Top Gun

Sandra Froman was once a star L.A. lawyer who had never fired a weapon. Now she's president of the National Rifle Association.

March/April 2006

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Top Gun

David Burnett

The noise was coming from downstairs—an indistinct scraping sound. Sandra Froman, startled awake, got out of bed to investigate.

She was 32, recently divorced and living alone in the Hollywood Hills north of Los Angeles. An attorney at one of L.A.’s most prestigious law firms, Loeb and Loeb, she had risen quickly to partner on the strength of her trial work. She was confident, successful and financially secure. But she wasn’t prepared for what happened that summer night in 1981.

She followed the sound to the front door, stood on tiptoe and peered through the peephole. A man was bent over the doorknob, trying to jimmy the lock with a screwdriver. Heart racing, Froman banged on the door with both fists, screaming for him to leave. The man paused, straightened up, stooped again, and casually went back to work.

“I freaked out,” Froman, ’71, recalled in a recent interview. “I’m thinking, ‘He’s going to get in here and what am I going to do? What is he going to do?’”

She phoned her neighbors but nobody answered. She considered running out the back door, but realized she had no place to go. Panicked, she called the police. “The dispatcher told me to go upstairs and lock myself in the bedroom,” Froman says. “Problem was, I didn’t have a lock on the door.” She went upstairs anyway, turned on all the lights, blared the stereo, and opened the windows to attract as much attention as possible. When the police showed up a few minutes later, the would-be intruder was gone.

“I was scared and angry. And the more I thought about it, the angrier I got,” Froman says. “I had allowed myself to get into a situation without any good options, and that made me mad.”

The next day she drove to a gun shop in North Hollywood. “I went in and said, ‘I want to buy a gun.’ The guy behind the counter says, ‘What kind of a gun are you looking for?’ I said, ‘Any kind.’ He looked me over, this tiny little woman who obviously has no idea what she’s doing, and suggested I take a gun safety course.”

Near the end of the safety course that weekend at a local shooting range, Froman took her first pulls of a trigger—and filled the target with bullet holes. She smiles at the memory and hunches her shoulders in a “who knew?” gesture. “I was a good shot.”

Two weeks later, she was the proud owner of a Colt M 1911 pistol, and a new attitude. “Buying that gun and becoming competent with it gave me confidence that I could defend myself,” she says.

Today, Sandy Froman is president of the National Rifle Association, and she’s never far from a gun. When at home in Tucson, Ariz., she carries a pistol in her purse, or on her hip, and has occasionally refused to enter establishments that wouldn’t allow her to bring the gun inside. “The whole reason for carrying a firearm is so you have it in case something happens. You don’t plan to use it and you hope you never have to use it, but you can’t predict when you might need it,” she says.

She is an avid hunter, and we’re not talking squirrels. If you visit her house, you might be offered elk steak, or elk chili, or pasta with elk sauce, because she has a lot of elk to get rid of. She shot one in Alaska last year and her freezer is full of the stuff. Also deer. And bison. “I decided when I started hunting that I was going to eat what I shot,” Froman says.

When she isn’t hunting or shooting at targets, Froman is a business litigation attorney at her own Tucson firm, and an advocate for the NRA’s 4 million members. For them, and her, the central issue involving the NRA is protecting the right to own guns. Elected by the NRA board as president last April, Froman took over the job made famous by Oscar-winning actor Charlton Heston, who is also well known for a speech he gave in 2000. Raising a musket above his head, he declared, “I have five words for you: from my cold, dead hands.”

Froman has a different style, says friend and former colleague Mick Rusing, JD ’80, a Tucson attorney and an NRA life member. “Non-gun owners who aren’t antigun are an important constituency for us, and the ‘cold, dead hands’ thing can be off-putting to them. So, while ultimately that’s how Sandy feels, she leads with a practical, logical argument as opposed to slogans and mantras.”

Her personality disarms critics who may have a preconceived idea about NRA leaders, he says. “She is so pleasant and so immensely likable. She removes some of the rancor right away.”

