Is The NRA Nightmare Almost Over?

Firearms

This article is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis.

Wayne LaPierre announced on January 5 that he’s retiring as executive vice president of the National Rifle Association. He cited “health problems” as the reason for his resignation, but many speculate he left because of the NRA’s failing financial and political health. 

Is the NRA on its last legs? And, if so, will the U.S., free of the NRA’s toxic influence, eventually be able to end its distinction as the nation with the highest rate of gun-related deaths and injuries?

Under LaPierre’s long-term watch, the NRA has been plagued with mismanagement and corruption scandals, including growing scrutiny of its finances, political influence peddling, and allegations of ties to Russian operatives. The organization faced allegations of exorbitant spending by top executives amid reports that at least 18 board members profited from NRA contracts, the Washington Post uncovered. LaPierre, who was paid nearly $1 million a year, used his NRA expense account to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on clothes, luxury vacations in Italy, the Bahamas, Palm Beach, Florida, and other expensive destinations. 

In 2019, the Washington Post also revealed a LaPierre scheme to have the NRA purchase a $6 million mansion in Dallas for him because, ironically, he worried about his safety after yet another shooting at a high school, this time in Parkland, Florida, sparked widespread anger at the NRA and the nation’s lax gun laws. Right-wing talk show host Oliver North was ousted as NRA president in 2019 after accusing the group of financial improprieties and threatening to blackmail LaPierre. It was also revealed that North was being paid millions of dollars by the NRA’s longtime advertising firm for hosting an NRATV web series — presidents are typically unpaid at the NRA and the position is considered ceremonial. That same year, top lobbyist Chris Cox resigned amid accusations of participating in an extortion scheme to expel LaPierre.  

In the wake of these revelations, many board members resigned over concerns about LaPierre’s mismanagement and lavish spending. Many rank-and-file members have also quit over the organization’s misguided leadership and extremism. NRA membership has dropped from about 5.2 million in 2018 to about 4.2 million today and is likely to continue falling.

The NRA’s total revenue has fallen too, from $352 million in 2018 to $211 million in 2022. It closed its media arm – NRATV – in 2019. It has dramatically cut its gun-safety training programs, frozen its employee pension plan, and had to get a $28 million and a $10 million credit line against its lavish Virginia headquarters. In January 2021, the NRA filed for bankruptcy protection in Texas, as part of an effort to avoid a probe by the New York attorney general’s office, but a federal bankruptcy judge dismissed that case.  

These financial problems have undercut the NRA’s political influence. In 2016, the NRA spent over $50 million to help elect Trump and other candidates, almost all of them Republicans. Four years later, faced with major financial woes, the NRA spent less than half that amount. During the 2022 midterms, the organization could only muster about $14 million in political spending. 

 “The current financial situation is untenable and is akin to bailing a leaking boat with a spoon,” Rocky Marshall, a former NRA board member who unsuccessfully ran to unseat LaPierre in 2022, told The Reload, a website that monitors the NRA. 

In the past, many candidates for political office – mostly Republicans but also some Democrats – flocked to the NRA’s annual convention. That’s no longer true, although Donald Trump has continued to be an NRA loyalist and spoke at last year’s annual meeting

New York Attorney General Letitia James brought a lawsuit in 2020 alleging LaPierre and other NRA officials broke non-profit laws and used millions of NRA funds on personal expenses. Until this year, LaPierre had survived efforts to oust him. A few days before James’ lawsuit went to trial, LaPierre announced he’d resign at the end of the month— but the trial has been continuing this week. 

NEW YORK, NEW YORK – JANUARY 08: Former NRA Leader Wayne LaPierre exits the courtroom for a break during his civil trial at New York State Supreme Court on January 08, 2024 in New York City. LaPierre, former NRA treasurer and chief financial officer Wilson “Woody” Phillips, and NRA corporate secretary and general counsel John Frazer are being sued by Attorney General Letitia James alleging that they violated nonprofit laws and misused millions of dollars of NRA funds to finance lavish lifestyles for themselves. (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

Although he liked to portray the NRA as representing grassroots gun owners, LaPierre was a corporate lobbyist and his major clients were the corporations whose profits grow when there are few restrictions on the sale and ownership of guns and ammunition. By 2022 only 39% of NRA revenues came from its members. Under LaPierre’s leadership, the bulk of its budget came from gun manufacturers. At least 22 manufacturers of arms, ammunition and accessories donate to the NRA, including some of the largest like Sturm, Ruger & Company and Smith & Wesson. The NRA’s largest donor was the late Robert E. Petersen, a gun collector, hunter, and publisher whose magazines included Guns & Ammo. He and his wife Maggie gave $56 million to the NRA and its affiliates.  

The NRA was founded after the Civil War to advocate for hunter training, marksmanship, conservation of nature, and gun safety. It was a sportsmen’s club, not a political lobby group. In 1977, extremists within the NRA hijacked the organization, strengthened its ties to gun manufacturers, and vowed to fight all gun regulations. LaPierre joined the organization a year later and in 1991 became its top official.

