In your book, you describe the corruption, greed and gross mismanagement you saw while at the NRA. Do you see yourself as a whistleblower?
Of course. And I hope it’s much more than that. I hope we can actually move this debate [on guns] a bit. Look, as I described in my book, I became caught up in the fight to save Wayne [LaPierre]. I mean, I poured the lemonade and stirred it. I was the guy kind of strategizing how we defend all this garbage. And looking at friends that are gun owners and put money into the NRA, knowing that they didn’t really have the truth, that wasn’t comfortable for me. And it took me some time to sort through that, personally.
The NRA issued a statement calling your book a “fictional account,” saying you were a marginal character, fired for facing [accusations of] sexual harassment and financial impropriety — and that you had been effusive about NRA leadership right up until the time you were fired. What do you say to that criticism?
They conveniently leave out the fact that I was offered a substantial severance agreement with a nondisclosure agreement that’s nothing short of a gag order — that I said “no” to. Then they fired me. They wanted to basically pay me off for my silence. And at some point, I decided: I can’t do that. If I don’t step forward, who’s going to step forward? In truth, nobody was attacking me over there until now. And I’m sure it’s only going to get worse. But, that’s just sort of the playbook: How do you discredit somebody? They are running out of cards to play.
I grew up with guns. I grew up with the outdoors. The sort of Tom Sawyer existence. Guns were just sort of part of life. It was never an issue, right, just no big deal. The problem with the NRA is the fact that it is, by any definition, the fringe, right? There’s 100 million gun owners in this country, and there’s only 5 million NRA members. I went in with this idea of bringing it all together. But I knew it was fractious. I knew that there was division, but I had no idea it was like the “House of Cards” meets “Game of Thrones” on steroids.
You talked about Wayne LaPierre’s tendency to cater to that fringe and throw gasoline on the fire, famously saying after Sandy Hook, “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is [with] a good guy with a gun.”
Right. Which is absurd. That is the quintessential example of pouring gas on the fire. And it was more than a tendency. It was a way of doing business. It’s really easy to raise money on fear. It’s a lot harder to raise money on solutions. They’re coming for your guns. Put a stamp on it. Send it out. It’ll come back with money in it. It was really easy. Like, I got a letter in the mail the other day: Gun Confiscation Coming. [Laughs.] Which is from the NRA raising money. Last year, it was Andrew Cuomo Is Shutting Down the NRA. You would think the next thing is going to be black helicopters and Joe Biden and Hillary [Clinton] coming to get your gun.
It was a real lost opportunity; it could have been a time to move on some of these background check bills, et cetera. So when I say, the NRA has blood on its hands, which people are outraged that I’m saying now, that’s what I’m referring to. Because what happens in the meantime, right — who’s lost? The human toll of that decision.
The NRA supported Trump in the 2016 election with major dollars, and [was] able to “turn out the deplorables,” as you said, and really get people fired up and voting. The NRA, as an organization, is in a very different spot right now. What kind of influence do you think it’s going to have in the 2020 election?
Well, I think that it’s a mistake to think that just because the NRA is in a death spiral that gun owners will not come out and vote. They will. They’re presented with what they view in their mind as another pretty binary choice between Joe Biden and Donald Trump. That’s how, certainly, one section of the electorate views it. It’s a mistake for the Biden group talking about banning guns, thinking that the other side won’t react to that. They will. And they’ll turn out. So I think there will be a big turnout from those voters this year regardless of what the NRA does, because they won’t have a lot of money in this election.
How stark a choice do you really think it is?
Well, what I don’t see is a real holistic solution to solving gun crime. Because, ostensibly, that’s what we’re trying to solve, right? We don’t need to take guns away just to take them away. And I don’t see real systematic thinking of that approach. You have sort of three buckets, right? You have mass shooting. You have inner-city shootings. And you have suicide with firearms. And all of those are going to require tailored solutions.
And I think that takes a lot of thought process to think through how to deal with each one of those. The NRA, in my opinion, should have been a leader and a thought leader in this space. When you just say “no” every single time, you’re not part of the solution. You’re part of the problem.
When Parkland happened, you were the number-two guy at the NRA. I know you talked about having teenage children at the time and wrestling with that.
Yeah, my children were incredibly affected by that. And I certainly was. Seeing the kids in Parkland express their rage, as any teenager might — and I’m certainly not going to put myself in their shoes — but certainly any human being understands that.
