The NRA is falling apart, one bad shot at a time (UPDATE)

Two down, one to go: Top NRA Executive Wayne LaPierre (from left on poster) is still around, but top NRA lobbyist Chris Cox and NRA President Oliver North were forced to resign.

The National Rifle Association is facing several self-made crises all at once, and it couldn’t happen to an organization that deserves it more. Consider:

  • Its finances are a mess. The group is losing both members and revenue. At the end of 2018, the NRA reported losing $55 million in revenue.
  • Gun sales are continuing their downward trend.
  • The NRA cut ties with its longtime advertising and public relations firm, Ackerman McQueen. Now the two are suing each other.
  • NRA President Oliver North was forced to resign in April during a power struggle with Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre. The NRA is now suing North over the attempted coup.
  • Speaking of LaPierre, the organization still hasn’t recovered from the bad publicity about LaPierre’s ultra-expensive clothing purchases, including $300,000 on designer suits.
  • Speaking of both LaPierre and North, the NRA’s top lobbyist and second in command, Chris Cox, was suspended after text messages showed he was one of the leaders behind the move to oust LaPierre — a move Cox strongly denied, but his aim was way off. He was forced to resign.
  • The NRA shut down production of its online media arm, NRATV.

Whose fault are all these problems? Those inside the NRA are pointing fingers at each other. Board members criticized LaPierre’s shopping sprees. One board member called for LaPierre to be fired. Two NRA board members scorched NRATV to reporters from The New York Times, citing the image of Thomas the Tank Engine in a KKK hood. And the organization is awash in multiple expensive legal disputes.

Talk about a circular firing squad.

After spending $30 million to support the election of Donald Trump in 2016, the gun group thought it would be safer than a skeet disc left in the box. But instead of hitting the target with policy wins, the NRA seems to be firing blanks — or shooting itself in the foot. As Vox said in a story explaining the NRA’s woes:

These seemingly unrelated threads are all part of a systemic issue: allegations of ongoing financial mismanagement at one of America’s largest single-issue advocacy groups — mismanagement that could cost the NRA its tax-exempt status.

There’s lots of trouble on the political firing range. Let’s look at a few examples.

The “Trump slump.” When Democrats are in power, gun sales rise, because the NRA has an obvious bogeyman to target. It’s the group’s most effective way to scare gun owners into buying more guns and to get members to fear regulations. President Obama was often referred to as “the best gun salesman in America,” because every time there was a mass shooting, he would call for common-sense gun regulations such as universal background checks. You know, the kind that are backed by 90 percent of Americans. The NRA would respond with one of its knee-jerk statements that “Obama’s trying to take your guns,” and gun sales would shoot up. But with gun sales down, even gun sellers refer to the drop in sales as the Trump slump.

Gun sales are often measured by the number of FBI background checks for gun sales. Since Trump has been in office, the number of those background checks has dropped each year, meaning that fewer people are buying guns. No bogeyman, no need for a new gun. Gun sales were down 6.1 percent in 2018, the second straight year of losses.

The money and membership drop. Gun sales weren’t the only measure showing a loss. According to the most recent NRA financial figures, reported by the Daily Beast, the NRA received only $98 million in contributions in 2017, down from nearly $125 million in 2016. Even that amount wasn’t good news, as $19 million came from a single anonymous donor. Membership dues also were down 21 percent: $128 million in 2017 membership dues compared with $163 million in 2016.

That revenue drop meant that the NRA drastically cut the amount of money it invested in the 2018 midterm elections — only $10 million, compared with the $25 million it spent in 2014.

LaPierre the clothes horse. The media had a field day with the reports of the NRA executive shopping at stores in Beverly Hills. On a single trip, he dropped $39,000 on Zegna suits. But NRA board members were furious. According to a story in GQ:

That LaPierre’s clothes suggest hypocrisy hasn’t gone unnoticed at the NRA. Aaron Davis, a former NRA employee, told the New Yorker that not everyone approved of the direction of certain departments. Davis recalled taking a board member to lunch and awkwardly requesting a donation: “He just looks at me, and he goes, ‘You know, I like you, but I hate your department.’ I said, ‘Why?’ He says, ‘Because N.R.A. is not fancy Italian shoes with thousand-dollar suits. N.R.A. is the backbone of this country, wearing bluejeans and boots.’ ”

That board member might believe his spiel about bluejeans and boots, but LaPierre and his staff dress more like top executives than cattle hands, and have for years. Even worse, LaPierre tried to hide his clothing purchases by charging them to the NRA’s now-former ad agency, Ackerman McQueen. And speaking of the ad agency:

NRA and “Ack Mack” are suing each other. Ackerman McQueen, called “Ack Mack” by NRA staffers, had been the NRA’s agency since the 1980s, producing recognizable ad campaigns such as “I’m the NRA, and I vote” and popularizing the Charlton Heston meme that his guns would have to be pried from his “cold dead hands.” But the relationship began misfiring.

