Broken & Bankrupt: The NRA in 2021
National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre and the rest of the NRA leadership are on borrowed time after a year of lawsuits, investigations, and personal embarrassments stemming from allegations of gross mismanagement of the organization. While the power and influence they have built will take years to dissipate fully, the bottom line is clear: the past year has been a disaster for the NRA, and LaPierre in particular.
NRA leaders were forced to reveal in bankruptcy proceedings the depths of their mismanagement and incompetence, spent millions just to lose control of both the White House and Congress, and found themselves at odds with the public at every turn as they pushed an extremist agenda.1
In the courtroom, it would be difficult for the NRA to find itself on worse footing. It is facing litigation not only from former vendors but also the New York and District of Columbia attorneys general for the extravagant spending that has come to define CEO Wayne LaPierre’s tenure. In the face of these threats, the NRA made what might be its most desperate move yet: a Hail Mary bankruptcy filing in Texas in search of a proverbial get-out-of-jail-free card.
Put plainly, the NRA couldn’t even file bankruptcy correctly.
It didn’t work. In its Chapter 11 filing, the NRA spent millions on legal fees only to get
- Testimony in open court about rampant mismanagement.
- Evidence of luxurious personal spending by LaPierre including his private jet travel paid for by the NRA and family trips on a yacht paid for by a stakeholder of a key NRA vendor.
- The board president admitting to shredding and burning documents after being “told they could be subpoenaed and used.”
- A CFO pleading the Fifth Amendment.
- Ultimately a dismissal, with the judge finding the bankruptcy was not filed in good faith and that LaPierre’s efforts to hide the bankruptcy from the board were “shocking.”
Put plainly, the NRA couldn’t even file bankruptcy correctly.
NRA leaders also helped cement the organization’s reputation for pushing an extremist agenda. Last year, as COVID-19 spread across the country, the NRA leadership used the moment to focus on their real priority: pushing a guns everywhere, for anyone, agenda.
With the NRA Annual Meeting of Members scheduled for October 2021 in Charlotte, North Carolina, this report lays out the details of the reality the NRA doesn’t want to talk about with its members. From the NRA’s travels through the court system to answer for its various misdeeds, to the lurid details of mismanagement and incompetence coming out of those court cases, to a diminished balance sheet, to the various forms of extremism it has embraced, to its waning influence in American politics, the past year at the NRA is one Wayne LaPierre and NRA leaders would like you to forget.
- Wayne LaPierre’s Mismanagement and Abuse Surface from Courtroom
- Litigations, Bankruptcy, and Investigations
- In a Year of Crisis and Upheaval, the NRA Doubled Down on Extremism
- Continuing Financial Turmoil at the NRA
- NRA Election Failures Underscore Its Waning Influence
Wayne LaPierre’s Mismanagement and Abuse Surface from Courtroom
The most significant element of the NRA’s bankruptcy to NRA members, gun enthusiasts, lawmakers, and regulators was the avalanche of revelations about the NRA’s financial dealings that were unearthed during the trial and in adjacent litigations. The public learned that virtually no one at the NRA—other than NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre and his three closest board allies—knew about the planned bankruptcy filing, which is consistent with testimony that the organization was run as “Wayne’s kingdom,” where he employed what he himself reportedly called “management by chaos.” The trial included new information about LaPierre’s luxurious life on the company dime, including over $13 million for travel and a postemployment golden parachute worth $17 million.2 In addition, LaPierre was forced to testify about his annual weeklong trips to the Bahamas, where he stayed on one of two yachts owned by a Hollywood producer who is a stakeholder of key NRA vendors.