I went back and looked at some of the speeches during the time — Wayne’s and [spokeswoman] Dana Loesch’s, where she accuses the media of loving mass murder. That’s where I really, really started pushing on Wayne going, Why are we off-topic on all this other garbage? We’re not talking about the Second Amendment. We’re not talking about guns. That’s what this is supposed to be. And the crazy Thomas the train cartoon with a Ku Klux Klan hood on it was the end of the end. I went into Wayne’s office and said, “This is insane. Have you seen this? This has got to stop.” Almost like — you have to use the word — “inciting.”
There’s an escalation in violence all over the country right now. You draw parallels between Wayne LaPierre and President Trump in that instinct to throw gasoline on the fire.
Of course. Lots of people say LaPierre was Trump before Trump was Trump.
With the protests going on now, we’re starting to see one armed group versus another armed group. With more and more arms in people’s hands, where does that lead us?
I’m glad that you asked about this. I think it’s a very concerning situation. Look, if we unpack this a little bit — the situation with the 17-year-old kid who picked up an AR-15 and drove up from Illinois to Wisconsin, is frankly absurd. There’s no firearms instructor, no book, nothing that is going to tell you to run to a fight. To go pick a fight. That is the exact opposite of responsible use of a firearm. I don’t know where the heck this kid’s parents were. I don’t know how he was able to grab an AR-15. He shouldn’t have been able to have one at that age. I know there’s some people that are arguing around some of the edges of the law that that isn’t the case, but whatever. Let’s just be realistic here. We do have this escalation. And it’s just not responsible use of firearms, and it’s very concerning. I worry about the temperature and where we are and how this ultimately unfolds.
We are seeing the difference in the way that armed White people and armed people of color are being treated and viewed. With this issue of race and guns, what do you think about that discrepancy?
It’s very hard to reconcile. I certainly cannot put myself in the shoes of a young Black male in this country. I can’t. It’s heartbreaking to see this unfold in our country. And to say that there’s no problem with police. Well, that’s just completely not true. Of course there’s a problem. And there needs to be some massive reform. You know, I can make the argument they need to put in a lot more money into the whole system so you get rid of the bad guys and get really good guys in there that are ultra-trained. But that’s neither here nor there. It’s just incredibly problematic and sad. You’ve seen gun crime explode this summer and, frankly, a lot of politicization of this entire thing. And the real people are caught in the middle. I hope and pray, after this election, that we can get some level of civility, but I don’t know.
There was a time the guys in blue were the good guys. That’s the way it should be. We have to figure out how we can balance the really bad guys with a community of law and order and police officers that the community can trust. This is an issue that’s festered for, I don’t know, a century? It’s very difficult to put myself in the shoes of a young Black male and what that’s like today. Because, look, that’s obviously a different thing than a young White male walking down the streets. It just is. That’s a fact.
Do you see any solutions?
Guns are not going away in this country anytime soon. It’s part of the fabric of the country. And I have to believe that there’s a better way, as Americans, that we can live with guns. Regardless of your feeling on it.So what I hope is that maybe, just maybe, we can start to have that conversation. We have to look beyond bouncing from crisis to crisis — and, in this case, shooting to shooting — to try and find a solution. But I will tell you, because I haven’t made this complete left conversion to banning guns [laughs], I haven’t really been invited to a conversation. On the other side, it’s the same thing. So that’s a little bit troubling. But I’ve got to keep talking. So I try.
Do you regret working for the NRA?
There are definitely parts that I regret, things I would have handled differently. But had I not participated and been there and worked and seen all of this, well, then I couldn’t have this educated conversation, and, hopefully, make a difference. And so I have to kind of look forward.
And if justice is served with the NRA, and I could be a part of that, I can sleep at night. What would be much more important is to move this [conversation] off of the edges and change it from a rant to a discussion. I absolutely believe that there’s a lot of smart people on all sides of this. And maybe, just maybe, because the NRA is on its heels in this kind of death spiral, it will start to move forward.
If you were to sit down to look for solutions with [gun control advocates] Gabby Giffords, David Hogg, or the families of the children in Newtown, what would you say to them?
I’m Josh. I used to work at the NRA. I know you think I’m Darth Vader, but I’m not. I’m a person. I’m a citizen. I’m concerned. You know, let’s talk about this. We’re not going to solve this today, but wouldn’t it be cool if we just had a conversation?
KK Ottesen is a regular contributor to the magazine. Follow her on Twitter: @kkOttesen. This interview has been edited and condensed.