The NRA sued Ackerman McQueen for $40 million in damages, charging that it was behind the coup attempt to oust LaPierre. The gun group also charged the agency with “misleading, defamatory” leaks of confidential documents that were the substance of Oliver North’s coup attempt, and with not cooperating with an audit. Recently the NRA had been paying the firm more than $40 million a year. Billings from Ackerman McQueen increased nearly 50 percent since 2015. As reported in Rolling Stone:

The decades-long partnership began to sour last summer, in the wake of threats from regulators to challenge the NRA’s nonprofit status. Scrambling to get its finances in order, the NRA sought to audit Ackerman McQueen’s books. When the agency stonewalled instead of cooperating, the NRA sued for access to its financial records.

But why should the NRA have all the lawsuit fun? Ackerman McQueen filed a counterclaim lawsuit of its own for $50 million, claiming that its reputation had been smeared by the NRA. One of Ackerman McQueen’s most recent project was launching NRATV in 2016. And speaking of that:

NRATV gets shot down. Shutting down NRATV brought the predictable (and somewhat delicious) Twitter reactions from those working against gun violence, such as Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. This tweet from Parkland mass shooting survivor and anti-gun violence activist David Hogg was typical:

And from Moms Demand Action leader Shannon Watts:

NRATV was never a particularly good investment for the gun group. It was expensive, its online views were never very high, and, according to LaPierre, it was becoming “too far removed from the core mission of defending the Second Amendment” (I guess Thomas the Tank Engine in a KKK hood was a little much, huh?). No conspiracy theory seemed too bizarre for NRATV talking heads — for instance, they suggested that the pipe bombs mailed to media outlets and Democrats in 2018 were false flags. They often spewed what has been described as red meat for the hard right.

Among the public faces of NRATV was the lightning rod Dana Loesch, who seemed more interested in a Twitter war with Moms Demand’s Shannon Watts than with being effective. Loesch, a failed actress, often labeled Moms Demand members “bored women drinking boxed wine” and once derided gun-control advocates as “tragedy-dry-humping whores.”

As a story on Huffington Post put it: “NRATV is survived by a host of lax gun laws that have enabled dangerous criminals to commit mass shootings with assault weapons.”

No more ammunition from NRA’s top lobbyist. Chris Cox was widely seen as the heir apparent to Wayne LaPierre, who is 69 years old. Cox’s official title was principal political strategist for the Institute for Legislative Action, the NRA’s lobbying arm, and he had been with the NRA since 1995. He was seen as one of its most effective message carriers — he publicly announced the NRA’s support for Donald Trump in 2016 — and he was a fervent defender of the AR-15.

But Cox was named in the lawsuit against Oliver North as being part of the conspiracy. He was placed on administrative leave for his alleged role in the Oliver North coup attempt. He denied involvement in the internal struggle, telling The New York Times:

The allegations against me are offensive and patently false. For over 24 years I have been a loyal and effective leader in this organization. My efforts have always been focused on serving the members of the National Rifle Association, and I will continue to focus all of my energy on carrying out our core mission of defending the Second Amendment.

Riiiight. Except that, given the text messages tying him to the coup attempt, he had no choice but to resign. Guess he’ll miss the $1.1 million annual salary, although I bet there’s an opening somewhere in the Trump administration for someone with his skill set. Maybe in ATF—the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives?

UPDATE: How the mighty are falling. The IRS has now opened a criminal probe into LaPierre for criminal tax fraud. And New York Attorney General Letitia James is seeking to dissolve the NRA after an 18-month investigation showing widespread fraud and abuse. The state has jurisdiction, as the nonprofit is registered in New York (and it couldn’t just fold up and move to another state, either).

Originally posted on Daily Kos on June 30, 2019.

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