Wayne LaPierre’s Unsteady Leadership
The NRA’s bankruptcy trial prominently highlighted the failed leadership of Wayne LaPierre. A particularly powerful part of the trial involved testimony from several current and former NRA board members who spoke about the organization’s dysfunction and mismanagement. They painted a picture of a board incapable of exercising meaningful oversight over management, in part due to LaPierre’s stranglehold over the organization and a lack of transparency from his team. Examples include the following:
- Owen “Buz” Mills, who served on the NRA board from 2009 until August 2021, called LaPierre’s management a “trainwreck” during his testimony.3 Mills testified to the dysfunction of the NRA board and stated his belief that the NRA’s current problems were “our fault” because “[t]he board had failed to provide adequate supervision and direction.”4 When asked whether he believed the NRA had “self corrected,” Mills testified, “I believe that the management is corrupted and I believe the board is corrupted. I don’t see anything salvaging – anything there that’s salvageable.”5
- Ackerman McQueen executive and longtime Wayne LaPierre confidant Tony Makris testified that LaPierre had described his personal management style as “management by chaos,” wherein LaPierre intentionally kept senior leaders “at odds with each other, then he would maintain control.”6
- NRA board member Philip Journey, who is also a Kansas state judge, filed a motion with the bankruptcy court to appoint an examiner to investigate the allegations of fraud and waste at the NRA.7 Judge Journey’s motion alleged the NRA board had been reduced to a “figurehead while management steered the [NRA’s] overall direction.”8 He also raised questions about the conduct of the NRA board of directors’ legal counsel, saying, “NRA’s management, and the board’s own lawyer, withheld information from board members.”9 Journey further alleged that “on one occasion, the board’s attorney ostensibly told a board member to sit back, shut her mouth, stop asking questions, and trust that NRA management had everything under control.”10 In an especially dramatic moment of the trial, Journey testified he had come to realize the NRA “essentially operated as a kingdom rather than a corporation,” adding that it was “Wayne’s kingdom.”11 He said that “it became apparent that the corporate governance and the balance of power, the checks and balance – system of checks and balances was essentially nonexistent,” and the corporate governance structure “was worse than I ever imagined.”12
LaPierre’s shaky testimony also raised questions about his ability to lead the NRA. In particular, his inability to answer questions posed to him during cross-examination prompted Judge Harlin Hale to repeatedly sustain objections and instruct LaPierre to answer the question asked. On his first day of testimony, the judge chided LaPierre, saying, “Would you please listen to the question and answer it only? Because I’ve done this a few times this afternoon.”16 Remarkably, the NRA’s own lawyer took the extraordinary step of moving to strike LaPierre’s own testimony.17 This culminated in an exchange where the judge admonished LaPierre, “And I’m about to say something I’ve said for a day and a half now. Can you answer the questions that are asked?” adding, “Do you understand that I’ve said that to you more than a dozen times over the last day?”18
Ultimately, perhaps the greatest example of LaPierre’s failed leadership highlighted in the trial was his decision to plunge the NRA into bankruptcy, excluding others at the NRA—a move federal judge Hale described as “nothing less than shocking.”19 At the end of the Chapter 11 process, the NRA had lost what was left of its credibility, spent millions of dollars in legal fees, and made various disclosures required by the bankruptcy process — all to have the bankruptcy filing dismissed and for the NRA to end up in an even worse place than where the organization started before the bankruptcy proceeding began.
More NRA Board Members Resign.
Three NRA board members resigned in the lead-up to the 2021 NRA annual convention (which was cancelled at the last minute due to COVID-19 health concerns). In his purported resignation letter, Mills said he was resigning due to the NRA losing its insurance coverage that covers costs for directors and officers (D&O) in case they are sued as a result of their role with the organization.13 Ted Nugent resigned due to “schedule conflicts,” and Susan Howard resigned, reportedly saying she had a “sickness of heart at what I have discovered regarding the lack of leadership in our leaders—they have failed not only the board but the entire membership of millions of faithful contributors.”14 These three recent resignations from the NRA’s board of directors brings the number of the resignations in the past two and a half years alone to at least twelve.15
Yachts, Private Planes, and More for CEO Wayne LaPierre
While there has been a trickle of information about extravagant spending at the NRA in past years to the benefit of CEO Wayne LaPierre—from the contemplated purchase of a Dallas mansion to hundreds of thousands of dollars of expensive designer suits—courtroom battles over the past year publicly spilled new and damning details.
From the onset of the bankruptcy trial, LaPierre’s private jet travel took center stage. One of the major revelations was the disclosure of several spreadsheets allegedly detailing millions of dollars in private travel by NRA executives.20 The flights spanned from 2015 through 2019 and represented some of the most detailed disclosure of private travel by NRA executives to date. The entries included cost, dates, locations, and in some cases, passengers. These flights included several trips to Palm Springs, Las Vegas, and the Bahamas. LaPierre admitted to charging the NRA for private jet travel, including flights for private vacations and trips to pick up his niece in Nebraska.21After public scrutiny about his use of private jets, LaPierre paid the NRA back nearly $300,000 in flight costs—a fraction of the apparent total spent on private flights—as an excess benefit transaction.22 In total, the New York attorney general has alleged that “the NRA paid over $10 million” for LaPierre’s private charter flights during his time at the NRA.23
In total, the New York attorney general has alleged that “the NRA paid over $10 million” for LaPierre’s private charter flights during his time at the NRA.
