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The NRA’s Falling Fortunes

The gun-rights group’s political influence is dwindling along with its supply of cash.

May 6, 2019

Our story has to start with the clothes.

In a bizarre twist in the recent battle for control of the National Rifle Association, former NRA President Oliver North publicly charged that Wayne LaPierre, the organization’s long-time CEO, had improperly received $275,000 worth of suits and other clothing.

North’s accusations, which may be part of an investigation by New York Attorney General Letitia James, represent a historic step for gender equality. Unlike Sarah Palin, this time around it’s a man who is accused of abusing a clothing allowance.

The huge sum spent from 2004 to 2017 to give LaPierre the Beau Brummel look is a symptom of a larger problem: The free-spending NRA is hemorrhaging money partly due to excessive spending by insiders on themselves.

A mid-April investigative article on the NRA’s finances by Mike Spies for the New Yorker concluded that “a small group of NRA executives, contractors and venders has extracted hundreds of millions of dollars from the nonprofit’s budget, through gratuitous payments, sweetheart deals and opaque financial arrangements.”

The revelations keep dribbling out. Mark Maremont of the Wall Street Journal recently reported that LaPierre ran up $240,000 in iffy travel expenses charged to the organization’s advertising agency, Ackerman McQueen. North’s unsuccessful challenge to LaPierre and the unexpected look at embarrassing aspects of the NRA’s books all flow from an internecine dispute between the organization and Ackerman McQueen over $40 million in fees.

Picking sides between hard-line zealot LaPierre and the Oklahoma ad agency that helped push the NRA into the vicious conspiratorial politics of the far right is akin to choosing between arsenic and hemlock for a midday treat. But what the battle illustrates is the degree to which the NRA has become a toothless tiger, a jungle animal whose fearsome reputation is all that it still has going for it.

Supporting Donald Trump with guns blazing, the NRA and its political arm spent $30 million on the 2016 presidential race and another $24 million on Senate and House races. But in 2018, with Republican control of Congress in jeopardy, the NRA could only throw a paltry $9.4 million into the fray.

With the exception of Republican Marsha Blackburn, who received $15,800 for her successful Tennessee Senate race, the NRA’s contributions to all other 2018 candidates were limited to a maximum of $9,900 each. Put another way, the NRA spent as much on LaPierre’s suits as the top 23 pro-gun Senate and House candidates it backed in 2018.

The reason for the shift in giving was not some devilishly clever social media strategy or similar political gambit, but because the organization is fast going broke.

According to public records, the NRA was $17 million in the red in 2017. But this is not a one-year shortfall. An analysis for the New Yorker of the NRA’s financial statements by Ohio State accounting professor Brian Mittendorf found that in seven of the last 11 years, the organization owed more money than it had. As an example of the ongoing crisis, a $25 million line of credit was exhausted in 2017.

None of this suggests that desperate NRA executives will soon be camped along roadsides with signs that read, “Will Oppose Sensible Gun Regulations for Food.” The NRA’s lobbyists can still pull off legislative victories such as a recent Florida vote to allow teachers to pack pistols in the classroom. Needless to say, this is a twisted response to such tragedies as the Parkland school shooting.

An enduring lesson of political life is that influence along the corridors of power on Capitol Hill and in state legislative chambers is not eternal. Right now, the Chamber of Commerce, once the most potent pro-business group in America, is in lobbying limbo because of the hostility of Donald Trump and his minions.

The NRA is not likely to go the way of the Anti-Saloon League, which was mortally wounded by the unpopularity of Prohibition. But the NRA’s joined-at-the-holster alliance with Trump brings with it similar risks if the Democrats retake the White House in 2020. The organization has already become an anathema in suburban swing districts, and a lack of campaign cash will eventually limit the NRA’s clout elsewhere.

But whatever happens to the NRA in the years ahead, Second Amendment absolutists can always take comfort in knowing that Wayne LaPierre has a closet filled with great suits.

(Image: SA, Getty/BCJ)

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.