July 19, 2023
(Tombstone, Arizona, July 17, 2023) Joe Biden and Senate Democrats have been ramping up their anti-gun rhetoric. Democratic governors and state legislatures are doubling down on defending old, and passing new, unconstitutional gun control laws, all while the legacy media runs a steady barrage of “gun violence” stories that demonize guns and gun owners. In the midst of all of this, the question in many gun owners’ minds is this:
“Where’s the NRA?”
Surprisingly to some, the NRA is still there in DC and in state capitals fighting for our rights. Despite the chaos and corruption at the top, there is a cadre of sincere Second Amendment defenders working for the right to keep and bear arms for all Americans. Due to the chaos and corruption, they’re just much lower profile than they used to be, spending much less money, working with far fewer personnel, and, to a large degree, operating in a leadership vacuum. In short, the NRA’s still in the fight, but like a boxer who has taken way too many solid shots to the head, much of the NRA’s effort is flailing and ineffective these days, and often actually counterproductive. They appear to be totally incapable of even defending themselves, much less taking the fight to the opposition and protecting the rights of America’s gun owners.
But the news isn’t all bad.
Over the past few years, the NRA funded and shepherded into the Supreme Court what could be the single most important Second Amendment case in history: New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen. This case challenged New York’s “proper cause” requirement for issuance of a carry license. Supporters had hoped it would provide some relief for gun owners in New York and several other “may issue” states with similar “valid justification” requirements, which have been used as a catch-all excuse for denying carry licenses. Optimistic observers hoped the Court would go so far as to clearly recognize the right to carry a firearm for protection outside the home, and maybe even clarify the legal standard by which Second Amendment cases should be judged in lower courts.
What we got from the Bruen decision was even better than the most optimistic supporters had ever imagined. In a decision penned by Justice Clarence Thomas, the Court majority declared that New York’s law was unconstitutional, and that the Second Amendment does extend to the right to bear arms for personal defense outside the home. The decision also went well beyond arguments about courts weighing individual rights against politicians’ and bureaucrats’ estimations of “the common good,” and “public safety.” Justice Thomas and the Court majority made it clear that the only test for the constitutionality of a law that impacts Second Amendment rights is “text, history, and tradition.” Under Bruen guidelines, any law touching on the right to arms can only be considered constitutional if similar laws were adopted and accepted around the time of adoption of the Bill of Rights and/or the Fourteenth Amendment.
This decision, and particularly the “text, history, and tradition” test, puts almost all gun control laws in doubt, and opened the floodgates for Second Amendment litigation. Groups like the Second Amendment Foundation, the Firearms Policy Coalition (not affiliated with The Firearms Coalition), Gun Owners of America, and others, immediately went to work. They reformulated and accelerated cases they were already working on and began seeking new plaintiffs and filing new cases based on Bruen and its clear standard for evaluation of gun laws.
Now the bad news.
Unfortunately, the NRA was caught with their pants down. Even though Bruen was effectively their case, they weren’t ready for the victory. You should already know about the allegations of corruption among top NRA executives, particularly Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre, which spilled out into major media in early 2019. If you don’t know about this mess, there’s a ton of information about it at FirearmsCoalition.org, where a search on “NRA” will return dozens of in-depth articles (also search “NRA” at FirearmsNews.com). The short story on that scandal is that, while LaPierre and other top executives were raking in his huge salaries and perks, they were also paying friends and family members millions of dollars for “consulting” and other ambiguous services. All of this led to investigations and lawsuits by the attorneys general of New York and DC, along with a failed attempt at filing bankruptcy.
In the early days of the scandal, LaPierre went on the offensive, declaring himself the victim of an attempted coup staged by his former closest advisors at the PR firm Ackerman McQueen. LaPierre’s “coup” accusations began with a letter claiming that then-President of NRA Oliver North, had attempted to use extortion to force LaPierre to resign. This soon expanded to an aggressive purge of any NRA employees or contractors who were deemed “disloyal” to LaPierre. The purge included NRA’s chief lobbyist, Chris Cox along with his top deputy, and also included a number of outside attorneys who had been contracted by NRA to work on Second Amendment litigation around the country. As a result, several NRA-led Second Amendment cases were effectively decapitated and either collapsed altogether, or were hamstrung as new, generally less experienced attorneys tried to pick up the pieces.
Who’s to blame?