At trial, LaPierre explained that the NRA paid for his personal travel agent, Gayle Stanford, with whom he would book trips and private flights. The travel agent testified that she didn’t have a written contract with the NRA for more than two decades, until 2019. She testified that, without formal approval, she added a 10 percent fee on all travel booked for the NRA.24 According to the New York attorney general, the NRA paid Stanford more than $13.5 million, in aggregate, between August 2014 and January 2020, of which one could estimate personal fees to Stanford of over $1 million.25 In deposition testimony played in court, Stanford said that LaPierre had occasionally instructed her how to word invoices for his travel, including invoices that omitted flight details about trips to Nebraska, where his niece lives, and the Bahamas.26
Deposition and trial testimony also indicated that LaPierre received expensive benefits and perks from at least two NRA vendor.27 Most notably, LaPierre admitted that, starting in 2013, he began making annual weeklong trips to the Bahamas, where he stayed on one of two yachts owned by a Hollywood producer, who is a part or full stakeholder of multiple NRA vendors. In addition, LaPierre said he also made multiple annual trips around New Year’s Eve to the Bahamas to stay at a resort,28 also paid for by the producer.
LaPierre testified that these yacht trips were a “security retreat.”29 His claim, in a pretrial deposition, that this more than one-hundred-foot yacht was “the one place” he could “feel safe” after high-profile school shootings30 was widely criticized by the public and in various press accounts. LaPierre testified, “I was basically under presidential threat without presidential security in terms of the number of threats I was getting,” and that “this [yacht] was the one place that I hope could feel safe, where I remember getting there going, ‘Thank God I’m safe, nobody can get me here.’”31
In addition, LaPierre admitted that NRA vendor Under Wild Skies covered the costs of hunting trips—including airfare, licenses, professional hunters, and game equipment—to exotic locales like Botswana for him and his wife.32 The vendor even reportedly paid to preserve and ship their hunting trophies to the couple’s home. This trial testimony came just days ahead of a leaked video that made national news showing LaPierre on one of these hunts in Botswana repeatedly missing his shot and wounding an elephant.33 In March 2021, the species of elephant was declared to be endangered. The footage showed LaPierre shooting the elephant several times in the wrong spot, with the host eventually firing the fatal shot after LaPierre was unable to do so. The footage also showed LaPierre’s wife, Susan LaPierre, shooting and killing an elephant, and then cutting off its tail and holding it over her head while shouting, “Victory!”34 Parts of the animals were allegedly surreptitiously shipped to the LaPierres by an outside vendor, including the front feet, which were turned into stools for their home.35
From yachts to private planes to expensive African safaris, this was the year when rumors of LaPierre’s extravagance were substantiated with documents, details and testimony.
NRA Trial Leaves Unanswered Questions and Certain Information Unavailable
The revelations from the NRA’s various legal battles weren’t confined to CEO Wayne LaPierre. Testimony from two other NRA leaders left several questions unanswered.
The organization’s longtime chief financial officer, Woody Phillips, was a key component of the bankruptcy trial—despite not saying much of substance. The New York attorney general played deposition testimony in court showing Phillips invoking his Fifth Amendment rights no fewer than eighty times on several topics, including questions about Wayne LaPierre’s travel, fundraising arrangements with NRA vendors, and LaPierre’s relationship with former longtime PR firm Ackerman McQueen.36 The Fifth Amendment of the US Constitution offers legal protection against self-incrimination by providing individuals with the right not to testify. The decision of Phillips to plead the Fifth Amendment leaves key questions unanswered and foreshadows problems for the NRA in its civil litigation against the New York attorney general—in which Phillips is a named defendant—including whether the testimony from the bankruptcy trial will be used in the New York case, and whether the refusal to testify will result in adverse inferences against the NRA, Phillips, or both that could assist the attorney general’s case.
The NRA attempted to point the finger at Phillips during the bankruptcy trial, with the NRA’s counsel calling him a “man not up for the job.”37 This position was undercut by 2019 testimony by Wayne LaPierre—in a separate matter—that he had tried to convince Phillips not to retire and instead to stay at the NRA as CFO.38 Further, in May 2018, Phillips and LaPierre both received generous contracts with the NRA. For Phillips, the contract was a $360,000-a-year postemployment consulting contract.39 Recently departed CFO Craig Spray testified that while the NRA paid Phillips over $600,000 in 2019, Phillips did not provide any services to the NRA’s Treasury Department that year.40 The revelation that LaPierre actually tried to convince Phillips to stay on as CFO and that the NRA provided him such a generous postemployment contract severely undermines the NRA’s central argument at trial that it had righted its own ship internally.41
Another bombshell from the NRA bankruptcy trial came when it was revealed that NRA board president Carolyn Meadows had acknowledged that in the early part of 2019, she “destroyed” notes; when asked at a pretrial deposition why she did this, Meadows testified that she was “told they could be subpoenaed and used.”42 Meadows testified that she “shredded” some of the documents, while other documents she “actually burned.”43 While the evidence was not available at trial (nor will it be at future trials), questions remain about what was in those notes.
