keynote speaker during the Wisconservation Club's 61st annual banquet at the Jefferson County Fair Park Activity Center in Jefferson.
A 1963 graduate of Fort Atkinson High School, Keen is the son of the late Mr. and Mrs. Arthur W. Keene Jr. and brother of the late Fort Atkinson police officer Roger Keene. He earned a political science degree at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he made a reputation for himself as national president of the conservative Young Americans for Freedom.
Following an unsuccessful bid for state Senate in 1969, Keene returned to UW-Madison to earn his law degree and then headed to Washington D.C. to join Vice President Spiro Agnew's staff as a political aid. He went on to serve in various capacities for New York Sen. Jim Buckley, Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and U.S. Sen. Bob Dole.
Keene currently serves as first vice president of the National Rifle Association and chairman of its Legislative Policy Committee. He is expected to assume the office of president at the NRA's convention in Pennsylvania next month.
As an attorney, political activist and columnist, Keene has written, spoken and lobbied on behalf of hunters, shooters, and firearms owners for decades. He was appointed by Charlton Heston to serve on NRA's Membership, Legislative Policy, and Publications Policies Committees. Involved in nearly every congressional battle over gun rights since the early 1970s, Keene has helped save hunter-friendly conservation programs in Africa and assisted the international hunting community when major airlines threatened to stop carrying hunting arms to Africa. Last Christmas, he was a featured hunter on the television show "Dangerous Games," fulfilling a longtime goal of hunting a cape buffalo.
Addressing the Fort Atkinson Wisconservation Club members Monday, Keene recognized that many attendees were his former schoolmates. He even shared allegiance with the FFA members serving the dinner, as he was once a Fort Atkinson FFA member.
"My ties to Fort Atkinson are about as strong as one can get," Keene said, praising the Wisconservation Club for its work in his hometown.
"The rights that we enjoy are dependent not on groups like the National Rifle Association, but upon the efforts of people like you, the men and women at the local level who work to protect our rights on the one hand and provide opportunity to exercise them on the other, are so importantly engaged in," he said.
Longtime Fort Atkinson Wisconservation Club President Leo Roethe, who died in 2008, was a close friend and supporter of Keene's for many years.
"While most folks around here have forgotten, I actually was foolhardy enough to run for office here in Wisconsin back in the 1960s and Leo was my biggest contributor," Keene quipped, referring to his failed state Senate bid against Dale McKenna in 1969.
Upon moving to Washington D.C., Keene said, he lost touch with Roethe, only seeing him occasionally. Around 2003, Roethe asked Keene to visit Dousman, where he and his wife were residing.
"I jumped at the chance to see an old friend and hear more of his stories about Wisconsin, about politics and, most of all, about Africa and the good old days," Keene recalled.
Roethe was perhaps best recognized as being a dedicated big-game hunter until he was mauled and almost killed by a lion in 1973. That incident effectively ended his African hunting experiences. However, Keene said, Roethe returned to Kenya and the site of the attack in 2003, honored by tribesmen as the man who had survived an attack and who by then had become legendary.
At the time, Keene had not yet been to Africa, but has visited since.
"If he were here today, I would tell him that now I both understand and appreciate his obsession with what must of been an even more glorious place in the 1960s," Keene said of Africa.
However, Keene noted that it was not a necessity to travel to Africa to develop an obsession for the outdoors and shooting sports.
"Those of us who grew up right here in Wisconsin, who fished our lakes and our rivers, hunted squirrels, pheasants, waterfowl and deer and tromped the woods of this state with our fathers and grandfathers, developed our own obsession and work today so future generations will have the opportunities that have helped shape ours," he said, crediting groups such as the Wisconservation Club as being a vitally important part of such efforts.
"Without your efforts at conservation and your dedication to providing hunting, fishing and shooting opportunities for young people, the tradition that is so important to so many of us would come to an end," he said.
Quoting the late President Reagan, for whom he once worked, Keene stated, "Freedom is always but one generation away from extinction." He said that is particularly true for those who enjoy shooting sports.
"We know at the NRA that a right can be protected only to the extent that it is enjoyed and exercised," Keene said. "We spend as much of our time trying to bring new people into the shooting sports, teaching gun safety, providing range opportunities, access for hunting opportunities and various training exercises directed at young people as it is possible."
He said it is because of those efforts that the NRA has the political power and influence to protect Second Amendment rights.
Keene acknowledged that generally, when most Americans think of the NRA, they think of an advocacy group. However, prior to 1968, the NRA did not have a lobbyist in Washington D.C. and did not engage in political or legislative advocacy.
He described the group as being a service organization that provided training through thousands of volunteer instructors in a variety of disciplines related to shooting sports.
"One of the reasons the NRA was not involved in advocacy work was, there was nothing really to argue about," Keene said, noting that Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, agreed that the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution meant exactly what it said.
Lifetime NRA members included past Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy and past Vice President Hubert Humphrey.
The political winds shifted in the late 1960s, however. Keene said suddenly the right to bear arms became a political and ideological test case in American politics.
