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News and notes on guns in America

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An image of Maria Butina presenting a plaque to Jim Porter, then the president of the NRA, at the gun group's 2014 convention. [Maria Butina/LiveJournal]

Accused Russian Spy Says NRA Involvement Helped Her Secure Visa to U.S.

Maria Butina, the alleged Russian spy accused of using the National Rifle Association as a conduit to infiltrate American politics, said in online postings that she was twice denied permission to come to the United States as she developed a following for her unlikely gun rights advocacy. In 2014, Butina finally got the green light, and made the trip to America that launched her purported caper.

Butina credits the NRA for the breakthrough.

“I was only issued a visa to enter the U.S. for the annual NRA convention on my third attempt,” reads one post on Butina’s LiveJournal blog, which was translated by The Trace. “Prior to this, I missed these conventions for two years as a consequence of the opposition on the part of the American governmental bureaucracy.”

“Finally, the leadership of the NRA itself came to visit us, at which point it became possible to prove that I would not remain to live in the US, but am traveling there on business,” she wrote.

The visit she referred to is a fall 2013 junket by the former NRA president David Keene and a host of gun-rights bigwigs to attend the Right to Bear Arms’ annual meeting in Moscow.

Butina penned the blog post as she was attending the NRA convention in Indianapolis as the leader of her group, the Right to Bear Arms, and a VIP guest of the American gun organization. She was joined by Alexander Torshin, a Kremlin-connected oligarch tangled in the unfolding investigation into Russia’s meddling into the 2016 presidential election.

The post includes images of Butina presenting a plaque to Jim Porter, then the president of the NRA, and posing with Sandra Froman, a past president of the gun-rights organization. An image taken during the same trip and posted on Butina’s VK profile, a Russian social media website, shows her standing with Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s executive vice president.

It is not uncommon for Russians to be denied visas to the United States because of current political tensions, and especially if American authorities fear the visitor will try to stay in the country, experts familiar with the visa process told The Trace.

The NRA could have helped assure consular officials by writing a letter on Butina’s behalf, which would increase the odds that her visa request would go through.

The experts said Butina was likely granted a B-1/B-2 visa, which allows foreigners to travel to the United States temporarily for events like business conferences or trainings.

Butina’s blog post adds further intrigue to a case that has roiled Washington as authorities investigate Russian attempts to tilt the 2016 presidential election in favor of Donald Trump. Among the questions that investigators are exploring is whether Russian money was channeled through the NRA to help install Trump in the White House. The NRA has said it has accepted dues from Russian members but has denied using Russian money in its campaign efforts.

Butina was arrested this month on charges of conspiracy and acting as a foreign agent. Prosecutors have alleged that Butina spent years using contacts established through her NRA outreach to hobnob in conservative circles and attempt to sway the Republican Party in a direction more favorable to the Kremlin. She is reported to have dated Paul Erickson, an influential Republican political operative who formed a limited liability corporation with her in South Dakota called Bridges LLC. While the purpose of the LLC is unclear, such corporations can be used to funnel cash through dark money groups into campaign coffers while masking the source of the funding.

In other posts on her blog, translated from Russian by The Trace, Butina gushes over the NRA and the gun culture it has nurtured. She dissects how the group elects its leaders and reaches out to women. She calls an NRA gun auction a “spectacle that, (at) a minimum, one must witness at least once in one’s life,” and says she wants the Right to Bear Arms to draw on lessons from the NRA and start holding conventions of its own in Russia.

In one post on April 24, 2015, titled, “6 interesting impressions following my trip to the convention of American gun owners rights organization,” Butina praises how the NRA convention that year in Nashville boosted the local economy by bringing in “gun aficionados.”

“Each time, the NRA develops an individual design for the convention, a theme based on the location of the event,” Butina wrote. “Nashville, for example, is renowned as the capital of country music, so that the guitar was selected as this convention’s symbol, country music played for the duration of all the days, and a music festival was held.”