Tim Mak has written a sprawling tale of the greed, incompetence and narcissism which has dominated the National Rifle Association throughout Wayne LaPierre’s 30 years as its leader. Abetted by his wife, Susan, LaPierre has allegedly used his members’ dues to fund a billionaire’s lifestyle.
The LaPierres’ wedding in 1998 was a near miss: he almost ran from the altar, until she and the priest changed his mind. Mak calls this “emblematic” of “a man driven by fear and anxiety over all other forces … his reaction to these emotions is usually to flee and hide”.
These qualities, Mak writes, have made LaPierre “prey” to an endless series of conmen, throughout his leadership of America’s most-feared lobbying group.
“Pushed and prodded” by his wife to discover “money’s alluring glow”, Mak writes, LaPierre saw his salary balloon from $200,000 in the mid-1990s to $2.2m in 2018. According to the investigation of the New York attorney general, which has done the most to expose serial excesses at the NRA, between 2013 and 2017 the black cars, private jets and hundreds of thousands of dollars of expensive clothing led to $1.2m in reimbursed expenses.
Between 2013 and 2018, companies used to book the LaPierres’ private planes received an astonishing $13.5m. There were trips to Lake Como, Budapest and the Bahamas. Just the hired cars for trips to Italy and Hungary cost $18,000. LaPierre spent $275,000 on suits at a single Beverly Hills emporium, including $39,000 on one day in 2015. To disguise such excesses, the bills were sent to an outside vendor which the NRA reimbursed.
Mak also does a good job of describing how every mass shooting has pushed the NRA ever further right, transforming it from advocacy group for gun rights into a fully fledged player in the culture war, especially after the massacre of 20 young children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut in December 2012.
Mak offers a particularly depressing account of how the NRA chief lobbyist, Chris Cox, was personally involved in negotiations over the Manchin-Toomey bill, a Senate measure which would have modestly increased background checks if, as Mak points out, not enough to have prevented the Sandy Hook massacre, since that gunman used guns legally obtained by his mother.
In any case, after months of negotiation the NRA double-crossed both sponsors, made sure the bill failed to get the 60 votes it needed to pass the Senate, then dropped its A-ratings for Manchin and Toomey to D and C respectively.
The NRA’s role in the Trump-Russia scandal was substantial. Maria Butina, eventually convicted as a Russian spy, used “relationships within the NRA to build an informal channel of diplomatic relations with Russia”. Her efforts included a famous public exchange with Donald Trump during his first campaign, in which he expressed his affection for Vladimir Putin and promised to improve relations as president.
The NRA spent $30m to help to elect Trump, more than his own fundraising super pac. Ironically, NRA membership dues fell after Trump entered the White House. The organization lost its most lucrative fundraiser when Barack Obama left office.
The great unravelling began on 6 August 2020, when the New York attorney general, Letitia James, filed a lawsuit to dissolve the NRA entirely. She accused LaPierre of using the organization for 30 years “for his financial benefit, and the benefit of a close circle of NRA staff, board members, and vendors”.
Six months later, the NRA filed for bankruptcy. But despite endless infighting, Wayne LaPierre remains in charge. And because Trump was elected, with the NRA’s help, the supreme court now includes three justices appointed by him – at least two of whom seemed eager in arguments this week to demolish most of the remaining state restrictions on carrying concealed weapons, in New York and six other states.
The passions of gun owners – and the fear they have instilled in a majority of public officials – remain dominant forces in American politics despite the greed and incompetence of their leaders chronicled so thoroughly in this important book.