However, her congeniality shouldn’t be confused for lack of resolve, Rusing adds. As he told an Arizona reporter, “she won’t be the pope who allows priests to marry.”

Established in 1871 by former officers of the Union Army—its first president was Civil War general Ambrose Burnside—the NRA began with a simple mission: teach people how to shoot better. Many of the organization’s activities remain focused on the proper care and safe use of firearms, and in promoting shooting sports. The NRA’s political activism grew as efforts to regulate guns intensified. Some early chapters in the South consisted entirely of freed slaves after the Ku Klux Klan attempted to ban blacks from owning guns.

The NRA always appears at or near the top of Fortune magazine’s annual ranking of influential political groups. Its clout is evident on Capitol Hill—it can claim a number of legislative victories—and at the ballot box. Just ask Al Gore, who likely would have won the presidency in 2000 had it not been for aggressive NRA opposition in Tennessee and Arkansas, two states he was expected to carry. Either one would have given him the election.

Its effectiveness has marked the NRA as a favorite target of the left, and its critics characterize the organization as out of the mainstream, populated by “gun nuts” whose relentless opposition to gun control has damaged the social fabric. Its most controversial moment may have come in the aftermath of the 1999 school shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., when thousands of protesters—including the father of one of the murdered students—skewered the NRA for holding its annual convention in nearby Denver 10 days after the tragedy.

Froman believes the NRA has overcome the perception that it is extremist by “getting out its message” that its members are responsible, law-abiding people who happen to enjoy shooting and collecting guns. “Our critics have tried to define us as being outside of the community, but we are part of the community, and I think the American people understand that.”

She says the notion that guns are evil is mostly a product of the press’s failure to educate the public about the origins of crime, and Hollywood’s depiction of guns as instruments of mayhem. “When was the last time you saw a TV show with a father and his son going to the shooting range—a safe, fun family activity?” she says. “Ninety-nine-plus percent of the time guns are shown being used for bad purposes by bad people. That is no more reflective of what happens in America than The Matrix or Superman.”

Michael Moore’s Academy Award-winning film Bowling for Columbine is emblematic of Hollywood’s bias against gun owners, she says. Froman says Moore’s depiction of the NRA, and her predecessor, Heston, was unfair and misleading. Moore interspersed images of Heston intoning “from my cold, dead hands” with scenes from the Denver NRA convention to “make it seem that Heston and the NRA were being disrespectful to the families at Columbine,” she says. The NRA had cancelled many activities but was compelled by its bylaws to hold the annual meeting at the appointed time, Froman notes. And Heston’s famous quote came from a speech the actor made a year later, in Kansas City. “Michael Moore lied. He had legitimate points to make, but he lied to achieve his predetermined outcome.”

Moore, responding to similar charges, said on his website that the Heston footage was supplied by a Denver TV station that had broadcast it during its coverage, and had been used by the NRA itself in marketing materials and on merchandise. “Are they now embarrassed by this sick, repulsive image and the words that accompany it?” Moore wrote.

Nobody ever characterized the gun debate as civil, and it’s no place for the thin-skinned. But Froman’s experience as a mediator makes her especially good at finding common ground, Rusing says. “Part of what a mediator does is play devil’s advocate. ‘How do you respond to this argument?’ That skill will serve her well.”

Froman grew up in San Mateo in an energetic household that included both her parents and grandparents. She and her sister played among the orchards of what is now Hillsdale, and soaked up the influence of their father, a physicist who worked for the Office of Naval Research, and mother, a Macy’s store clerk.

