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Luxury spending, internal strife leave NRA staggering into 2024 election

In 2016, the National Rifle Association endorsed a Republican presidential candidate with a spotty record of supporting gun rights — then helped catapult him to the White House with a record-setting $31 million in campaign spending.

“Donald Trump didn’t get a lot of help from major Republican institutions, but he did from the NRA,” NBC political guru Chuck Todd said as Trump declared victory on election night. “This is a big night for the NRA.”

It was a crowning achievement for the gun-rights lobby, capping decades of power brokering in Republican primaries and statewide races and setting the stage for the NRA to wield outsize influence during Trump’s presidency.

But as the former president stages his political comeback, the NRA has tumbled from power. Internal feuds, corruption allegations and an onslaught of litigation have ravaged the group’s finances and public image. Longtime chief executive Wayne LaPierre stepped down amid a civil corruption trial in New York expected to last until mid-February, with prosecutors claiming he and other NRA leaders cheated donors by squandering millions on personal expenses. On the stand, LaPierre has confirmed various luxury trips and other perks charged to the NRA over several years, including private jet travel to family vacations, helicopter flights for NRA executives attending NASCAR events, and hair and makeup services for his wife when she attended NRA events. D.C.’s attorney general is also alleging the group misused charitable funds.

The NRA has never faced a more perilous moment: It is hemorrhaging money and members, uncertain about the next generation of leadership and facing the possibility of court-ordered oversight, all at a time when gun-control groups are gaining strength amid constant mass shootings. As Trump closes in on the Republican presidential nomination, some current and former leaders concede the organization is too depleted to spend significantly on his campaign.

“The presidential race is always important, but the NRA has finite resources and needs to maximize its impact,” said David Keene, a longtime board member and former president. “The money we have might be better spent on closely contested, down-ballot races.”

Yet the NRA’s struggles do not signal doom for the gun-rights movement as liberals have long predicted. Its legacy endures in a Republican Party that casts even modest gun-control proposals as attacks on the individual’s constitutional right to self-defense, and in Trump’s MAGA movement, where the NRA’s hostility toward government bureaucracy is deeply internalized.

“The NRA was Trump before Trump,” said Nick Suplina, a senior vice president at Everytown for Gun Safety, a leading gun-control group. “The NRA taught a lot of the Republican Party about what it means to be in the vanguard of the culture war — what the uncompromising, come-and-take it, conspiracy theory-minded populists look like, and they’ve been tapping into that for a really long time.”

The story of the NRA’s downturn, told through court documents, financial records and interviews with current and former officials, makes clear that the years of lax oversight and self-dealing described in the ongoing New York trial have brought one of the most influential grass-roots organizations in the United States to a historic low — while fueling the rise of further-right firearms groups.

Since 2016, NRA revenue fell more than 40 percent, while membership dues were down roughly 50 percent, according to tax filings through the end of 2022. Between 2018 and 2022, tax filings show the NRA spent more than $181 million on legal expenses — more than three times the amount it spent on federal candidates over the past three election cycles, according to spending tracked by OpenSecrets.

“It’s honestly just a dead man walking right now,” said former NRA board member Phillip Journey, who left the board last year and is campaigning for another term as a reformer. “Over my last three-year term in the NRA, we lost over a million members. That’s a thousand a day. … I’m scared to death that someday the [NRA] magazine just won’t show up in my mailbox.”

In a statement, NRA spokesman Billy McLaughlin said the organization is still a powerful defender of the Second Amendment. The NRA scored “plentiful” victories in recent years, he said, pointing to the organization’s role in a landmark 2022 Supreme Court ruling on the right to carry a handgun outside the home, in passing more state laws making it easier to carry concealed weapons, and in Republican Jeff Landry’s 2023 gubernatorial victory in Louisiana.

“Current economic conditions are challenging for many organizations,” he said. “Yet the NRA still prevails, much to the chagrin of our detractors.”

The original mission of the NRA, chartered in 1871, was to boost marksmanship, not the Second Amendment. The group was best known for promoting shooting sports, hunting and firearms safety until 1975, when the NRA launched the aggressive lobbying and voter-contact operation that has become its trademark.