In short, the NRA imploded after years of rampant greed and simple laziness among those whose job was to lead it. Greed on the part of a few at the top of the NRA pyramid, and laziness on the part of the majority of the NRA Board of Directors who were supposed to be making and enforcing its governing rules and its strategic policies. Blame also trickles down to the NRA membership, who are responsible for electing the board and failed to do the work to know who the candidates were, what was going on, and hold directors and staff accountable.
Under Wayne LaPierre, the NRA lost its way. They failed to stand firmly behind core principles, which seriously undermined their own credibility. The NRA shifted from an organization fighting for Second Amendment rights, and raising money to fund that fight, to an organization for raising a lot of money using the fight for Second Amendment rights as its tool. They transitioned from a tight-knit collection of people dedicated to fighting for our rights and willing to make less money in exchange for the privilege of working for an organization that they truly believed in, to a corporate entity driven by greed and corruption. While many in the lower echelons were deeply dedicated and seriously underpaid, upper management was flying high in charter jets, presidential suite accommodations, and collecting multi-million-dollar salaries, all the while making sure their families and friends were also swimming in the gravy.
The most obvious red flags.
Through the first 120 years or so of the NRA’s existence, all salaries were notoriously low. People didn’t go to work for the NRA for the money, they volunteered or sought employment there so they could be involved in something they loved and cared about, and they were willing to take less money to do it. This was true from the top down, right up to January 1985, when the Board brought in G. Ray Arnett, a former Reagan administration official. At that time, Harlon Carter was in his fourth year of a five-year term as Executive Vice President (EVP) when he suddenly announced his retirement. He already had Arnett waiting in the wings as his replacement, and after some wrangling with the Board, the swap was approved. Immediately after Arnett was elected by the Board, Carter made a motion to increase the EVP’s salary from the $87,500 he’d been receiving, to $150,000 per year. Carter said this salary would be more in line with the going rate for such a position in DC at the time. The Board obediently approved the increase. That increase was just the first of many.
By the mid ‘90s, after Wayne LaPierre had ascended to the EVP office, the salary had risen to around $200,000 per year. After 1997, when my father and other hard-liners were removed from the power structure, LaPierre’s EVP salary began rising exponentially, and he began flying exclusively by private jet. By 2004, LaPierre’s total annual compensation had risen to over $890,000. By 2018, that had risen by almost $1.5 million to $2,224,427 per year. LaPierre’s current compensation is reported to be about $1.7 million.
The pandemic was hard on the NRA, forcing them to cancel major, money-making events and cut back on many of their core operations like training and competitions. At the same time, the Association’s much-touted Carry Guard program, effectively a liability insurance plan for those who might be involved in a defensive gunfight, was falling apart. The plan had been rolled out prematurely, failing to address important details – like the fact that it was insurance, and so, subject to regulation in every state. That added up to major problems. The whole program eventually collapsed in 2019 and ‘20. The Association was already facing financial difficulties and making cuts, then COVID hit, and the cuts went much deeper, reducing basic Association programs to the bone, and laying off some two-thirds of the staff. Remaining staff members were invited to remain at significant reductions in pay. NRA’s revenue and membership began falling precipitously, while membership and revenue was going up for other gun groups. LaPierre’s pay remained over $1.5 million and he continued to travel by private jet. Meanwhile, legal expenses went through the roof.
Wrong Kind of Lawyers
Those growing legal costs had nothing to do with protecting the Second Amendment. They were bills from a law firm hired to help the Association navigate its way through the multiple lawsuits filed in the wake of the Carry Guard problems and the brewing management scandal. The firm, Brewer Attorneys & Counselors, was initially hired in 2017 in response to rumors of a pending investigation from the NY AG’s office. NRA is chartered in New York and is subject to oversight of the NY AG’s office. The newly elected AG was a vociferously anti-gun, anti-NRA politician named Letitia James, who had campaigned on a pledge to destroy the gun rights group.
Brewer launched a massive clean-up operation within NRA headquarters, reviewing contracts and back-filling financial reports for a number of NRA contractors and executives. Brewer brought significant disruption. Longtime NRA Treasurer Woody Phillips retired, and a new treasurer was hired. A variety of contracts and conflict of interest items, which should have required prior approval of the Board’s audit committee – the committee tasked with making sure all NRA activities are in line with policy, legal, and appropriate – had never been submitted to them. Some concerned employees raised concerns about Brewer’s heavy-handed tactics and about some questionable contracts, payments, and apparent conflicts of interest among NRA “leaders.” They took their concerns to the audit committee, but the committee dismissed the whistleblowers’ concerns, and did nothing to rein in the reported problems, or to protect the whistleblowers – who were summarily driven from the organization. The audit committee retroactively approved the issues raised by the whistleblowers, and those brought to them by Brewer. Then Brewer filed a suit against then New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and the state for using their power to try to damage the NRA. LaPierre reported in 2021 that the suit and related matters had cost the Association over $100 million, yet after all of that investment, Brewer and the NRA eventually lost that suit. They continue to spend money on the case, having appealed the decision to a higher court.