Her introduction to Stanford came when she was only 7 or 8, tagging along with her dad when he came to campus for his Navy reserve courses. A stellar student, she had her pick of colleges when the time came, and Stanford was her first choice. She entered in 1967, a time when convention and revolution skirmished daily. “They had rules that women could not have a man in her room after 4 p.m. with the door closed, things like that,” she recalls. Yet protests were regular events, and White Plaza teemed with ferment. Though admittedly “politically naïve,” Froman tried to get involved, once reporting on riots in Oakland for KZSU and getting pummeled during the melee. “I was trying to figure out who the good guys were,” she says. “I grew up watching TV westerns and you always knew the heroes from the villains. But here were police officers hitting kids with batons, and students throwing rocks and cursing the cops. There were no good guys.”

She graduated with a degree in economics and stumbled into a plan while the man she was dating, a first-year grad student, was preparing for the LSAT. “I decided I would take them, too.” She aced the exam and soon was accepted by the nation’s top law schools. She considered Stanford, but opted for Harvard on the recommendation of an unlikely source: Stanford Law School dean Thomas Ehrlich. “He encouraged me to go someplace where it snowed,” she says.

She clerked at Loeb and Loeb over the summer between her second and third years at law school, and had a job offer waiting at the firm before she graduated. She married a fellow Harvard Law grad, Jayson Lumish, and they moved to California.

She specialized in civil litigation for Loeb and Loeb’s corporate clients and was already doing trial work in her first year. “I remember writing a letter to my dad and telling him how much I loved the work, that it was perfect for me. I would have paid them to be able to do it.”

Divorced in 1981, Froman joined the NRA in the early 1980s, spurred by a conversation with a colleague who was shocked that she had purchased a gun after the attempted break-in at her house. “He said I was a dangerous person. This was somebody I had practiced with, so I didn’t expect that kind of a reaction,” Froman says. Seeking support, she talked to a friend at her shooting range; he encouraged her to check out the NRA.

The politics of gun control didn’t interest her at that time, she says. She simply liked shooting, and believed the gun gave her protection that she hadn’t had before. “I didn’t think about guns being good or bad. They were tools.”

Froman took a leave of absence from Loeb and Loeb in 1983 to teach at Santa Clara Law School. On a trip to the Bay Area for her first interview at the school, she had her first date with Bruce Nelson, an undercover narcotics officer and an accomplished pistol shooter. “Bruce used to tell people I was the only woman he’d ever met who bought more gun magazines than he did,” says Froman, chuckling. They married in 1984 and moved to a 16-acre property north of Tucson that abuts the Coronado National Forest.

Nelson started a custom holster-making business and Froman went to work for Bilby & Shoenhair, which later merged with Arizona’s largest firm, Snell & Wilmer. Rusing, who was part of the hiring team at Bilby & Schoenhair, recalled that Froman’s résumé listed her hobbies: “weight lifting, wine collecting and shooting big-bore handguns. I remember thinking, ‘This is our gal.’”

She and Nelson became active NRA leaders, and Froman joined the NRA board of directors in 1992. “That was a great time in my life,” she recalls. And then one afternoon in 1995 it all changed. Fit and robust, Bruce Nelson collapsed on the living room floor, stricken by a massive blood clot in a lung. The rural home he and Froman had cherished suddenly became a liability—it took paramedics 30 minutes to arrive. By then, Nelson was dead. He was 47. “I was some variation of a basket case for the next couple of years,” Froman says.

As she emerged from the pain of her loss, her NRA involvement—and her profile—continued to grow. In 1998 she was voted second vice president, a stepping-stone to the presidency. A year later, she left Snell & Wilmer to open her own law firm and focus more on her NRA work.

Being NRA president is analogous to chairing a corporation. Froman presides over the organization’s 76-member board, which determines policy, and spends a lot of her time representing the NRA to the press and the public.

Susan Howard, a longtime NRA board member, says any NRA president needs focus and passion, and Froman oozes both. “You’d better know coming in what you want to accomplish because you only have two years to do it,” says Howard, an actress best known for her role as Donna Krebbs in the hit TV series Dallas.