Litigations, Bankruptcy, and Investigations
Legal proceedings and lawyers continue to dominate the NRA’s day-to-day existence, with the NRA reportedly having spent $22 million on legal fees in the first five months of this year alone.44 Over the past year, the NRA has seemingly found itself in the news more for the legal drama that surrounds it, rather than its purported nonprofit purpose of Second Amendment advocacy.
Most notably, the NRA continues to face existential threats from regulatory lawsuits brought by the attorneys general of New York and the District of Columbia for alleged violations of charities laws.
- The complaint filed by New York attorney general Letitia James includes 18 separate causes of action that largely center around the alleged widespread mismanagement of the NRA as a charity, with CEO Wayne LaPierre as the ringleader of that activity. According to the attorney general, “LaPierre effectively dominates and controls the NRA Board as a whole through his control of business, patronage and special payment opportunities for board members, and his public allegations to the NRA membership of a ‘criminal conspiracy’ against board members and officers who question his activities.”45 On August 16, 2021, the AG’s Office amended its complaint to add new allegations of wrongdoing primarily related to the NRA’s failed bankruptcy.46 The new filing alleges that “the NRA, LaPierre, and [General Counsel John] Frazer have continued the same course of misconduct in violation of New York law, IRS requirements for exempt organizations, NRA bylaws, and internal policies and procedures without objection from the NRA Board.”47 Among other potential remedies, the New York attorney general’s case seeks the dissolution of the NRA. In January 2021, New York Justice Joel Cohen rejected the NRA’s attempt to dismiss the case, or in the alternative move the venue of the case.48 Discovery in this case is ongoing, with no trial date set.
- The NRA and its sister 501(c)(3) organization, the NRA Foundation, also suffered an initial loss in the case brought against it by District of Columbia Attorney General Karl Racine. In a December 2020 ruling, DC Superior Court Judge Jose M. Lopez issued an opinion allowing the attorney general’s enforcement action to proceed.49 The complaint alleges that the NRA Foundation exceeded and abused the authority of the charity, and that the foundation acted contrary to its nonprofit purpose. The crux of the allegations by the DC attorney general are that, “in recent years, the NRA has experienced financial problems related, in large part, to low membership and the NRA’s decision to continue to waste funds on improper, lavish spending. To plug holes caused by its own poor management, the NRA turned to the Foundation’s funds.”50
As referenced previously, the NRA took the desperate step of filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in January 2021. The NRA seemingly availed itself of the bankruptcy process to halt legal proceedings against it by state attorneys general, former vendors, and donors. NRA leaders openly admitted this, including board member Bob Barr, who said the bankruptcy “has nothing to do with the NRA’s financial position. . . . It simply is a legal vehicle to move under protection of federal laws, to escape the abuse by the New York authorities.”51 The New York and DC attorneys general both objected to the bankruptcy filing, resulting in a twelve-day trial in a Texas bankruptcy court.
After hearing the evidence, the bankruptcy court threw out the NRA’s case in short order. In a written decision issued on May 11, federal bankruptcy judge Harlin Hale dismissed the NRA’s Chapter 11 filing for not being filed in “good faith,” holding that the “NRA is using this bankruptcy case to address a regulatory enforcement problem, not a financial one.”52 The judge also wrote, “There are several aspects of this case that still trouble the Court,” and said there were “cringeworthy” facts during this trial, something the NRA’s counsel acknowledged. The judge, who presided over the twelve-day trial, wrote, “It has become apparent that the NRA was suffering from inadequate governance and internal controls.”53
Judge Hale’s decision in throwing out the case relied largely on the testimony and actions of NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre. Judge Hale wrote, “What concerns the court most though is the surreptitious manner in which Mr. LaPierre obtained and exercised authority to file bankruptcy for the NRA. Excluding so many people from the process of deciding to file for bankruptcy, including the vast majority of the board of directors, the chief financial officer, and the general counsel, is nothing less than shocking.”
The NRA’s legal battles with its former public relations vendor, Ackerman McQueen, also continue to wind through the courts. Public reports estimate that, prior to a very public and messy separation, the NRA paid Ackerman more than $40 million in a single year for various media services, including the failed NRATV.54 The court previously dismissed significant portions of the NRA’s case against Ackerman McQueen and individual Ackerman McQueen executives, although several contract-related claims remain.55 Ackerman has filed counterclaims against the NRA that levy several new and detailed allegations of wrongdoing at the NRA, with causes of action for breach of contract, fraud, defamation, and civil conspiracy all headed to trial.56 The case is of significant monetary value, with Ackerman stating that it is seeking over $50 million in damages from the NRA.57 The federal court in the Northern District of Texas overseeing the case has previously indicated a trial could be possible in late 2021, although the date could slip into 2022.
