Doubts about the viability of New York Attorney General Letitia James‘ lawsuit to dissolve the National Rifle Association are extending even to NRA dissidents who have long clamored for major overhauls at the gun rights group but call the legal action a massive unforced error.
Ms. James said the lawsuit over the misuse of charitable funds and the remedies she seeks were not extreme, but NRA members say she would have done well to stop short of demanding an end to the group, which is chartered in New York and was founded shortly after the Civil War.
“My gut is it doesn’t change anything,” said Frank Tait, an NRA member who has been vying for a spot on the group’s board of directors. “I’m seeing some evidence that people in the gun community are incensed at Attorney General James‘ overreach, and they are joining the NRA so that you have an increase in membership coming from this.”
“Given what’s in that complaint, where are the criminal charges in terms of the individuals and those actions? That, to me, would have been appropriate,” he said.
Replacing the board and announcing additional oversight would be warranted instead of “asking for the death penalty for an organization for malfeasance,” he said.
David Dell’Aquila, a major NRA donor, estimated that more than $165 million in planned contributions has been withheld as a form of protest against organizational issues, but he added that Ms. James has politicized the dissent and is trying to fire up the Democratic base.
“They can smell blood,” he said. “But I also think it could also backfire on her because it can energize the Second Amendment base and they can come out and vote.”
The Washington Times first reported last year on a class-action lawsuit in which Mr. Dell’Aquila accused the NRA of using donations for purposes that don’t relate to its “core mission.”
He also sent letters warning Ms. James and D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine not to time any investigations to affect the 2020 elections.
Mr. Dell’Aquila is no fan of NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre and said major victims of the legal battle will likely be rank-and-file members who are being told to scrounge for donations or risk facing the end of the NRA.
“Unfortunately, I’m sure there are going to be some [who are] going to take loans out, mortgage their house, etc., not seeing the full extent of the greed and self-dealing that they’ve been doing,” he said.
The lawsuit also demands that four top executives — Mr. LaPierre, Secretary John Frazer, former Chief Financial Officer Wilson “Woody” Phillips and former Director of General Operations Josh Powell — pay restitution.
Ms. James also wants to bar them from ever serving on the board of any New York charity. She disputed assertions that the remedies were out of bounds, given the alleged transgressions.
“Well, it’s not extreme,” she told NPR. “This has been going on for years … and the NRA has become so powerful that they were basically unchecked by others.”
Ms. James does have the power and authority under New York state law to pursue the case, said Robert J. Spitzer, a professor at the State University of New York at Cortland who has written extensively on the politics of gun control.
“It might not be where this ends up at the end,” Mr. Spitzer said. “After all, when somebody brings charges, often there’s a plea bargain, there’s negotiating and there will certainly be negotiations going on about this. But it’s just not all that unreasonable given how egregious the larceny is.”
Attorneys for the NRA said Eric Schneiderman, as attorney general in New York, gave NRA board member Tom King a heads-up in 2017 that he was feeling political pressure to go after the group because of its instrumental role in Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential election.
The NRA gave an early endorsement to Mr. Trump in 2016 and poured more than $30 million into efforts supporting his candidacy.
“Schneiderman seemed to know that a sham prosecution of a political enemy would be blatantly improper, but advised King to ‘get ready,’” the lawsuit says.
The group said it has readily complied with everything Ms. James has asked for since launching her investigation in April 2019 but has not been “treated fairly” by her office.
Mr. LaPierre called the lawsuit an unconstitutional attack.
“We’re ready for the fight. Bring it on,” he said.
He said many of the costs he incurred on travel and entertainment were justified as an investment in “donor cultivation,” according to Ms. James‘ lawsuit.
“I don’t hear anybody in the NRA, nor the board members, talking about the D.C. suit,” he said.
The legal issues are the latest black marks in what has been a tumultuous few years for the NRA.
Mr. LaPierre survived an apparent coup attempt in April 2019 after former NRA President Oliver North questioned the group’s spending practices, notably Mr. LaPierre’s expenses on suits and trips.
Mr. North was forced out of his post, as was Chris W. Cox, the group’s top lobbyist. Mr. Cox denied that he was part of an attempt to oust Mr. LaPierre.
The NRA also went through a messy public breakup in 2019 with public relations firm Ackerman McQueen.
“It’s contrary to his personal financial interests to speak up when he did, to expose Wayne LaPierre’s alleged wrongdoing,” John Boch, executive director of the group Guns Save Life, said of Mr. North. “And because of that, I attach a lot more credence and legitimacy to what Oliver North had to say as compared to Wayne LaPierre, who has moved to silence his critics and drum them out of the organization.”
Mr. Boch, an NRA-certified instructor, said interest in classes is now off the charts. He said the uptick started around the first week of June and had more to do with “rioting and looting that persists across America.”
“I think very little of what’s going on in the firearms world has to do with Letitia James‘ lawsuit against the NRA compared to the riots that people are seeing nationwide and even in their own communities,” he said.
Mr. Boch said it never entered his mind to quit the group as a form of protest.
“Not me personally. I know there are a lot of people that talk a good game on the internet, but I sometimes wonder how many of them were members to begin with,” he said. “The NRA, love ‘em or hate ‘em, they’re the big dog in the room when it comes to politics, and they command respect from politicians for good reason.”