Froman’s grasp of Second Amendment issues is a formidable asset, Howard adds. Froman harbors no doubt about whether the Second Amendment protects individual gun rights, although debate over the true meaning of the provision regarding “the right of the people to bear arms” has raged for decades. (See sidebar)

Her NRA role is partly ceremonial. She gives speeches at fund-raising dinners, for civic groups and at events like the annual Single-Action Shooting Society’s “cowboy action” competition. SASS members dress in period costume and, when signaled, shoot at various targets arranged in a simulated Old West venue such as a saloon. “It’s the only place I’ve ever been where the women talk about guns and the men talk about costumes,” Froman says.

A shooting match where people dress up like cowboys is a friendly setting for the president of the NRA. But less friendly, at least in theory, was the National Association of Women Business Owners meeting where Froman spoke last year. “I got a lot of questions from women who don’t feel the way I do about some things. My talk was 20 minutes long but I was there another hour and a half, until every person who had a question had had her question answered. Out of the 225 women who were there, 40 signed up for a shooting class.”

Howard says articulating persuasively the case for gun ownership is one of Froman’s strengths. “When people sit down with her one-on-one instead of just trying to argue, they come away really understanding the issues,” she says.

Rusing agrees. “A lot of people going into a meeting with Sandy would be predisposed to not liking her, not wanting to hear from her, wanting to shut her off. By both the quality of the argument and the quality of the person, they come away with an entirely different viewpoint. It’s a dialogue that needs to occur.”

The discourse over the merits and dangers of American gun culture is often played out in political fights that pit the NRA against gun-control advocacy groups. In the battle for public support, both sides use various polls and crime surveys to their advantage. Persuasion depends on money, influence and who is in the White House at the moment.

During the Clinton administration, the NRA was on its heels, fending off public scorn as well as legislative initiatives helped along by its major foil, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. Founded by the wife of former Ronald Reagan staffer James Brady, who was shot by Reagan’s would-be assassin John Hinckley in 1981, the Brady Campaign pushes for “sensible gun laws” aimed at curbing gun violence, according to spokesperson Zach Ragbourn. Its major victory was the Brady Bill, enacted in 1993, which established background checks and waiting periods for gun purchases from federally licensed gun dealers.

Froman says gun laws often are a proxy for fixing complex social problems that she believes are the real source of crime. “Gun control doesn’t achieve what it’s supposed to achieve, which is to keep guns out of the hands of criminals. All it does is disarm law-abiding citizens and create zones of vulnerability that criminals can exploit.”

The belief that gun laws only affect law-abiding citizens looks at the equation the wrong way, Ragbourn counters. “The gun-rights people always have this argument that criminals will get guns no matter what. Well, yes, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to stop them. Going through a Brady background check doesn’t disarm anybody except the bad guys.”

Regulations on gun sales differ by state. Some states have instituted waiting periods of a few days to prevent gun traffickers from purchasing guns legally and dumping them on the black market, Ragbourn says. “What often gets overlooked is that every illegal gun in this country was at one time purchased legally. If you trace it far enough back you find either a complicit or an unwitting sale into the black market. Most gun dealers—high 90 percent—never have a gun traced back to them that was used in a crime. They perform the background checks, they sell responsibly.”

Then there’s Lou’s Loan, a Philadelphia gun dealer that had more than 400 guns traced to crimes in a five-year period. “Shutting down arms dealers who sell directly into the black market, we don’t think that infringes on people’s right to bear arms,” Ragbourn says. “Keeping Lou’s Loan from selling 400 guns to murder people isn’t about self-defense, it’s about drug crime.”

Froman is aware that the NRA’s positions on gun control make some people recoil. How can the NRA oppose a law that bans Uzis and other so-called assault weapons, for example? She says few people take the time to understand the practical effects of gun legislation, and often base their opinions on sound bites and slogans. “People don’t know what they’re being asked about. If you stop a lady with a baby carriage in a mall and ask her if she’s against assault weapons, what do you think she’s going to say? If you ask, ‘Are you in favor of banning semiautomatic rifles like the kind that some people use to hunt deer?’ that’s a very different question.”

