Blue collar philosopher Eric Hoffer famously said: “Every great cause begins as a movement, be-comes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.” Such appears to be the case with the National Rifle Association, if recent reports from The Trace, the Bloomberg-funded “newsroom” for “gun violence” reporting, and Mother Jones, the hard-left, latter-day hippie journal, are even partially accurate.
While some of the issues they've turned up are more like wishful thinking than smoking guns, the broad outlines are, unfortunately, true. The NRA is operating in the red and engaged in a belt-tightening austerity campaign, cutting back on some programs and minor benefits for their headquarters staff, while paying executives exorbitant salaries with lavish perks, and dumping tens of millions of dollars into the pockets of outside contractors. Along with the financial troubles, the association is under scrutiny from the Federal Elections Commission and the IRS, and is embroiled in legal battles in New York, Washington, and several other states, over fundraising and election practices, and the botched roll-out of their new training and insurance scheme, NRA Carry Guard.
We at The Firearms Coalition have been playing watchdog to the NRA for over 30 years, and unlike The Trace and Mother Jones, we can't be accused of being anti-gun or anti-NRA. What we are is anti-corruption and anti-incompetence. We are committed NRA members, concerned about the core missions of the association, and the wise use of its members' resources. We've raised some of these flags before, but have tried to avoid letting our warnings leak out into the mass media where we feared they might harm the association. That's no longer possible. The Trace and Mo-Jo stories are gaining traction in the mainstream media, including the Wall Street Journal, and NRA honchos are in damage control mode, apparently more interested in protecting their income stream than the Second Amendment.
The root of the problem is that the NRA Board of Directors has failed in their fiduciary responsibility to safeguard the members' resources, while keeping the organization focused on its chartered objectives. The Board is responsible for setting association policy, hiring the Executive Vice President – the NRA's CEO – and directing him in the execution of his duties. Instead, they have allowed the EVP, contractors, and hired staff to lead them around by their noses, setting policy, shifting policy, and lining their own pockets.
Wayne LaPierre has been the association’s EVP for almost 30 years. In that time his compensation package has grown from less than $200k per year to over $1.4 million. The PR firm Ackerman McQueen, has “served” the NRA even longer, and their direct, annual take from the organization is reported in IRS filings, to be in excess of $40 million per year. There are almost a dozen NRA executives receiving annual compensation in the neighborhood of a half-million dollars or more, and several other vendors (some of them suspected to be Ack-Mac shell companies) taking multiple millions of dollars out of the organization every year. But in spite of the highly-paid executives and top-dollar advisers and vendors, we've seen repeated unforced errors and costly mistakes, with no repercussions on those dropping the balls.
LaPierre will be 69 this year, and rumors of his impending retirement have swirled for some time now. After all, what's the point of amassing a huge fortune from the $20 donations of hard-working NRA members, if you're too old to enjoy it? On the other hand, he might try to emulate Ruth Bader Ginsburg and hold on until they take him out feet first. Either way, we the NRA’s members, need to decide whether we will allow our organization – for better or for worse, the flagship of our great cause – to continue on as a racket, or return to the movement it is supposed to be?
The members took the organization back once before in 1977. At that time its leaders were trying to set aside the cause and operate as a business. Unfortunately, the business the NRA brass of the day had in mind had nothing to do with defending the Second Amendment. The question now is whether the NRA’s members will allow its leaders and staff to continue line their own pockets while compromising the goals and objectives of the movement, or take it back.
There are plenty of people on both sides of the rights movement willing to throw stones at the glass house on Waples Mill Road that the NRA calls home, but few of those rock-chuckers have the long history and experience that the Knox family does with the world's leading firearms organization. My father, Neal Knox, helped to bring about the revolution among the members in 1977. He then led the organization to victories in Washington DC as Executive Director of NRA-ILA from 1978 – 1982, helping to spark an almost trebling of the NRA membership. He eventually rose to the position of First Vice President of the NRA Board, just one election away from becoming NRA's President, be-fore arguments over fundraising practices and payouts to vendors like Ackerman McQueen resulted in a vicious staff mutiny that pushed Dad from the leadership, and eventually off of the NRA Board.