The NRA also faces a donor class action lawsuit brought in federal court in Tennessee by prominent NRA donor David Dell’Aquila.58 The case is still in its early stages procedurally, but Dell’Aquila alleges that NRA donors were defrauded because NRA funds were spent on items that were not in furtherance of the NRA’s mission.59
Moreover, in November 2020, the NRA paid a $2.5 million fine to settle a case brought by the New York State Department of Financial Services that charged the NRA as acting as an unlicensed insurance producer with respect to its “Carry Guard” insurance program.60 The program, which promised to cover an individual’s legal expenses if they shoot someone and claim self-defense, was unveiled at the 2017 NRA annual meeting with much fanfare but has subsequently become a regulatory debacle. The state also alleged that the NRA deceived its members with misleading marketing practices.61 The civil charges brought by the New York State Department of Financial Services followed a multiyear investigation that began in 2017, when the Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund conducted and shared with regulators an investigation and legal analysis of the NRA’s Carry Guard program.
The NRA’s legal problems continue to drain the association’s coffers, with the New York Attorney General’s Office indicating that the “NRA has paid the Brewer [law] firm nearly $75 million in legal fees” from March 2018 to December 2020.
Tax issues also continue to haunt the NRA. During the course of the NRA’s failed bankruptcy, the Internal Revenue Service alleged that the NRA owed the government more than $3.4 million.62 About $1.4 million of that sum relates to undisclosed excise taxes and related interest that the NRA failed to pay between 2014 and 2018. In 2020, it was reported that Wayne LaPierre, individually, was under criminal investigation for potential tax fraud related to his personal taxes.63 In trial testimony in front of the bankruptcy court, longtime NRA adviser Tony Makris said that LaPierre told him and other colleagues that lawyer Bill Brewer was the “only one who can keep me out of jail,” and that Brewer was the only one standing between him and “an orange jumpsuit.”64
The NRA’s legal problems continue to drain the association’s coffers, with the New York Attorney General’s Office indicating that the “NRA has paid the Brewer [law] firm nearly $75 million in legal fees” from March 2018 to December 2020.65 The NRA’s deteriorating financial condition is described in detail in the section, “Continuing Financial Turmoil at the NRA.”
In a Year of Crisis and Upheaval, the NRA Doubled Down on Extremism
While NRA leaders have spent decades leveraging the energy of extremists for its own ends, in the past year the NRA went to new lengths to embrace rising extremism and conspiracism: peddling COVID-19 misinformation, advancing false and ridiculous QAnon conspiracy theories, supporting armed demonstrations, and more.
Within weeks of the declaration of a pandemic, the NRA was back to the usual playbook: aggravating people’s sense of uncertainty and offering guns as a solution to their fears.66 The NRA warned that politicians were “exploiting the COVID-19 pandemic to deny you and your loved ones your fundamental right to self-defense and your Second Amendment rights . . . against a backdrop of reported prisoner furloughs and law enforcement only arresting for the most serious of crimes.” This warning was capped off with an appeal for donations.67 NRA second vice president Willes Lee was more blunt, saying that during COVID-19, “You need a firearm to protect from the criminals that Dem[ocrats] are releasing.”68 Early on in the pandemic, the NRA released a video that warned, “You might be stockpiling up on food right now to get through this current crisis. But if you aren’t preparing to defend your property when everything goes wrong, you’re really just stockpiling for somebody else.”69
The NRA and its leaders have even spread conspiracy theories suggesting that the counts of sick and dead from COVID-19 were fake or inflated. Fact check after fact check has debunked conspiracy theories about the supposed inflation of the number of deaths from COVID-19.70 In May 2020, NRA board member and former president Marion Hammer complained that publishing “the cumulative number” of COVID-19 patients in a Florida county “without publishing the current number of active cases is deliberately deceptive.”71 Even in December 2020, the NRA published a piece on its website claiming that the number of deaths from COVID-19 had been inflated by public health officials, a claim it then used to cast aspersions on public health statistics regarding gun deaths.72 The day the piece went up on the NRA’s website, 2,668 people in the United States died from COVID-19.73
NRA board members reacted to the pandemic by rushing headlong into racist remarks, dismissals, and conspiracy theories. Almost immediately, then-NRA board member Ted Nugent commiserated with conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, claiming that the pandemic had arisen from an “evil” Chinese culture that tortures dogs: “This is the same Asian culture of the Bataan Death March and the Rape of Nanking.”74 NRA second vice president Willes Lee has used the racist terms “Wuhan virus” and “China virus” online dozens of times and even suggested the virus itself was an “election ploy” that would “go away” after the 2020 election.75 Rep. Don Young (R-AK), an NRA board member, dismissed the virus as a “beer virus” and called for citizens “to go forth with our everyday activities.”76
NRA board members’ comments on the pandemic did not stop at dismissals: they actively encouraged protests against pandemic-related public health restrictions. In a since-deleted video at one such protest, NRA board member Anthony Colandro encouraged others to attend the rally and claimed the virus was “a bunch of bullshit” and “a media virus.” He added, “We are being spoon-fed socialism every day and 8.5 million people are just bending over and taking it. . . . Y’know what? I hope you all get an anal probe with a microchip in it because this is what we’ve become: sheep.”77 The NRA also retweeted Donald Trump’s tweet calling to “LIBERATE VIRGINIA.”78 When protesters at the state capitol in Michigan openly carried long guns and Confederate flags and called for Governor Gretchen Whitmer to be “locked up” over her administration’s pandemic-related public health restrictions,79 longtime NRA board member Ted Nugent praised them as his “bloodbrothers” [sic].80
