By Robert J. Spitzer / Special To The Washington Post
The lawsuit that New York Attorney General Letitia James filed on Thursday calling for the dissolution of the National Rifle Association and the removal of NRA head Wayne LaPierre came as shocking political news, even in these tumultuous times. Yet the warning signs of the NRA’s collapse were there for all to see after a decade of damage to the organization that it largely inflicted upon itself.
The 2016 elections seem light-years ago for the NRA. Its early and enthusiastic embrace of GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump represented a long-shot bet that hit the jackpot on Election Day. And the NRA was all in, pouring more than $70 million into the 2016 campaign, including $31 million for Trump; triple its spending for 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney.
Yet two years later, the NRA’s open money spigot slowed to a trickle, which in retrospect signaled its money problems. In the 2018 midterm election cycle, the NRA found itself outspent by gun safety groups; the first time ever in a national campaign. And its cause took a political drubbing.
Spurred in part by the shocking Parkland High School shooting in early 2018 and by the school’s vocal students, who helped mobilize national opinion, the movement for stronger gun laws found electoral traction. For example, among swing district congressional races in 2018, 38 of 59 candidates embraced gun regulation, compared to only 4 of 36 in 2016.
A study of political ads nationwide found an increase by a factor of 22 in pro-regulation ads in 2018 compared with 2014. These efforts proved key to many Democratic victories across the country, where voters ranked the gun issue as among their top three concerns.
This is not to suggest that the NRA’s money woes explained the outcome, but it was a telling metric of the organization’s abysmal financial situation.
Then the NRA’s 2019 annual convention blew the lid off simmering allegations of funds mismanagement. NRA President Oliver North issued a letter to the organization’s board shortly before the convention’s opening, accusing LaPierre of profligate and improper personal spending, including $275,000 on clothing for himself from a Beverly Hills boutique, multimillion-dollar travel to several posh resorts, and an allegation of sexual harassment. North said LaPierre should resign, but the CEO counterattacked and forced out North, who had labeled the situation an “existential crisis” for the organization.
North proved to be right. Since 2010, the NRA had drawn more than $200 million in cash from its nonprofit NRA Foundation to keep its doors open. (The District of Columbus attorney general has also filed suit, charging the NRA with foundation funds misuse.) By the end of 2017, the NRA’s available assets were in the negative, to the tune of $31.8 million. Since 2009, its revenue grew only 0.7 percent per year, but expenses grew on average 6.4 percent annually. In 2018, the NRA raised $412 million but spent $423 million. Earlier this year, LaPierre reported to the NRA board that it had spent $100 million in the previous two years just on its legal problems.
The New York lawsuit (the NRA is incorporated in New York) reveals in detail extensive new allegations of rampant cronyism, corruption, sweetheart deals and fraud. It argues that LaPierre used the NRA as his personal bank account and that blame extends to the rest of the organization’s leaders as well.
Regardless of the final disposition of this legal action, the NRA will never be the same, if it will continue to exist at all. What would gun politics look like without it?
NRA dissidents and their allies will regroup, whether under a reformulated banner or combined with an existing, smaller gun group, like the National Association for Gun Rights or the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms. That organization will not be able to replicate the NRA’s revenue and reputation at its height, but it has a viable path forward for a related reason. The NRA’s core source of strength has long been a resource few other interest groups can match: motivated grass-roots gun activists throughout the country. These gun activists have been thoroughly betrayed by NRA leaders, yet the root cause remains no less important to them.
Whether an NRA successor can reformulate and reinvigorate the movement under a new banner will turn mostly on the ability of new leaders to restore some measure of confidence and redirect grass-roots anger against external foes. But the NRA juggernaut of old — betrayed from within — is gone.
Robert J. Spitzer is distinguished service professor of political science at SUNY Cortland. The eighth edition of his book, “The Politics of Gun Control,” will be published this fall.