The assault weapons ban, enacted in 1994 with a 10-year sunset provision, referred to semiautomatic weapons that the NRA said differed only cosmetically from many typical hunters’ guns. “If you look at the guns on that list, many of them are no different from weapons that aren’t on the list,” says Froman. “They don’t fire any faster; they have no more destructive power.”

Some law enforcement organizations—including the International Association of Chiefs of Police—supported the ban, maintaining that some features such as a flash suppressor, which conceals the muzzle flash, weren’t only cosmetic differences but put police more at risk. Others say the law’s effect was negligible. The antigun Violence Policy Center acknowledged that the ban was easily circumvented since minor alterations to the grip or barrel could render an illegal gun legal. Congress did not act to extend the law when it expired last year.

“It was simply feel-good legislation,” Froman says. “It was useless and silly, but not harmless. It took millions and millions of dollars to enforce this law that made no difference.”

The NRA website teems with examples of worst-case scenarios it believes could result from gun laws. For example, attempts to regulate private sales at gun shows—which law enforcement officials have said are a source of easily obtained untraceable weapons—could result in people who are simply attending the show winding up on an FBI list, according to an NRA “fact sheet.” The organization doggedly opposes any regulation that might result in a national registry of gun owners, which it believes could be a prelude to government confiscation of guns.

In a country estimated to have between 250 and 300 million firearms in about 50 percent of its homes, eradicating guns from society is not a realistic goal, and not one that the Brady Campaign pursues, says Ragbourn. “We don’t want to ban guns. We want to keep criminals from getting them.”

A lack of empirical evidence that might clearly demonstrate cause and effect between gun control and crime reduction complicates the debate over how best to accomplish that goal. Do gun laws lower crime? “Yes, no and maybe,” says Robert Weisberg, a criminal law expert at Stanford Law School. Studies have given ammunition to both sides of the debate, he notes. “There are so many variables to consider, it becomes very difficult to say with much confidence that guns are responsible for causing crime, or for preventing crime,” Weisberg says.

For example: Washington, D.C., banned handguns in 1976. Between 1976 and 1991 the homicide rate in that city rose 200 percent. On the other hand, since the Brady Bill was enacted, violent crime in the United States has dropped 30 percent. Did making guns harder to get prevent some crimes, or were other factors responsible for the decline? It’s a simplistic illustration, but reflects the contradictory data that criminologists and policymakers must try to interpret.

Gun laws shouldn’t be expected to meet an arbitrary metric to be considered worthwhile, Ragbourn says. “There is no way to sit down with a lawmaker and say, ‘This law will save 400 lives in your city next year.’ The best we can do is say, ‘This law will stop dozens if not hundreds of criminals from getting guns.’”

Froman says the NRA supports anticrime laws it deems effective. It backed a National Instant Check System in which handgun purchases are authorized via an FBI database in lieu of mandated waiting periods, which were dropped in 1998. It supports tougher sentencing for crimes committed using a gun, and more vigorous enforcement of existing gun laws, she says.

For the moment, the NRA seems to have captured the high ground. Its fund-raising success is at an all-time high and recent legislation—for example, a law that shields gun manufacturers from lawsuits—bears its imprint. “Sometimes I worry that we’ve done too good a job, and our members are a little complacent,” Froman says. “They don’t see a threat. I think we have to be ever vigilant about protecting our rights.

“Look at what happened in New Orleans after Katrina. We had government officials going door-to-door and confiscating legal firearms from law-abiding people who just wanted to protect their homes and their families. That’s wrong. We believe that guns in the hands of peaceful, law-abiding people save lives. It creates an atmosphere where lawlessness is not tolerated.”

She is particularly happy that 38 states now have right-to-carry laws, which allow her to tote her pistol in her purse if she pleases. Would-be intruders, beware. “Everyone is safer when criminals don’t know who is armed. I’m this five-foot-two middle-aged lady, but they don’t know I’ll shoot their guts out.”

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