While the NRA’s leaders praised armed demonstrations against measures to stop the spread of COVID-19, they leveled cartoonish and offensive accusations against those who protested for racial equity in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. Some even maligned Floyd himself. NRA board member Allen West said that Black Lives Matter was “no different” from Nazi brownshirts81 and “cannot be allowed to exist.”82 Meanwhile, fellow board member Mark Geist called the movement a “rancid evil trying to over take our country.”83 NRA second vice president Willes Lee referred to the group as “domestic terrorists” and urged Donald Trump to enact national concealed carry reciprocity—a dangerous policy to undermine any requirements for carrying a hidden, loaded gun in public—“for our self defense.”84 Since the renewed calls for racial equity, Ted Nugent shared a meme complaining that Black people had yet to thank white people for ending slavery85 and falsely claimed that “Thugpunk George Floyd killed himself with fentanyl while he disgraced his family his community his race and his country.”86
While the NRA’s leaders blasted those protesting for racial equity, the organization remained silent about the disproportionately violent response from police around the country.87 For decades, the NRA has spread conspiracy theories and fearmongered about a supposedly looming authoritarian police state that was only held at bay by easy access to guns. But when police responded with unwarranted force at protests against racism, the NRA stayed silent.
Donald Trump was hardly the only candidate with extremist beliefs whom the NRA endorsed in 2020. Last year, NRA board member Mark Robinson won election as lieutenant governor of North Carolina. Robinson, who received NRA support, has a history of making anti-Semitic and homophobic statements, including in an interview he gave with a far-right religious leader who plans to become king of the United States.88
Among others, the NRA also endorsed multiple candidates for state and federal office who had espoused beliefs in the QAnon conspiracy theory, including Marjorie Taylor Greene.89 In addition to embracing QAnon, Greene has ties to multiple far-right extremist organizations,90 has harassed school shooting survivors,91 and has endorsed conspiracy theories that the Sandy Hook92 and Parkland93 shootings were “false flag” events. Another NRA-endorsed candidate who has espoused QAnon beliefs, Lauren Boebert, has been featured in NRA publications for years,94 including earlier this year when one called her a “brave, Glock-toting woman” who is “unstoppable.”95 In addition, at least five NRA board members have shared QAnon-related content online.96
The NRA’s embrace of QAnon conspiracy theorists is hardly surprising. For decades, the NRA has enabled access to guns by right-wing extremists through its advocacy against common sense gun laws, while simultaneously harnessing the extremists’ fixation on guns and a violent response to perceived government overreach. In doing so, the gun lobby has amplified radicalizing messaging to new and broader audiences.
Simply put, the NRA has long claimed that the threat of an armed insurrection is the only thing stopping an authoritarian takeover of the American government and that easy access to guns is crucial to an armed popular uprising.97 With this faulty logic in place, the NRA can use conspiracy theories to paint even the most modest change to gun laws from an opposing candidate as the first step in an insidious plan to implement authoritarianism, thus increasing fear among the electorate and generating money and political motivation for its cause. As the NRA’s former number two recently put it in a tell-all book, Wayne LaPierre knew that when the NRA needed to raise money, it could depend on fear-mongering messaging, which LaPierre purportedly referred to as pouring “gasoline on the fire.”98 This sort of rhetoric continued around the 2020 election. In October 2020, LaPierre addressed the NRA’s Annual Meeting of Members. Explaining that the stakes in the election “couldn’t be higher,” LaPierre encouraged members to “fight like your very right to survival is on the line in this national election.”99 And in January 2021, LaPierre sent a letter to members warning of “armed government agents storming your house, taking your guns, and hauling you off to prison.”100 The note boasted that “only the NRA has the strength to win knock-down brawls on Capitol Hill.”101
Continuing Financial Turmoil at the NRA
The pandemic has been financially devastating for many individuals and organizations around the country. However, due to its already weakened position after years of mismanagement and questionable spending by its leaders, the NRA was particularly hobbled during the COVID-19 pandemic. Within two weeks of the declaration of a pandemic, reports emerged that the NRA was preparing layoffs and implementing a 20 percent pay cut for employees.102 By June 2020, we learned of the extent of those measures: the NRA had laid off or furloughed 200 staff members.103 One unnamed NRA official warned at the time that the layoffs and furloughs “have further harmed both the NRA’s legal capacity and political influence beyond what was already a troubling deterioration.” A court filing indicated that by early 2021, the NRA had been reduced to 490 employees,104 down from the 770 it reported at the start of 2020105 and just over half the recent high reported four years earlier.106
A court filing indicated that by early 2021, the NRA had been reduced to 490 employees, down from the 770 it reported at the start of 2020 and just over half the recent high reported four years earlier.