"The parties divided and the advocacy became important," he said.
When Congress passed the 1968 gun control act, the NRA president was called before Congress for the first time ever. The NRA, to that point, never had spent a nickel lobbying in Washington D.C.
Keene said after that legislation passed, the NRA formed the Institute for Legislative Action, the political and advocacy arm of the NRA.
"It is what most people identify with the NRA today," he said. "In the years since, we have won many battles on behalf of hunters, gun collectors, shooters, those who want to keep firearms to defend themselves and every American who believes in the meaning of the Second Amendment as it was written and ought to be applied."
Keene pointed out that if 1968 was a low point, 2000 was a high point as it was when then-President Bill Clinton acknowledged that his successor would not be Al Gore because the NRA had cost him five states and their electoral votes.
"Guns began to come off the table as politicians decided that this wasn't something they wanted to fight about in such an ideological manner as they had in the past," he said.
Anti-gun legislation was defeated at the state, city and county levels, as well as in court. Keene said that in recent years, the NRA has participated in "battles" with the United Nations.
"For those who would have ended our Second Amendment rights legislatively or by judicial action, they turned to the United Nations and to international treaties in attempt to accomplish there what they could not accomplish through the political process here," he said.
The Fort Atkinson native was appointed by President George W. Bush as a public delegate at the last small arms conference at the United Nations.
"I can assure you that the folks there are as intent upon denying sportsmen their firearms as they ever have been or ever could be," Keene said. "These battles go on every day at every level and they are won, not just in the courts."
He noted that the high point in terms of the court battles were the twin decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Heller and McDonald cases.
In 2008 in District of Columbia v. Heller, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects an individual's right to possess a firearm for private use within the home in federal enclaves. The decision did not address whether the Second Amendment extends beyond federal enclaves to the states, which was addressed later by McDonald v. Chicago.
In the latter 2010 case, the high court held the right of an individual to "keep and bear arms" protected by the Second Amendment is incorporated by the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and applies to the states.
"When the Heller case was before the court, there had been an attempt by our opponents to get a case to the court in which the court would find that the right to keep and bear arms was not an individual right, but a collective right," Keene said. "Handgun control went to one of the most renowned liberal legal experts in the country and asked if he would carry their case."
Studying the issue for a year, Keene said, the attorney came back and said, "I hate guns as much as you do. I would like to ban them. Unfortunately, my study shows that the formers of the Constitution didn't really share our antipathy to firearms and I have to conclude that we can't argue it's a collective right because the Constitution and its history demonstrate it's an individual right."
Keene noted that despite the court rulings, there are ongoing efforts to restrict Second Amendment rights in America.
"I can assure you that role of the NRA will be pursued as aggressively as it ever has been," he said. "A right is important only to the extent that it can be exercised. What groups like this do across the country in providing opportunities for people to shoot at ranges, get access to land at which they can hunt, improving the ability of people to go out and harvest game ... is vital not just to our enjoyment of those rights, but to the very survival of those rights.
"The Second Amendment is meaningful and will continue to exist so long as there are millions of Americans who care what the Constitution says, who care about the meaning of the founders and, most importantly, care about the rights they exercise on a day-to-day basis," Keene added.
He said that is why it is so important that the NRA remains organized and groups such as the Fort Atkinson Wisconservation Club continue to do what it does.
"It is so important that all of you make certain that young people are brought into the shooting sports and gain an appreciation for the outdoors and begin to be pulled away from those electronic games that occupy much of their time and learn to enjoy the world that we enjoyed when we were young," Keene said. "If we can replenish our numbers, the rights we enjoy today, the rights that were passed on to us by those who came before us, will be enjoyed by future generations."
Success in such an endeavor would be, in large part, due to organizations such as the Wisconservation Club at the local level.
"It is my honor to be here simply to thank you for all that each and everyone of you do," Keene concluded.
Fort Atkinson Wisconservation Club President Dave Puerner presented a $1,000 contribution for the NRA to Keene, who pledged that the funds would remain in Wisconsin and utilized for the purposes that had discussed.
Also speaking at the dinner was Don Bush, state Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist for Jefferson County and the Lower Rock River Basin. He announced the reopening of the Bark River Fish Hatchery on Fort Atkinson's east side, an open house for which is set Saturday, April 2 (watch for a story in an upcoming issue of the Daily Union).
The evening also included several award presentations and many prize drawings.
Fort Atkinson High School senior Taylor Nachtigal was awarded a $2,500 Len Brosig scholarship. A graduate of the hunter education program, she is pursuing a career in pharmacy and has been accepted at both the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and the University of Minnesota.
The Wisconservation Club also presented a $1,000 to the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office K-9 unit. Funds are utilized to pay for body armour for the dogs, as well as food and shelter. The K-9 unit is utilized in a variety of search capacities including drugs, missing persons and lost hunters.
In addition, club President Dave Puerner was honored as the Wisconservation Club Member of the Year.