Days after Trump speech, NRA is in turmoil and under investigation

Christopher Wilson
Senior Writer

Be careful what you wish for: Few entities put more effort into the election of Donald Trump than the National Rifle Association, but that epic 2016 victory increasingly seems hollow.

The NRA put $30 million into getting Trump elected — and potentially up to $70 million overall in the 2016 campaign — but the 147-year-old group is wobbling from internal strife, state investigations and a lack of funds.

Following a joint investigation by the New Yorker and the Trace alleging that millions of dollars of NRA money had been misappropriated to an outside consulting firm, there have been calls in the gun-rights movement for a shakeup. Last week’s national convention, at which President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence spoke, was shadowed by infighting between the group’s president, conservative commentator Oliver North, and the group’s longtime chief executive and public face, Wayne LaPierre.

In a letter to the NRA board, which was published Friday in the Wall Street Journal, LaPierre said North had attempted to blackmail him into resigning: “Delivered by a member of our Board on behalf of his employer, the exhortation was simple: resign or there will be destructive allegations made against me and the NRA,” wrote LaPierre. “I believe our Board and devoted members will see this for what it is: a threat meant to intimidate and divide us. I choose to stand and fight, and hope to bring 5 million members with me.”

In a boardroom showdown, LaPierre prevailed, and on Saturday North said he would not seek a second term.

Oliver North, Donald Trump and Wayne LaPierre. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: AP, Michael Conroy/AP, AP)

As the NRA was gathering in Indianapolis, New York state Attorney General Letitia James was announcing an investigation into the group’s finances, which may imperial its tax-exempt status. While the NRA now has its headquarters in Virginia, it was originally chartered in New York, leaving it under the Empire State’s jurisdiction. Last summer, the NRA filed a complaint against New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo over his urging banks and insurance companies to reconsider their ties with the organization.

Trump, who spoke at the NRA’s convention last week, came to the group’s defense on Twitter Monday morning.

“The NRA is under siege by Cuomo and the New York State A.G., who are illegally using the State’s legal apparatus to take down and destroy this very important organization, & others. It must get its act together quickly, stop the internal fighting, & get back to GREATNESS - FAST!” wrote Trump, adding, “The NRA should leave and fight from the outside of this very difficult to deal with (unfair) State!”

James’s office responded a few hours later.

“Attorney General Letitia James is focused on enforcing the rule of law,” her office said. “In any case we pursue, we will follow the facts wherever they may lead. We wish the President would share our respect for the law.”

If the group wanted to escape James’s jurisdiction, they would have to dissolve and re-form in another state — which would require James’s permission — and cease doing any business in New York, per reporting from NPR.

The NRA’s problems are not limited to James and Cuomo. In October, nine Democratic senators called for an investigation into whether the group was skirting election laws to coordinate with Republican campaigns through a shell company. The organization’s ties with Russia have come under scrutiny following a guilty plea from Maria Butina, a Russian agent who had aligned herself closely with the NRA. Board members have also openly questioned the need for NRATV, a streaming service that has waded into the culture war on a number of issues unaffiliated with guns. In November, NRATV went through a round of layoffs.

A papier-mâché doll of President Trump wearing a "Make America Great Again" hat is set up near a stall at the 2019 National Rifle Association’s annual meeting in Indianapolis. (Photo: Seth Herald/AFP/Getty Images)

Gun sales are down overall since the 2016 election, which took away the urgency of the NRA’s apocalyptic warning that a Democratic boogeyman in the White House would seize citizens’ firearms. (Ammo.com called President Barack Obama “the greatest gun salesman in America,” and firearms sales hit a record high in 2016 with Hillary Clinton leading in the polls against Trump.) In the run-up to the 2018 election, the spending of gun-safety groups outpaced the NRA’s expenditures as the organization dealt with an income decline of $55 million. In addition, dozens of companies cut ties with the NRA and gun manufacturers in the wake of the February 2018 Parkland, Fla., shooting.

The organization also lost a pair of legislative battles in the wake of a series of mass shootings, with support for pro-gun bills weakening even with Republican majorities and Trump in the White House. The group was pushing for concealed carry reciprocity (allowing one state’s concealed carry permit to also cover the other 49 states) and increased ease in buying silencers, but both efforts stalled in Congress.

Even if it disappeared, the NRA will have achieved its mission of promoting gun ownership, with one 2018 study finding there were more guns than people in the United States. But if the group can survive the investigations, infighting and drop in revenue, it could regain its clout in 2021 if it is lucky enough for its worst nightmare to come true: the election of a Democratic president.

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