The NRA’s leadership blamed the pandemic, claiming that “[l]ike every other business and nonprofit, we are forced to make tough choices in this new economic environment” created by the pandemic.107 However, 2019, the last year for which there is a full public accounting of the NRA’s financial state, was the fourth year in a row108 that the NRA had run a deficit.109 In January 2020, just two months before the start of the pandemic, Wayne LaPierre was recorded telling the NRA board of directors that the organization had taken “about a $100 million hit in lost revenue and real cost to this association in 2018 and 2019,” due to the various legal issues facing it. He also said that for the NRA “to survive,” he took “about $80 million” out of the budget and “took it down to the studs.”110
LaPierre’s statement and the NRA’s various disclosures from the previous several years made it clear that the group’s leaders had left it in a precarious financial position. As one expert noted, “Everybody’s in the same boat as the NRA. The NRA’s real problem is they had real existing financial problems before this happened.”111
Through mandated financial disclosures, more has been divulged about that precarious position. Those disclosures have revealed that, in response to the organization’s financial problems, NRA leaders have targeted programs relating to safety, education, training, and hunting services.
In 2019, the NRA cut spending on “Safety, education & training” by approximately $4.3 million,112 meaning for at least the second year in a row, less than 10 percent of what the NRA spent was dedicated to that category. In fact, in those two years, the NRA cut spending on “Safety, education & training” by approximately a third.113
Meanwhile, 2020 marked the third year in a row that the NRA cut spending on “Hunter Services” by more than 60 percent.114 That year, “Hunter Services” accounted for less than 0.08 percent of the NRA’s reported spending.115
In addition, the NRA’s “Eddie Eagle” gun safety program for children “has essentially fallen apart,” with a drop of some 95 percent in 2020 in terms of the number of children the program reached.116
Number of Children Reached by NRA’s Eddie Eagle Program
At the same time the NRA was cutting spending for training and hunter services, it spent more on lawyers. The NRA hired its top outside law firm, Brewer, Attorneys & Counselors, three years ago. Although the picture of how much the NRA has paid the firm is incomplete, the New York Attorney General’s Office indicates that the “NRA has paid the Brewer [law] firm nearly $75 million in legal fees” from March 2018 to December 2020.117
The NRA reported nearly $45.9 million in “Legal, Audit and Taxes” spending in 2019,118 a 250 percent increase in two years.119 Separately, media reports indicate that the NRA’s legal spending on outside counsel in 2020 even exceeded its 2019 expenditures, and as of the first several months of 2021, was on pace to match or even surpass that spending this year on outside legal fees.120
A large portion of the $22 million the NRA reportedly spent on legal fees in just the first five months of 2021121 was likely driven by legal fees for the NRA’s failed attempt at bankruptcy. In its initial bankruptcy filings, the NRA disclosed that it had already dedicated more than $6 million for the bankruptcy before it even filed.122 Further, the New York Attorney General’s Office has alleged that the bankruptcy “cost the NRA tens of millions of dollars in attorneys’ fees, payments to proposed restructuring officers, costs relating to special board meetings necessitated by the filing, and other expenses” (emphasis added).123
the New York Attorney General’s Office has alleged that the bankruptcy “cost the NRA tens of millions of dollars in attorneys’ fees, payments to proposed restructuring officers, costs relating to special board meetings necessitated by the filing, and other expenses”.
