In 2016 the powerful National Rifle Association (NRA), a registered charity that promotes gun rights, spent $30 million helping elect Donald Trump, and close to $70 million on ads and voter mobilisation drives. Now his re-election campaign will probably have to look elsewhere as the US’s wealthiest lobbying organisation, already facing a major financial crisis and internal warfare, is being sued by New York attorney general, Letitia James, challenging its charitable status and aiming to put the NRA out of business. It will take years of litigation but we are not talking about taking the bullet out of the gun, but decommissioning, putting beyond use.
Republicans have denounced James, a Democrat, as making a blatantly political attempt to hobble the re-election campaign while the President branded the suit “a very terrible thing”. James alleges, in claims initially aired over the last year by disgruntled members and investigative journalists, that NRA leaders used charitable donations for personal ends, shaving $64 million off the organisation’s balance sheet in three years. A surplus of almost $28 million in 2015 turned into a $36 million deficit in 2018 – earlier this year the NRA shed some 200 jobs as major donors pulled out.
The suit, filed in Manhattan after an 18-month investigation, names the NRA as a whole and four senior executives including the organisation’s public face, autocratic Wayne LaPierre, its executive vice-president on $2 million a year. He is accused of spending millions on luxury black car services and private jet trips, including eight visits to the Bahamas, as well as accepting expensive gifts such as African safaris, hair and makeup for his wife and use of a 107-foot yacht. He also engineered a $17million post-employment contract for himself, according to the suit.
The NRA, established in 1871 as a recreational group designed to “promote and encourage rifle shooting”, has grown into one of the most powerful political organisations in the US. It evolved into a gentlemen’s hunting club with sympathy for wildlife conservation, until Second Amendment militants, including LaPierre, seized power in the 1970s. Since then it has vigorously, and largely successfully, opposed all gun control attempts, often blaming mass shooting casualty tolls on the lack of guns to fight back. A far cry from the 1920s when it supported legislation clamping down on firearms used for organised crime.
The NRA found a new cause during the pandemic fighting to keep gun stores open, depicting the government’s coronavirus response as a threat to Second Amendment rights and successfully lobbying to have firearms vendors added to its list of essential businesses.
More than 100 people are killed every day by gun violence in America.