LaPierre, an experienced political hand, took over the NRA in 1991 and built a juggernaut that could make or break legislation and campaigns. The NRA primed millions of supporters for Election Day with postcards grading the gun-rights records of their representatives in Congress.

A striking example of NRA political might came in late 2012, when a gunman killed 26 people, including 20 children, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Amid the public outcry, Congress weighed expanding background checks and banning many semiautomatic weapons and high-capacity magazines.

Just one week after the massacre, a defiant LaPierre accused gun-control activists of fearmongering and demanded armed guards in schools. Democrats joined Republicans in bowing to the gun lobby, and legislators voted down one proposal after another.

At the time, Trump, then a real estate mogul turned reality television star, endorsed President Barack Obama’s call for action on gun control. As a Republican primary candidate in 2016, however, Trump dubbed himself “a Second Amendment person” and bashed gun-free zones. The NRA rallied behind him months earlier than previous candidates and unleashed a record-breaking advertising blitz that cast Democrat Hillary Clinton as a dire threat to the Second Amendment.

Once Trump won the election, a pattern developed after mass shootings: The president would demand stronger background checks. NRA leaders would appeal directly to Trump. And the calls from the White House would fade.

Behind the scenes, though, the powerful gun-rights group was beginning to fracture. Its election-year spending spree in 2016, had left a $45.8 million budget shortfall, according to tax filings. In a tipping point, the gun-control movement outpaced the gun-rights lobby for the first time in the 2018 midterm elections with more than $12 million to $10 million in outside spending on federal candidates. Revenue, including membership dues, began to decline in 2019.

The NRA’s internal battle burst into public view at the annual convention in April 2019, where President Oliver North, the leading figure in the Iran-contra scandal in the late 1980s, was ousted after he and LaPierre publicly traded accusations of financial misconduct. An ugly, litigious falling out between the NRA and its longtime advertising agency, Ackerman McQueen, exposed exorbitant spending by LaPierre, including six-figure charges to a Beverly Hills boutique and posh travel to Italy and the Bahamas. In the wake of the 2018 mass killing of 17 students and staff members at a Parkland, Fla., high school, LaPierre asked the nonprofit group to buy him a $6 million, 10,000-square-foot mansion in a gated community near Dallas, citing safety concerns.

Amid the negative publicity, LaPierre — long the pugnacious face of the group’s messaging — largely faded from public view. His appearances on the major Sunday morning news shows, which peaked after the mass killing at Columbine High School in 1999, gradually declined, according to an analysis by MediaMatters, a liberal watchdog group. LaPierre’s last Sunday morning appearance on broadcast networks was in 2017. That was also the year in which he last appeared on a weekday Fox News show, according to MediaMatters.

In August 2020, the attorneys general of New York and D.C. sued the NRA, alleging widespread financial improprieties. The NRA sought bankruptcy protection the following year and announced a move from New York, where it is chartered, to Texas. Testimony and court documents revealed that LaPierre failed to advise NRA directors about the filing, concealed free trips on an NRA contractor’s luxury yacht, and spent $65,000 of the charity’s money on Christmas gifts for staff. A federal judge in 2021 blocked the bankruptcy attempt, which he called a bad-faith end run around the New York attorney general’s suit.

“There was so much corruption, and they didn’t want any of that getting out,” said former board member Roscoe “Rocky” Marshall, who is running for another term on a reform platform. “They really wanted the board to rubber stamp stuff. They didn’t want the board to disagree with anything.”

Donations to the NRA slumped as the organization fell into disarray. Spending on Trump’s reelection campaign in 2020 dipped by 46 percent from the last presidential election cycle, to about $17 million. Member dues nosedived from $170 million in 2018 to $83 million in 2022, according to tax records.

The organization reduced spending on firearms training, hunter services and other flagship programs. But it could not keep up with legal bills, which mushroomed from less than $7 million in 2017 to an average of $36 million annually over the next several years, according to tax filings. From 2016 to 2022, the NRA reported budget shortfalls in five of those seven years, ending 2022 in a $22.5 million hole, the filings show.

“The NRA is in a financial spiral that will not be easy to recover from,” said Brian Mittendorf, an Ohio State University accounting professor who has studied the organization’s finances.

