The National Rifle Association heads into its winter board meeting on Thursday embroiled in existential legal battles and trying to claw back “excess benefits” paid out to top executives — some of whom are long gone after a messy internal power struggle.
The doubts about the future of America’s preeminent gun-rights group come one presidential election cycle removed from the NRA playing an indispensable role in propelling President Trump into office.
The stunning turnaround has some members clamoring for real changes at the top.
Gun control groups say they sense an opening to advance their agenda given the recent turmoil at the NRA.
The NRA has been “weakened through their own fault, through their own cause and their own corruption and their own decisions,” said Robin Lloyd, managing director of Giffords, the group founded by former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona.
But she’s more focused on what will be possible with President-elect Joseph R. Biden, who supports stricter controls.
“That is a more significant factor here than what the NRA is or is not capable of,” Ms. Lloyd said.
In a notable concession, the gun-rights group said in tax filings last year that Executive Vice President and CEO Wayne LaPierre reimbursed about $300,000 in travel expenses because they were determined to be “excess benefits.”
The group also said Chris W. Cox, the former head of the NRA’s legislative lobbying arm, and former NRA President Oliver North were among current or former executives who might have siphoned improper benefits from the group’s coffers.
The NRA said Mr. Cox, who resigned from the group in June 2019, owes them more than $1 million worth of unauthorized personal and family trips, tickets to sporting events, and meals that he incurred between 2015 and 2019.
“It appears that Mr. Cox regularly indulged in luxury hotel stays, private flights, and tickets to sporting events — all of which was without approval and none of which were in the best interests of NRA members,” said William A. Brewer III, an attorney for the NRA.
Tom Buchanan, an attorney for Mr. Cox, said the allegations in the tax filing are “absolutely false” and that all of Mr. Cox’s travel and reimbursement requests were reviewed and approved by NRA officials.
“Only now, years after the fact, has the NRA manufactured these allegations,” Mr. Buchanan said.
Ms. James filed a lawsuit in August seeking to dissolve the group and alleging that Mr. LaPierre and other top executives engaged in illegal spending practices for years.
The tax filing also said the NRA might have been paying Mr. North for services he never provided.
An attorney for Mr. North declined to comment.
Mr. LaPierre survived an alleged coup attempt by Mr. North at the group’s national convention in April 2019. At the time, Mr. North raised questions about the group’s spending practices, notably Mr. LaPierre’s purchasing fancy suits and going on expensive trips.
In the end, Mr. LaPierre survived, and Mr. North was ousted from his post as president.
Mr. Cox left his position several months later. He vehemently denied participating in any coordinated effort to force Mr. LaPierre from his post.
The group is now in the crosshairs of both Ms. James and D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine, who filed a separate lawsuit in August accusing the NRA of misusing funds through its charitable foundation.
She wants Mr. LaPierre and several other current and former executives to pay restitution.
She also wants to bar them from ever sitting on the board of any New York charity.
The group has no intention of backing down from the fights.
“We will not submit. We won’t give an inch. We will not surrender our freedom,” Mr. LaPierre said at the group’s annual meeting of members in October.
Beyond the battles with Ms. James and Mr. Racine, the NRA agreed in November to pay a $2.5 million fine and stop its insurance services in New York as part of a settlement stemming from a three-year investigation into its “Carry Guard” insurance program.
“I think the legal strategy is to admit to a couple of technical violations and see if they can’t get away with it,” he said.
Like many other companies and groups, the NRA’s finances have taken a hit during the COVID-19 pandemic. The group also ran a deficit in 2019, the fourth straight year to end in red ink.
They had to postpone their 2020 annual meetings and exhibits — an event that serves as a major fundraising vehicle and pep rally — and held a scaled-down meeting of members in Arizona in October.
“I think that COVID gave them an opportunity to trim costs,” Mr. Tait said. “As most of the organizations do, they trimmed some of the areas down to the bone. But there’s still fat at the top.”
At the group’s meeting of members in October, Mr. Ouimet said the NRA has the power to end political careers when they’re united.
“Just like we ended Crooked Hillary’s,” he said. “We’re not going anywhere. They can bloody us, but we will remain unbroken, unbowed and unyielding in our unapologetic defense of our fundamental, individual, God-given freedoms.”
Interest in firearms spiked in 2020 amid the pandemic, racial justice protests and demonstrations related to the presidential election.
“To me, it’s the political side of it and the internal operations that are the problems,” he said.
Mr. Brewer said that Ms. James‘ lawsuit is generating a flood of new interest in the group.
“Not surprisingly, NRA members have rallied around the organization and helped the Association confront this abuse of power,” he said. “The NRA is seeing a surge in memberships, donations and grassroots support.”