Let's provide some historical perspective. In 1982, Neal Knox was paid about $60,000 per year -- about $180,000 in 2019 dollars. Executive Vice President Harlon Carter was paid around $85,000 at that time, roughly $250,000 in today's dollars. and the Executive Director of General Operations, Olympic Gold Medalist Gary Anderson, was making around $65k.
Today, the Executive Director of NRA-ILA receives an annual compensation package of more than $1.2 million, and Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre receives over $1.4 million – over six times the 2018 equivalent of Harlon Carter's $85k.
It's worth noting that the growth in executive compensation started almost immediately after LaPierre and his pals had pushed my father out of the position of First Vice President, replacing him with ac-tor, Charlton Heston. Heston’s service as First Vice President, and later his five terms as President, was officially an unpaid “volunteer” position, as it was for Dad and all previous Board officers, but Heston's service came with a fee to his management company (an Ackerman McQueen subsidiary) of around $20,000 per month, and his requirements included travel by private jet, presidential suite accommodations, and a private security detail.
Within a couple of years of Dad's ouster, LaPierre's compensation nearly doubled, from a respectable $250,000 per year to about $400,000, then it climbed to $600,000, then $800,000, and eventually crossed the $1,000,000 mark. In 2015, LaPierre's compensation was reported to the IRS at over $5,000,000. Five million dollars in one year! This was explained as some sort of retirement plan adjustment, and several other top NRA executives received similar, multi-million-dollar “adjustments” over the course of a few years.
The EVP compensation race actually started in 1985 when the NRA Board of Directors launched a professional search for a new Executive Vice President in anticipation of 72-year old Harlon Carter’s impending retirement. The extensive – and expensive – search led them to the Alexandria, Virginia apartment of NRA President Howard Pollack, and his roommate, G. Ray Arnett. What a lucky coincidence!
Arnett was just resigning as an assistant secretary for fish and wildlife in the Reagan administration's Interior Department, and was expected to provide a strong connection with the Reagan-Bush regime. When the Board installed Arnett, they increased the salary of the EVP from $87,500, to a comfortable $150,000 per year, the equivalent of about $350k in 2018 dollars. That was a pretty hefty paycheck in 1985, but Arnett's ties to Reagan and Bush were considered to be worth the price. His appointment was ratified a few months later at the Annual Meeting of Members, where he was elected by the members to a 5-year term, but his tenure was short-lived. The Board fired him about a year later over a variety of issues, including his dismantling of the NRA’s internal PR department, summarily firing some 19 long-time NRA employees, and replacing their function with a new contract for Ackerman McQueen.
Even though this action by Arnett was cited as the main reason for his dismissal (which included a $150k severance check to keep him from suing them for breach of contract), the Board opted to honor his agreement with Ack-Mac, leaving the company in charge of a huge swath of NRA communications. The Executive Director of NRA-ILA, J. Warren Cassidy, was tapped to replace Arnett. He es-chewed the pay increase, volunteering to take the position at the same $77,500 he had been receiving as ED of ILA, but that soon changed. His time as NRA's CEO was a disaster from a policy perspective, with moves that included folding on an armor-piercing bullet bill that came close to banning many hunting bullets, as well as prohibiting military surplus “black-tip” rifle ammunition, and which still haunts us to this day. Recall the Green-Tip ammo controversy of a couple of years ago. But Cassidy held on, with Carter's support, for almost 5 years, until he was replaced by LaPierre.