In May 2022, a mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Tex., killed 21 people, including children, and rocked the nation. A month later, 14 Republicans in the House and 15 in the Senate helped pass the most significant gun legislation since the early 1990s. The new law expanded criminal background checks, funded mental health services and widened the ban on domestic violence offenders purchasing firearms.

“That was really a wake-up call,” said Keene, the NRA board member. “In retrospect, we clearly didn’t blow the alarm enough.”

The NRA did not exact sweeping electoral vengeance on the renegades. Of the 29 Republicans, only about one-third were on the 2022 ballot, and most of those members received downgrades from the NRA or kept their low grades, according to data compiled by Everytown. Those who were not reelected were muscled out by Trump-backed candidates or because their districts became more Democratic, not directly because of their support for the bill.

Contributions by the NRA’s political committee and spending by the lobbying arm have plunged since Trump’s watershed victory. In last year’s election in Virginia, when Democrats gained a House majority and retained Senate control, Everytown said it spent more than eight times as much as the NRA.

“It’s literally a zombie company,” said Josh Powell, LaPierre’s former chief of staff, who was initially named as a defendant in the New York case but reached a settlement with the attorney general to pay $100,000 to benefit NRA charities. “What’s everybody afraid of?”

In early January, days before the trial in New York began, LaPierre abruptly announced he was stepping down after more than four decades in the NRA — marking the end of an era and signaling the challenges ahead as the organization searches for his successor.

LaPierre, 74, cited health reasons in his resignation letter, and a letter from his doctor to the judge says he suffers from Lyme disease and “cognitive decline,” among other conditions.

The trial has featured a number of former NRA insiders who broke with LaPierre and testified for Letitia James, the attorney general. North, the former president, told jurors that he was pushed out after raising alarms about LaPierre’s “astronomical” spending on lawyers. The attorneys were “the only reason I’m not going to spend the rest of my life in an orange jumpsuit,” LaPierre responded, according to North’s testimony.

“NRA is a charity, and these people, through corruption and greed, have literally destroyed it and gutted it,” said Marshall in an interview; the former board member also testified for the prosecution.

In the courtroom, NRA officials have sought to distance the organization from its longtime leader. The NRA is “not Wayne LaPierre,” NRA attorney Sarah Rogers said, adding that LaPierre was a “visionary” but “not always a meticulous corporate executive.”

LaPierre’s lawyers have defended his travel and clothing expenses as the doing-business costs of cultivating wealthy donors. He flies on private planes, they said, out of security concerns. Court records show he repaid the NRA more than $990,000 since 2019 for expenses classified under IRS rules as “excess benefits,” beyond what would be considered reasonable compensation.

During his recent testimony, LaPierre confirmed numerous private jet trips and luxury car services charged to the NRA over several years, including a $37,000, one-way flight to the Bahamas for his family’s annual summer vacation on a contractor’s luxury yacht. Asked if a chef would prepare their meals, he said, “Not all the time, but sometimes.”

If LaPierre, former treasurer Wilson “Woody” Phillips and general counsel John Frazer are found liable, they could be ordered to reimburse the NRA and be barred from ever leading a charity in New York. The attorney general is also asking the court to seek recommendations from a governance expert and to appoint a financial monitor.

But to NRA loyalists, the case in New York is a political vendetta, much in the same way they view the multiple criminal cases against Trump as a witch hunt. James, a Democrat, is seeking to penalize NRA leaders for alleged fraud at the same time she is pursuing a $370 million civil fraud judgment against Trump.

“There is no question about the intent of using the court to attempt to take Donald Trump out and to take the NRA out,” said former senator Larry Craig (R-Idaho), one of the NRA’s longest-serving board members. “The courts are being politically weaponized.”

In D.C., the attorney general is accusing the NRA’s foundation of funneling millions of dollars to the group without proper oversight and despite conflicts of interests. A trial is scheduled to begin April 29. The two civil cases threaten to drain the NRA’s finances and distract from its mission just as the 2024 campaign season is getting underway.

“They’re basically out of the election cycle,” Marshall said. “Those dollars are just not there.”

NRA board members argue that money isn’t everything in campaigns, especially in a year when billions of dollars will flood the presidential race. The NRA’s super power has long been its ability to mobilize an army of gun-rights supporters to swamp polls on Election Day.

