When Wayne LaPierre, the longtime leader of the National Rifle Association, announced his resignation on Friday, his opponents may have been tempted to celebrate. But the reality is that his departure does not necessarily change the group’s immediate prospects. The NRA remains under the control of an old guard that comprises mainly LaPierre’s lieutenants.
If change is to come quickly to the NRA, it will be through the trial that began in New York today. The civil suit from New York Attorney General Letitia James alleges misappropriation of funds on a grand scale by the group’s leadership. If the jury finds in her favor, then the judge may order what she’s petitioning for—that the NRA find new leaders, the old ones pay restitution to its members, and the group answer to a court-appointed overseer. At least in the near term, only that outcome could empower the reformers within the organization.
James initially sought the complete dissolution of the NRA, as a punishment for the alleged impropriety by its leaders. Justice Joel Cohen of the Supreme Court of the State of New York rejected that attempt. He based this finding on the view that shutting down the NRA entirely would not help the victims of the alleged misspending: the group’s millions of members, who include everyone from staunch gun-rights advocates to people merely seeking to join shooting or hunting clubs that make NRA membership a prerequisite.
“In short, the Complaint does not allege the type of public harm that is the legal linchpin for imposing the ‘corporate death penalty,’” Justice Cohen wrote in his opinion. “Moreover, dissolving the NRA could impinge, at least indirectly, on the free speech and assembly rights of its millions of members.”
Despite ruling out dissolution, Justice Cohen made clear that he takes the allegations against the NRA’s leadership very seriously. He said that the allegations “tell a grim story of greed, self-dealing, and lax financial oversight at the highest levels of the National Rifle Association” and “detail a pattern of exorbitant spending and expense reimbursement for the personal benefit of senior management.” He noted that the accusations also include “conflicts of interest, related party transactions, cover-ups, negligence, and retaliation against dissidents and whistleblowers.”
All in all, Justice Cohen said that if the allegations were proved, it would mean that millions upon millions in NRA money had been diverted from legitimate expenses to fund the lavish lifestyle of its leaders instead. James’s claims, which would wrest away much of the LaPierre associates’ control of the NRA, will now be put before a jury.
LaPierre was the public face of the NRA for more than 30 years, yet his departure—citing health reasons—has little immediate effect. Hiallies already engaged in a series of internal maneuvers to ensure continuity. Andrew Arulanandam, a longtime LaPierre confidant, was the NRA’s spokesperson until just last month, when he replaced the suddenly ousted head of general operations. That position change put Arulanandam in line to succeed LaPierre, and he will be the interim head of the organization once LaPierre’s resignation takes effect.
Similarly, the tenure of the NRA’s president, Charles Cotton, should have ended last year under the group’s old bylaws—but they were changed. Cotton’s natural successor, Willes Lee, who has been publicly critical of the legal strategy in the New York case lately, was unceremoniously dismissed—and Cotton, a staunch LaPierre supporter, gained another term as president.
“Lawyers provide expensive advice and counsel,” Lee posted in May 2023. “They shouldn’t make decisions. Very expensive litigation won’t end soon; settlement may be worse.”
The legal strategy that Lee objected to has been masterminded by an external lawyer, Bill Brewer. Brewer has called James’s claims “baseless” and promised to “vigorously defend [the NRA’s] commitment to good governance” in court. He went on to accuse the state prosecutor, who called the NRA a “terrorist organization” during her 2018 campaign for attorney general, of trying to destroy the organization for political reasons.
“It is unfortunate that the NYAG desperately clings to a failing narrative—apparently trying to score political points in her pursuit of the NRA,” he said in a statement to my publication, The Reload, in 2022.
Cotton and Arulanandam have been consistent defenders of Brewer’s efforts, even as he has consumed a growing slice of the group’s continually shrinking budget. The NRA has spent upwards of $70 million for Brewer’s representation over the past three years alone—helping to make legal fees now the group’s second-largest expense, behind costs associated with attracting and retaining members. But with two of LaPierre’s closest allies running the show, there’s little reason to think that anything about the group’s legal strategy is going to change over the next few weeks.
Whatever the jury decides, however, the NRA’s money troubles will make its current trajectory hard to sustain: After losing more than 1 million members, its revenue has declined by more than half since 2018. That translates into lost influence. At its peak, the NRA disbursed more than $50 million to help elect Donald Trump in 2016. But the group’s political spending has plummeted since then. It devoted less than half of that sum during Trump’s failed 2020 reelection campaign; it managed only about $14 million in political spending during the 2022 midterms (though it still outspent the main gun-control groups in both of those elections).
Political spending is not the only priority the NRA has been forced to cut back on. It shut down its streaming service, NRATV, in 2019 and hasn’t replaced it. It has also been forced to slash spending on popular members’ services, such as gun-safety-training programs and competitive shooting events.
The group has been forced to go deeper and deeper into debt to make up for its budget shortfalls. In 2022, internal documents show that the NRA had to borrow nearly $24 million and still ran a roughly $12 million deficit. The financial deterioration has set off alarm bells for NRA insiders and outsiders alike.
Rocky Marshall, a former NRA board member and a critic of LaPierre, believes that things will only get worse unless the organization implements significant reforms. “This downward spiral is likely to accelerate as more members become disgusted with the corruption and misuse of donations by Wayne LaPierre, management staff, and the Board of Directors,” Marshall told The Reload last year.
Brian Mittendorf, an Ohio State University accounting professor who has made a study of the gun-rights group’s finances, called the NRA’s situation dire. “Their financial performance and lack of other revenue sources have demonstrated how little margin for error their business model has,” he told me. “The way things have developed, they run the risk of … a cycle that would result in the organization becoming a shell of its former self.”
That risk doesn’t mean the NRA can’t come back from all of this. Where gun-rights advocacy is concerned, no brand is bigger—and whether you like LaPierre (and his Zegna suits) or not, a large part of that is his accomplishment. Despite the NRA’s tremendous decline in recent years, it was so much better-known than other groups that it has remained preeminent: Outfits such as the Firearms Policy Coalition or the Second Amendment Foundation have grown as the NRA has shrunk, but their funding tops out in the eight-figure range while the NRA still commands nine-figure revenues.
LaPierre’s resignation could eventually lead to the internal changes needed for the NRA to bounce back on its own. It creates an opening for reformers to persuade the board of directors to change course. But given that LaPierre’s closest allies remain entrenched at the top, that could take months or years.
The trial just starting has real potential to move that timeline up. Over the next six or so weeks, Justice Cohen and a jury will decide what to do with the NRA. The court’s finding could ultimately be more consequential for the nation’s largest gun-rights group than the resignation of LaPierre.