We wouldn’t be completely honest if we didn’t acknowledge a sense of schadenfreude as the National Rifle Assn. faces what seems to be its most significant challenge in recent memory: a revolution from within. The issue isn’t the group’s inane response to gun violence and mass shootings (its solution: more guns, fewer crazy people); instead, it’s allegations of self-dealing among some of the top figures of what has become, in essence, a front for the gun lobby. Still, it’s a significant thing when members of such a powerful and secretive organization stand up and demand more accountability for how it conducts itself. We wish the rebels speedy success.
What happens to the NRA matters to everyone in this country, not just to members invested in the group’s gun rights zealotry. Under the leadership of CEO Wayne LaPierre and his acolytes, the NRA has made it impossible for this country to have a reasoned discussion about gun control; on Tuesday the group’s influence again swayed President Trump against supporting even universal background checks, something he endorsed after back-to-back massacres in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio. At the same time, LaPierre has aligned the formerly nonpartisan gun rights group with the Republican Party, further polarizing the debate over common-sense gun policies.
The scandal embroiling the NRA, a nonprofit that pays LaPierre more than $1.4 million a year, is about money and who benefits from donations and dues paid by a reported 5 million members. But it’s also a power struggle between would-be reformers and LaPierre’s cultish grip on the organization. In April, at its national convention, NRA President Oliver North announced he would not serve a second term after he lost an attempted coup to oust La Pierre, a showdown that involved allegations of financial impropriety by LaPierre and attempted extortion by North.
A nasty divorce and lawsuits between the NRA and its longtime public relations partner, Ackerman McQueen, have revealed allegations of inflated bills, exorbitant fundraising costs and cushy jobs for the well-connected. Other revelations included a $39,000 shopping spree by LaPierre at a single clothing store, more than $200,000 in air transportation costs for a Christmas trip to the Bahamas, and an abandoned effort to have the NRA buy LaPierre a $6-million Texas mansion because he feared he would be targeted after the 2018 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. Meanwhile, New York state Atty. Gen. Letitia James is investigating the NRA’s tax-exempt status (the nonprofit is incorporated there).
Several board members have resigned, and some have formed a movement to try to reform the NRA. Good luck with that. The NRA is governed by a board of 76 directors — well more than triple the size of boards at other nonprofits — mostly selected by a board-appointed nominating committee. Only lifetime members ($1,500 payment) are eligible to be nominated; members must have at least five consecutive years of membership to vote (one analysis found that only 7% actually do so); and only a third of the seats are up for election each year. That leaves the NRA tightly controlled by a hand-picked board of directors more focused on the preservation of internal power than following norms of proper guidance and nonprofit oversight.
That makes it exceedingly difficult to reform from within. So it seems that the erosion of public support may be the lever that could finally change the organization. Well-heeled donors have abandoned the NRA under its current construct, and a recent poll by Fox News after the massacres in El Paso and Dayton found that only 42% of respondents held a favorable view of the NRA, down from 49% last year. More significantly, positive views of the NRA among gun owners fell to 56% from 67% a year ago.
So what does all this mean? Perhaps nothing; perhaps everything. The NRA has been a malignancy on rational discussion and sensible policies, and does not reflect the interests of most of the gun owners it purports to represent. Most of them support the broad American consensus in favor of such things as universal background checks and controls on assault weapons. The organization is in dire need of a housecleaning and a new leadership made up of honest brokers, not adherents to a scorched-earth approach to fighting reasonable gun measures. So any erosion of influence by the NRA, with its long track record supporting policies that endanger us all, would be good for the country.