Since 1985, the NRA has grown quite a bit, both in terms of membership, which has not quite doubled, and annual revenue, which has about tripled. At the same time, the top salaries at the association, which reasonably reflected the growth and inflation until about 1997, have seen a four to five-fold increase, plus several new, high-paid, executive positions have been added, bringing the total executive compensation cost of the association up to almost $8 million dollars for just 10 top staffers. At least half of those people would be hard-pressed to find a job anywhere else where they could earn over $100k, much less half a million dollars or more. These are, for the most part, not highly skilled professionals with special qualifications that are in high demand. LaPierre was a legislative aide to a Democrat Congressman when Dad hired him in 1978. He was a policy wonk, brought on specifically to give the NRA a better idea of what Democrats were up to and give friendly Democrats a familiar face in the “gun lobby” for them to work with. (Remember that Jimmy Carter was the president at the time, and there was still such a thing as pro-gun Democrats.) LaPierre matriculated up into the EVP spot primarily through luck and his connections with Ack-Mac, not impressive management skill or brilliant oratory abilities. Some other top NRA executives have even less impressive resumes.
The Association is also paying out exorbitant amounts – tens of millions of dollars per year – to out-side contractors for membership, public relations, advertising, and fundraising services. These expenses have been a major bone of contention for years. In fact, back in 1996, the Board was so concerned about the millions of dollars flowing out of NRA's coffers to outside vendors, that they ordered LaPierre to sever ties with the main beneficiary of these payments, Ackerman McQueen. LaPierre reported back that he had fired Ack-Mac as instructed, replacing them with a company called the Mercury Group. It quickly came to light that Mercury Group was a wholly owned subsidiary of Ack-Mac, with all of the same people filling all of the same jobs and collecting the exact same payments from NRA. This led to a major showdown between LaPierre and the Board, in which a majority of the Board wanted to fire him. Through gall and chicanery, LaPierre survived that battle and hit back hard at the Members’ Meeting a few months later, bringing in Charlton Heston to bump Dad from his vice presidency, and starting a purge campaign against all of the “dissident” directors.
After a rocky start, Heston played his part well, helping to revive membership and get the NRA’s message into places where less prominent personalities defending rights would never be welcomed. The concern of Dad and the Board about NRA finances prompted some changes in money management policies which helped to bring the organization back from the brink of bankruptcy, but the unprecedented five terms of Heston in the presidency also provided cover for Ack-Mac to become even more deeply entrenched in various aspects of NRA's business.
Today, NRA is again in financial trouble, with membership declining and finances once again in negative numbers – to the tune of about $30 million. They are in court doing battle with New York Governor Cuomo over his efforts to get companies to refuse to do business with the association, and are under scrutiny by the Federal Elections Commission for their political spending practices during both the 2016 and 2018 election cycles, including allegations of being a participant in Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential election by accepting multiple millions in donations from Russian nationals, and spending that money in support of candidate Trump – which if true, would be a major election finance violation.
They are also in trouble over their new Carry Guard, self-defense training and insurance program, with several state insurance regulators going after them for failure to comply with their state insurance and solicitation laws. That last issue is even more troubling when you consider how NRA rolled out the insurance and training program, stepping heavily on the toes of long-established, similar pro-grams, and unceremoniously throwing groups like the US Concealed Carry Association out of their pre-paid booth spaces at the NRA Annual Meeting and Exhibits in Atlanta, just days before the event opened. The program also came under fire from NRA Certified Instructors, who complained that the training failed to meet basic, long-established safety standards and undercut the existing training establishment.
Carry Guard was developed and rolled out by LaPierre's Chief of staff, Josh Powell. LaPierre named Powell as Acting Executive Director of General Operations, after firing Robert Weaver from that position. No clear reason for Weaver's firing was ever provided, but there were rumors that some on the Board had been discussing Weaver as a likely successor to LaPierre, and that he was fired to clear the way for Powell.
Powell had served a couple of years on the NRA Board of Directors before shifting over to become LaPierre's Chief of Staff. He is reputed to be very close to the honchos at Ackerman McQueen and many have long suspected he was being groomed by Wayne – and Ack-Mac – to become the next Executive Vice President of the association. Powell's bungled handling of the Carry Guard program, and his heavy-handed hatchet work in the recent austerity campaign, along with revelations from Trace and Mo-Jo reporters regarding his past business and financial problems, and his unusual compensation package from NRA, have hopefully permanently removed his name from any list of serious con-tenders for the EVP position.