“Will we have the kind of money to spend that we have had in the past? No, and that’s a fact,” Craig said. “But we will activate the grass-roots as best we can, and that can be done through social media and other efforts.”

Even as NRA’s downturn takes center stage in a New York courtroom, the gun-rights movement is bullish on its future.

The organization’s internal strife has been a boon to other gun-rights groups on the far right. Gun Owners of America, which claims 2 million members, touts a “no compromise” posture that led the group to view Trump as unfit for an endorsement in 2016. The leader of the National Association for Gun Rights recently denounced Trump, in part for his administration’s 2018 ban on bump stocks after a Las Vegas gunman in 2017 used the devices to kill 58 people in the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.

“Each of those entities are competing to be as far right as they can,” said David Pucino, legal director at Giffords, a gun-control advocacy organization. “You’re seeing some of the extreme groups’ influence on our politics and our legal system.”

While none of these groups are on track to supplant the NRA brand, their growth suggests gun-rights advocates no longer need a preeminent institution to lead the way in a hyperpartisan environment.

“NRA’s strength has really not been the headquarters. NRA’s strength has been the membership,” said Alan Gottlieb, founder of the Second Amendment Foundation, another NRA rival. “There’s so many ways of getting millions of gun owners out there, to get them engaged and active now. It’s a different playing field.”

Revenue rose 67 percent for Gottlieb’s group from 2016 to 2022, according to tax filings, which he attributed, in part, to increasing support from a firearms industry wary of NRA turmoil. Other gun-rights groups have been outspending the NRA on federal lobbying since 2018, according to OpenSecrets.

“The NRA is not the gun-rights movement,” said 71-year-old Martin Phillips of Wichita, a longtime NRA member who also belongs to Gun Owners of America. If the NRA disappeared, he said, “that’s not going to stop the gun rights movement at all. It’s a God-given right to protect yourself.”

At the same time mass killings have led to a surge of gun-control initiatives in blue states, the NRA and other gun-rights groups have successfully lobbied red states to loosen restrictions. Last year, Florida and Nebraska became the 26th and 27th “constitutional carry” states, passing laws that allow gun owners to carry without concealed-weapons permits.

“The opposition has thought they need to neutralize the NRA and get Wayne out of the way and everything will be fine,” Keene said. “But these gun owners believe so strongly in their rights whether we drop the ball or carry it.”

The gun rights movement also has found an ally in a Supreme Court stocked with Trump-appointed conservatives. In 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down New York’s century-old law requiring a specific need to carry a concealed weapon for self-defense, a landmark ruling making it easier to challenge regulations in other states. The court’s conservative supermajority has agreed to hear in March the NRA’s argument that the New York financial regulator is violating the First Amendment by pressuring banks and insurers to boycott the gun lobby.

Meanwhile, the Republican frontrunner is signaling his loyalty to the embattled group. Trump is scheduled to address an NRA event in Pennsylvania next week, bringing gun rights to the forefront of a campaign that, so far, has featured little to no debate over policy. Trump’s speech will be his eighth appearance before NRA members since 2015.

“It is significant that Trump sees the NRA as a force multiplier,” said Ken Blackwell, a former Ohio secretary of state and longtime board member, said of Trump’s upcoming speech. “This is a sign that our partnership is alive and well.”

Public support for stricter gun laws has increased by 6 percentage points since 2017, according to a Pew Research Center report conducted in June. A closer look at the data, however, finds stark partisan divides: 79 percent of people who often vote Republican says gun ownership increases safety in the United States, while 78 percent of frequent Democratic voters say it reduces safety.

Demonstrating the NRA’s arc of influence, pressure from the group a decade ago led then-Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) to vote against an assault weapons ban after the Sandy Hook shooting — a vote he regrets. Now, the gun lobby holds little to no sway over Democrats in Congress. Udall, who lost his Senate seat in 2014 to an NRA-backed challenger, wonders whether the NRA will be a player in November’s election.

“It’s going to test the influence and the reach of a weakened NRA and, more broadly, the Second Amendment proponents in the country,” Udall said. “That snapshot in time will tell us where the public mind is at this point.”

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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