One of the sticking points in the July 2018 audit committee meeting where most of the above business transpired, was the $40 million per year being paid to NRA’s longtime public relations firm Ackerman McQueen. In that meeting, LaPierre passionately defended the important relationship between the NRA and Ack-Mac, convincing the audit committee to keep supporting the PR firm and their high price tag. Just a few months later, Brewer and LaPierre, apparently without any prior discussion with the audit committee or the legal affairs committee or almost anyone else on the NRA Board, filed a lawsuit against Ackerman McQueen, accusing the company of failing to provide itemized invoices and other supporting documents to justify many of the company’s charges to NRA. The suit was even more surprising in light of the fact that William Brewer, the principal of the Brewer law firm, is married to the daughter of Angus McQueen, a founding partner of Ackerman McQueen, and then its CEO.
The management scandal hit the public just days before the NRA’s Annual Meetings & Exhibits in 2019. What also hit right before that event, was a well-researched expose’ in The New Yorker magazine by investigative reporter Michael Spies. Spies had been hired by Mike Bloomberg’s anti-gun propaganda mill The Trace, and given the assignment to “dig up dirt” on the NRA. Unfortunately for the LaPierre and the NRA, Spies is a good investigative reporter, and once he began digging, he found not just dirt, but piles of moldy compost.
Spies revealed the whistleblower complaints, the audit committee’s neglect, and a litany of self-dealing, cronyism, nepotism, and profligate spending among top NRA executives. Shortly after the story broke, then NRA Board President Oliver North, called LaPierre in damage control mode, suggesting that he would assist LaPierre with a quiet and honorable exit from the Association, golden parachute intact, if LaPierre would support North’s bid for a second term as President. That evening, LaPierre issued a scathing letter to the NRA Board paraphrasing North’s message and accusing North of using extortion to try and force LaPierre out of the Association.
Everything went downhill from there. In the members’ meeting the next day, a group of members tried to push a vote of “no confidence” in LaPierre, but were stymied by LaPierre loyalists on the Board. In the subsequent Board meeting, several Directors raised concerns about the situation, but no one nominated anyone to challenge LaPierre for the EVP position, so without an opponent, he was declared the winner by “acclamation.” This was all done in secret, behind closed doors, with the members who were waiting outside those closed doors only learning about the “unanimous election” from a reporter for the New York Times.
A few days later, Ackerman McQueen released a letter detailing some of LaPierre’s spending on an Ack-Mac credit card, including charges of over $270,000 at a single Beverly Hills clothing store, massive amounts spent on luxury accommodations and transportation in exotic vacation retreats, and some $6,000 per month for rental of a luxury apartment for a beauty queen NRA intern.
All of this led to a flurry of lawsuits and countersuits, virtually all of which Brewer and NRA lost. They won a small victory against North, preventing him from charging any of his related legal fees back to the Association, but lost over $10 million in a suit attempting to avoid paying Chris Cox the $2.5 million severance package that was stipulated in his contract. NRA also ended up paying some $12 million to settle the Ackerman McQueen suits. And of course, there was the $100 million-plus lost in the suit against Cuomo and New York. Some NRA Board members, led by Tom King of New York, even began proceedings to kick Ollie North completely out of the Association, which is still pending.
There was also a suit filed against the Association by a major NRA donor named David Dell’Aquila. He filed the suit on behalf of all NRA members and donors, claiming fraud on the part of the NRA for misusing donated funds. That case is ongoing and has some recent twists worth exploring. Then there were the suits by New York and DC against the NRA and the NRA Foundation respectively.
As icing on the legal expense cake, in January, 2021, LaPierre and Brewer, without the knowledge of any but a handful of Directors, filed for bankruptcy protections for the Association. The move was widely seen as a thinly-veiled, poorly-calculated, and ineptly-executed legal ploy intended to side-step New York’s lawsuit against the Association. In his announcement of the bankruptcy, LaPierre undermined his own cause by asserting that the Association was not in financial distress but was asserting bankruptcy for legal reasons. LaPierre and Brewer had established an empty shell corporation in Texas a few months earlier, and they were trying to move the Association’s assets into that shell corporation, intending to cancel the New York charter, and create a new charter in Texas.
