Senior Advisor at the National Rifle Association
Meet Chuck Cunningham— he’s unassuming, well-read, and totally committed to his family and all causes conservative. He and his wife, Maria, are the parents of ten children; his oldest son, Billy, is soon heading off to the U.S. Naval Academy, having received two nominations to attend. Chuck has been an unflagging activist since his college days, and his many successes in the Conservative Movement and personally can all be traced back to a simple question
an acquaintance asked in college in 1978.
“I can remember this like yesterday,” says Cunningham. “Jeff Bolander, my best friend now, was YAF chapter chairman at James Madison University. He said, ‘Do you want to go to a meeting tonight?’ And I said nope. Then he said, ‘Well, listen, I’ve got this out-of-town speaker coming in. I’m responsible for the event’s turnout, and if you could go for a half an hour and fill a seat, I’d appreciate it as a personal favor.’ And I said,‘Sure, I’ll do that.’”
Fortunately, Cunningham stayed much longer than the requested half hour, and he’s done far more than just fill a seat over the years. Today, an autographed photo of Dick Obenshain, the speaker that night nearly three decades ago, hangs in his office where Chuck serves as the director of federal affairs for the National Rifle Association (NRA).
“I stayed [to hear Obenshain] because I didn’t know a whole lot about the issues. But, I liked what he had to say, and I agreed with him. And, I wanted to learn more and see how I could help. Creating an opportunity for people to get involved and to get the knowledge and experience is what’s key.”
Cunningham saw opportunities to become more involved when he attended Young America’s Foundation’s first National Conservative Student Conference in 1979—a conference he credits for educating him on public policy issues, increasing his knowledge and consistency of conservative philosophy, and providing the confidence and knowledge to advance his conservative ideas on campus.
Following college, he remained active in the Conservative Movement, working for the Christian Coalition and the National Right to Work Committee in addition to the National Rifle Association. From 1984 until 1994, Cunningham was directly responsible for the right to keep and bear arms amendments in states including Delaware, Maine, and West Virginia. In this position, Cunningham focused on firearms preemption laws that eliminated local gun control ordinances. In Michigan, this battle took five years before a breakthrough finally happened. “Things have improved a great deal since the mid- 1980s when we created a national legislative agenda for the states,” notes Cunningham. Today, as director of federal affairs for the National Rifle Association, Cunningham manages the group’s Washington, D.C., office and coordinates the NRA’s lobbying on Capitol Hill and other federal activities.
When asked about his concerns for today, Cunningham is quick to point out that we all need to do more to fight big government. “The forgotten question in policy debates today is ‘Is it the role of the Federal government to…?’ you fill in the blank, whatever it is. The question is not even asked anymore; it’s just
sort of assumed that the government can and should do anything and everything about [whatever issue]. Just because something is a national issue doesn’t mean there’s a federal solution to it. D.C. is a microcosm, a laboratory experiment of liberalism’s failure. We need to return to the fundamental tenets of the Conservative Movement—limited government, low taxes, strong national defense, traditional values, and free enterprise.”
Cunningham offers specific advice for student activists: have regular, monthly meetings, pick issues to advocate, bring in speakers to discuss those issues, paper the campus with provocative posters and meeting notices, and, most importantly, personally invite people to attend.
“Be visible and active,” he urges today’s young leaders. “Pass out literature and socialize with friends, but also draw in people based on issues. Build some energy and get them in the front door so that they have an interest and hopefully go farther.”
“It took me getting into the door. Then, once going through the door, I became interested, and it was a matter of educating me and getting the experience to be able to go farther and take a leadership role.”
Indeed, the Conservative Movement has benefited greatly since Chuck Cunningham attended his first conservative campus lecture and the Foundation’s National Conservative Student Conference. He has dedicated his life to defending our freedoms, and we are blessed to have him—and the ten Cunninghams to follow—on our side!