Given the way the NRA leadership has spent its members’ money in recent years, it’s hardly surprising that in 2019 alone, the organization’s revenue from membership dues dropped by a third124 to its lowest levels in seven years.125 That drop, along with a $10 million decrease in contributions, meant that the NRA’s revenue was down by more than $57 million, or 13 percent, in 2019.126 Reports indicate that the NRA’s total revenue declined again in 2020 and revenue was lagging even the 2020 figure through the first several months of 2021.127
NRA Election Failures Underscore Its Waning Influence
“If you look at what has happened to the NRA’s public image and their public communications in the last three years, it’s a graduate level course in what not to do in communication. That organization in 2016 was at its pinnacle, and perhaps the most powerful political organization in the United States at the time. And in three years, it has disappeared from the scene, not mentioned, not heard of, and you just got a textbook example of what a national election looks like without the NRA involved.”Tony Makris, Longtime NRA Advisor and Supporter128
Due in large part to scandal, legal bills, and extremism, the NRA’s declining influence in the policy and electoral sphere was on full display in the past year. At the ballot box, the NRA lost the three races in which it invested the most organizational resources: the White House and the two US Senate races in Georgia.
The contrast between 2016 and 2020 could not be more stark. In 2016, the NRA was the largest independent group supporting Donald Trump’s candidacy, spending a reported $31.2 million on the presidential race.129 In 2020, the amount the NRA spent supporting Trump dropped some 47 percent, to $16.6 million.130 Overall, the NRA’s spending on all federal elections dropped from $54.4 million in 2016 to $29.1 million in 2020.131
The huge drop in federal election spending could be explained by the group’s many financial and legal troubles, as Donald Trump himself speculated that “they’re spending all of their money on fighting the attorney general of New York” instead of spending to support his campaign.132 The New York Times noted the NRA’s muted appearance in 2020, writing, “Long the nation’s most powerful gun lobby, the N.R.A. played a diminished role in the 2020 election, hampered by financial woes and a host of legal challenges.”133
The NRA did, however, invest quite seriously in the Georgia Senate runoff elections. The group poured at least $4.5 million to support Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue.134 Weeks before the runoff election, the NRA claimed, “The stakes of this Senate runoff could not be higher” and emphasized, “Georgia is the key to protecting our right to keep and bear arms.”135 Ultimately, both of the NRA-backed candidates lost, giving Democrats the majority in the US Senate for the first time since 2014.
One NRA publication lamented the loss, writing, “After the 2016 election, gun owners had a president, a U.S. House of Representatives and a U.S. Senate that respected their elementary rights. On Inauguration Day , all three will be gone, to be replaced by a president who promises to ‘defeat the NRA,’ a U.S. House of Representatives run by Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), and a Senate majority leader who is vowing to ‘change America.”136
In a recent tell-all memoir, former NRA chief of staff Josh Powell casts doubt on whether the NRA had any meaningful lobbying strategy with the Trump White House. Powell recalls that in early 2017, he met with Steve Bannon at the White House, where Bannon asked him “What do I need to do for you guys?” Powell responded, “Number one, we need money. . . . We’re broke — we spent every dime on the election supporting the president. Number two, we need national reciprocity. Honestly, that’s our legislative priority.” As Powell reports, he then realized that neither Steve Bannon nor Jared Kushner knew what concealed carry reciprocity was, and that no one in the White House knew about the bill that had passed the House. Powell opined, “Clearly Chris Cox, our chief lobbyist, was not creating enough noise. Yet inside the NRA he was claiming, ‘I’ve got this covered.’ Well, he didn’t.”137
“I’ve gotten a lot of calls from Republicans in the Senate who don’t want to fight this fight any longer because the NRA’s authority is fading, the anti-gun-violence movement’s impact is increasing, and I think we have a chance.”145US Senator Chris Murphy
The NRA’s declining influence is also evidenced in its increasing partisanship. Earlier in 2021, Jason Ouimet, the executive director of the NRA’s lobbying arm, claimed that the “NRA has been and continues to be a nonpartisan organization that endorses politicians across the political spectrum.”138 In practice, the NRA almost exclusively supports Republican candidates for federal office. According to the New York Times, the NRA “continues to lose ground in Congress, with the last remnants of its Democratic support vanishing and its still-high Republican support eroding slightly.”139 In its attempt to keep lawmakers in check, the NRA brands legislators with letter grades, assessments that have become more stratified and polarized over time. For the second election in a row, the NRA gave more Fs than As in 2020.140 Of the candidates in 2020 whose grades changed since their last election, three times as many had their grades downgraded compared to those whose grades were upgraded.141 In addition, the number of A-rated Democrats in both houses of Congress declined from sixty-three in 2008142 to zero today.143 In fact, there is currently only one Democrat in Congress with a rating better than a C.144
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The NRA has become synonymous with mismanagement, extremism, greed, and scandal. Indeed, in many ways the NRA’s rhetoric and positions on gun rights seem ancillary, and primarily in service of keeping donations flowing and existing management in power. With scandal continuing to engulf the organization and no change in sight at the top, 2021 and 2022 seem destined to see the NRA veer even further from the mainstream and double down on the failed leadership of Wayne LaPierre.