After five months of embarrassing and incriminating depositions and testimony, former Treasurer Woody Phillips invoked the Fifth Amendment over 60 times and the judge threw the whole thing out, concluding that the bankruptcy had not been filed in good faith.
Since then, the NY AG has used information from the bankruptcy case, along with other discoveries, to file amended complaints and presented expert opinions that can only be described as damning to the NRA and LaPierre. Repeated motions by NRA and LaPierre to dismiss the suit have been rejected by the judge. So far, the only arguments being offered by the NRA and LaPierre boil down to claims that they’ve “fixed” all of the problems, righted the ship, and that Letitia James is a bad woman who brought the suit only for political reasons. They have the gall to make these claims while continuing to pay LaPierre $1.7 million per year, continuing to pay tens of thousands of dollars to fly him around on private jets, and continuing to have the Board controlled by the same few people who allowed the problems to develop and fester for years.
The Only One?
LaPierre supporters claim he’s the only one who can bring in millions of dollars in donations. The only one who can advise the President and Congress. The only one who can save the NRA – all while major donors have withdrawn over $100 million in pledges, membership has fallen by over a million, revenue is down by almost 50%, and Washington politicians are embarrassed to be in the same room with the man.
The NRA is hiding in a big blue building in Northern Virginia, pretending that everything is fine, blaming anyone who questions or criticizes their “Dear Leader,” and fervently wishing this would all just go away. They’ve turned virtually all aspects of the Association over to the machinations of a New York Lawyer who supported Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, and they are now allowing that lawyer to go beyond managing just their corporate suits and intrigue and start taking over their Second Amendment litigation.
Recently, Brewer representing the NRA, tried to jump into a pistol brace case that has made better progress than the one NRA has been funding. That move was rejected by the court, so now Brewer has filed a new case in the same district, trying to play catch-up and hoping to get the same deal other rights groups have gotten protecting their members from prosecution under the new pistol brace rule while it’s being litigated.
The New York suit is coming to a head. The judge has ordered the parties to present calendars for scheduling the trial in October or November. Informed observers of this mess have been expecting some new diversion or delaying tactic to be announced by NRA at any moment, with the most likely option being another shot at bankruptcy, this time with real financial woes to back up their petition. The headquarters building has been put on the market, with plans for a move to Texas being discussed, but none of those plans are being discussed by the members of the Board of Directors. They’re just being told what’s going on as it happens, if they’re told anything at all, and being left out of all planning and decision making.
The DC suit against the Foundation should be coming up too, but there’s been no recent news. It’s likely that DC is waiting to see what happens with the New York case. Both DC and New York appear to be happy to allow things to drag out, as they are already getting what they really want – a weakened NRA, collapsing, politically impotent, and burning through their funds like a teenager with their dad’s credit card.
The whole NRA situation is sad, complicated, and fluid. The Board could have avoided all of this by doing their job and holding their staff accountable over the past 20+ years. They could have addressed the issues back in 1997, when my father was First Vice President of the Board and brought them up, but they instead replaced my father with Charlton Heston and purged anyone who had sided with him in the matter. Finally, they could have taken immediate corrective action back in 2019 when the major story broke, instead of rallying around Wayne LaPierre, closing their eyes, covering their ears, and just going along with whatever they’re told. Board members could pay a high price for that inaction, as they could easily be Letitia James’ next targets, and that could cost each of them their homes and retirement savings, since the NRA doesn’t have adequate legal insurance to cover them.
At this point, LaPierre won’t go out in public, fearing questions about his alleged corruption, and there’s no one else who can credibly stand up for the Association. That means that all of the hate and vitriol being poured out on the NRA and gun owners by anti-gun politicians and their supporters in the media is going unanswered. They have been very effectively demonizing “assault weapons,” the NRA, and gun owners, with almost no effective push-back. Like it or not, the NRA is still the big dog in the fight, but they’re acting like a frightened Chihuahua. Unfortunately, none of this is likely to change for the better any time soon.
About the Author
The Firearms Coalition and the Knox family have been reporting on and working to push the NRA in the right direction, for almost 50 years. Neal Knox led the Cincinnati Revolt in 1977, founded The Firearms Coalition to counter NRA duplicity in 1984, raised the alarm about shady fundraising and questionable spending in 1996/‘97, and continues to report on problems inside the Association, always with the objective of making it stronger and more effective. You can support those efforts by going to FirearmsCoalition.org.
If you have any thoughts or comments on this article, we’d love to hear them. Email us at FirearmsNews@Outdoorsg.com.