Ex-Dover police captain poised to lead NRA Brings Del. lobbying background to top job By LEE WILLIAMS, The News Journal PostedMonday, April 30, 2007
For one week every January, Delaware hunters can carry a handgun into the woods to hunt.
The legislative battle in 2005 to establish a handgun hunting season in the First State followed pro-gun lobby victories to protect shooting ranges and to recognize "concealed carry" permits from states that recognize Delaware's.
Delaware was one of the last states in the nation to add a handgun hunting season. The bill passed in large measure because of the efforts of the man who wrote the legislation -- gun-rights lobbyist John Sigler, a Delaware native, retired Dover police captain and corporate attorney.
Expanding gun rights -- and fending off proposed restrictions -- is a tough sell in Delaware [emphasis added], home to former presidential assistant Jim Brady and his wife, Sarah Brady, who launched the Brady Campaign to Stop Gun Violence after the 1981 shooting in Washington that injured Jim Brady and President Reagan.
Sigler's formula for success in Delaware is about to undergo the ultimate test.
On April 16, the day Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people on the campus of Virginia Tech, Sigler was elected president of the National Rifle Association of America, the country's largest gun-rights group.
Sigler and other NRA board members watched on television in stunned silence as events on the campus unfolded.
"This was a very, very tragic event, perpetrated by a very sick individual," Sigler said in an interview with The News Journal.
"There really wasn't much discussion," said Wayne LaPierre, the NRA's executive vice president and chief spokesman. "It was concern and grief. No one got over that."
An announcement of Sigler's election and other actions by the board were delayed.
"We felt it inappropriate, when the grieving process was going on, which we were a part of, to be doing any type of public debate or press on legal issues," LaPierre said. "I'm from that area. I grew up sitting in that football stadium with my dad watching games. A lot of the first responders are NRA members. I don't even know how to describe the feeling other than horror."
Sigler's first months in office will be viewed through the prism created by Cho's shooting rampage, which has focused debate on private gun ownership and background checks for gun sales.
He takes office with a much lower profile than one of his predecessors, actor Charlton Heston, who famously declared in 2000 that Al Gore would take his Second Amendment rights from his "cold, dead hands."
Sigler's initial goals are simple: Defend the Second Amendment's protection to keep and bear arms, increase the number of firearms ranges and increase NRA membership from roughly 4 million. [Emphasis added]
LaPierre said it doesn't matter that Sigler lacks Heston's movie-star appeal.
"The NRA has always been about people from all walks of life. It's our greatest strength," he said. "You take any slice of apple-pie America, and you'll find an NRA member."
A political education
Sigler has been active in local and state politics, serving as an executive committee member for the Delaware Republican Party, a co-founder of the pro-gun Delaware Foundation for Legislative Action and a registered lobbyist.
He wrote numerous pro-gun bills for Delaware's General Assembly and helped defeat two semi-automatic weapon bans and a one-gun-a-month bill.
Still, Delaware ranks just "OK" in terms of Second Amendment protections, said John J. Thompson, president of the NRA-affiliated Delaware State Sportsmen's Association, who has known Sigler for 20 years. Sigler served on the association's board.
"He's intelligent. He has integrity. If he gives you his word, he'll follow through," Thompson said. "He's also got good common sense."
As a lobbyist in Delaware, Sigler faced Rehoboth Beach resident Sarah Brady.
"Both of us want the same thing, a reduction of gun violence," Brady said. "We were involved on opposite sides during the concealed-carry debate. I knew it was really important to him, before becoming president of the NRA. He sounds like a very honorable man."
The NRA was founded in 1871 by two Union Army officers who were concerned about the poor marksmanship of their troops. The first goal of the organization was to promote civilian firearms training. Sigler said it remains one of the NRA's core values.
"Our roots were founded for the specific purpose of training civilians in the use of military arms, if they were called upon to defend the nation in time of need," he said. "Marksmanship training and competitive shooting go hand in hand. I come from a competitive shooting background. Competitive shooting has a very high priority to me."
Sigler served as an NRA referee during pistol matches and as chief referee for the NRA's National Police Shooting Championships in Jackson, Miss., duties he had to relinquish to focus on national issues and the organization's image.
"Nationally, we're viewed as a political powerhouse," he said. "We're a strong grass-roots organization, viewed as a mainstream political organization. The attempts to vilify us in the minds of the public have met with failure. I can tell you our members know we are the largest and the oldest patriotic and civil rights organization in the country."
The NRA's political power is paying off, he said.
"I think it's interesting -- we find ourselves in the enviable position of a lot of candidates coming to us, wanting our support," he said.
Neither Sigler nor LaPierre would comment on the three top Republican presidential candidates -- Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani and John McCain -- all of whom have a history of supporting gun control legislation. Nor would they assess the Democratic field, except for Sigler's prediction that he doubts the NRA will "be endorsing Hillary" Rodham Clinton, who supports state-issued photo gun licenses.
"I will tell you the R in NRA does not stand for Republican," Sigler said. "As far as the current field goes, it's far too early. We won't make those decisions until next year, late next year."
Police background in Dover
Sigler became a fierce advocate for the Second Amendment in Delaware.
After serving in the U.S. Navy, where he was assigned to ballistic submarines, he joined the Dover Police Department, where he served as a patrol officer, detective, firearms instructor and captain of the Dover Police Pistol Team. He also at various times oversaw training, planning, administration and the detective unit.
"I was trained as a firearms instructor by the NRA," he said.
He retired from the Dover Police Department in 1991 with the rank of captain.
"John was a good police officer and a good man," said Dover Police Chief Jeffrey Horvath. "He knew his weapons well, and he was a great instructor. ... He had a very good reputation for his ability with a handgun."
LaPierre said Sigler's law enforcement experience distinguishes him from prior NRA presidents.