At the same time that Powell was wielding that “austerity hatchet,” he was collecting almost $800,000 in personal compensation, including more than $100,000 in taxable expenditure reimbursements, characterized as “housing assistance.” He has now been removed as ED of General Operations, but remains LaPierre’s Chief of Staff, and is supposedly overseeing NRA’s various legal engagements – and still collecting that hefty salary. Powell’s own deputy, former Board member and VP of the New York Rifle and Pistol Association, Joe DeBergalis, has been moved up to head General Operations. I like Joe, but know of nothing in his background that would qualify him for the position, other than his close association with LaPierre and Powell. I strongly suspect that he could be being set up to be the fall guy, if LaPierre and company can't get the current crisis under control.
The NRA is a massive operation with many powerful enemies. Running it demands a top-drawer executive – something that we have frankly never had. The blunders the NRA management has been making indicate that they are not up to the task before them. They know that they are under scrutiny, and that any mistake will be exploited by our enemies, but they insist on being more concerned about protecting their fiefdoms from concerned NRA members like me, than protecting the association from the real threats of greed, corruption, and parasitic vendors.
As an Endowment Member of NRA, I have always encouraged all gun owners, and anyone concerned with defending liberty, to be members. My objective is always to make the NRA better, not tear it down. But I have been labeled as the “enemy within” that the NRA leadership prefers to fight and vilify.
When this column is published online, the comments will include claims that the NRA has always been the enemy, has never done anything worthwhile for gun owners, and that everyone should drop their memberships. That idea is wrong-headed, patently false, and self-defeating. The NRA has done much good, and it is our most important weapon in the battle for rights. I am sure that there will also be some comments suggesting that I am just a disgruntled troublemaker, still upset that my father lost an election 20 years ago. That isn’t true either. I’m a committed and proven defender of the right to arms. I see the value and importance of the NRA, and I want it to be as strong and effective as possible. The Firearms Coalition doesn't compete with the NRA. Our entire annual budget is barely com-parable to Wayne LaPierre's monthly paycheck. We work on parallel paths, and we like to think that our efforts help keep the larger group from straying too far from the principles of the Second Amendment, but suggestions that we are are in competition with NRA for dollars or members, or that we are motivated by spite or greed, are pretty ridiculous.
There will be other comments urging people to send money to GOA, SAF, or NAGR, rather than the NRA. Contributing to other groups is fine, but I would urge readers to keep most of their dollars close to home in local grassroots rights organizations. That's where the serious battles will be fought over the next few years. If you want to contribute to a national rights organization, how about joining the group that is bringing you this information – The Firearms Coalition. It’s always a little frustrating when I read comments that say something like “Jeff is right! I’m joining GOA!” I like GOA too, but they don't pay our bills. If you appreciate the information we provide and want to put your money to work supporting a principled stance on the right to arms, and a stronger, more effective NRA, please consider joining or contributing to The Firearms Coalition.
It’s past time for a major shake-up at the NRA. Their recent botched handling of the bump-stock is-sue, and their untenable position on Extreme Risk Protection Orders, are just symptoms of a much bigger problem, and that problem lands right in the middle of the executive offices on Waples Mill Road. Reform needs to start at the top. It’s time for Wayne LaPierre to take his millions and go relax on a beach somewhere. Rather than rubber-stamping some hand-picked hack to replace him, the Board needs to rediscover the meaning of “fiduciary responsibility,” and find a professional executive who is 100% dedicated to the principles of the Second Amendment, and who has the skills and vision to reorganize the NRA from the top down.
We are facing a very challenging future. If we don’t have a strong NRA, that future will be bleak in-deed for the Second Amendment.