LaPierre not only dramatically expanded the NRA’s ties to the gun manufacturers, gun dealers, shooting ranges, and pro-gun magazines, but also maneuvered the organization into a close alliance with white supremacists, white evangelical Christian nationalists, and other extremists aligned within the gun rights movement.

For example, Benjamin Pollack, an active participant in the Tea Party movement, opened the Rapture Guns and Knives store, in North Lakeland, Florida in 2012, to serve “your gun and knife needs til Jesus comes.” Its Facebook page describes it as a “Christian owned Gun and Knife store” and its motto is “Walking by faith with steel in our hands.” Three of the store’s employees — his son Johnny Pollack, his daughter Olivia Pollack, and Joseph Hutchinson — were indicted for participating in the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., including for assaulting law enforcement officers. “Our country is being taken away from us,” said Benjamin Pollack. “And if we don’t do something about it, it’ll be gone.” 

The Pollack family, fervent Trump supporters, is in sync with LaPierre, who was a regular presence at gatherings of extreme right-wing groups over the years, and whose paranoid warnings about the threat of liberal tyranny were meant to scare Americans into buying more guns and joining the NRA. For example, in a speech at the 2012 Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, LaPierre said that President Barack Obama was part of a “conspiracy to ensure re-election by lulling gun owners to sleep.” Obama’s plan, he claimed, was to “erase the Second Amendment from the Bill of Rights and excise it from the U.S. Constitution.”

“We must declare that there are no shades of gray in American freedom. It’s black and white, all or nothing. You’re with us or against us,” LaPierre said at an NRA meeting at the time, speaking to the ultra-right-wing “survivalist” wing of the NRA, whose members and activities overlap with racist hate groups who believe they need to prepare for an armed struggle against their own government. 

LaPierre is probably most famous for his comment, following the shooting of 20 children in their Newtown, Conn., elementary school in 2012, suggesting, “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” We don’t need new gun-control laws, he argued, we just need guards with guns in every public school.

He was once a familiar public figure, but in recent years, LaPierre has been almost invisible, as his position at the NRA became increasingly controversial and untenable. 

Many Americans blame the NRA for the epidemic of mass shootings that seem to erupt on a regular basis across the county. In recent years, these have included shootings at schools in Columbine, Colorado, Parkland, Florida, Uvalde, Texas, and Newtown, Connecticut; at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado; at a Black church in Charleston, South Carolina and a synagogue in Pittsburgh; at a bowling alley and bar in Lewiston, Maine; at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida and a music festival in Las Vegas; at a shopping mall in Allen, Texas; at a bank in Louisville, Kentucky and a supermarket in Buffalo, New York; at a dance studio in Monterey Park, California; at Walmart stores in Chesapeake, Virginia and El Paso, Texas. And at a July 4th parade in Highland Park, Illinois. 

These are just a handful of the mass shootings that have been engraved into our national consciousness. These incidents still shock us, but we’ve almost come to accept such violence as normal. Several generations of young people have lived their entire lives traumatized by regular occurrences of mass murder.

Between 2014 and 2023, there were at least 5,758 mass shooting incidents in the United States, defined by the Gun Violence Archive as indiscriminate rampages in public places that kill or wound four or more people. Last year, there were 652 mass shootings incidents, resulting in 709 deaths and 2,676 injuries. 

But this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to gun violence. Mass shootings get the most media attention, but they are a sliver of America’s gun problem, which includes domestic violence, gang killings, and accidental shootings. Last year witnessed 42,940 deaths by gun violence. This includes 18,850 homicides, murders and accidents (52 a day) and 24,090 gun-related suicides (66 per day). Another 36,323 people were injured due to gun violence, according to the Gun Violence Archive. Among the victims were 6,165 children and teenagers under 18. More than 1,600 of them were killed. Guns are the leading cause of death for American children and teens.

Access to a gun in the home increases the risk of death by suicide by 300 percent, according to Brady United, a long-time gun control advocacy group. It also estimates that gun violence costs the American economy at least $229 billion a year. States with weaker gun laws have more gun violence. 

Most gun-related deaths are committed by people who purchase their weapons legally, primarily in states with lax gun laws. Many guns are also purchased by “straw buyers,” who then sell them to people who are prohibited from buying them. For example, 12% of guns recovered from crimes in New York, a state with strong gun laws and among the fewest licensed dealers per capita, were purchased in Georgia, which has among the weakest gun laws in the nation. In 2021, over 10,300 guns – 28 per day — were either lost by or stolen from gun shops. Quite a few end up in illegal markets, where they are trafficked and used in crimes, according to Everytown Gun Safety, another gun control advocacy group.   

NEW YORK, NEW YORK – JANUARY 08: Former NRA Leader Wayne LaPierre leaves New York State Supreme Court after the first day of his civil trial on January 08, 2024 in New York City. (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

The NRA has long opposed any restrictions on the sale and use of guns in nearly all forms, except allowing people with mental illnesses to purchase firearms. 

Even Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) criticized the NRA for failing to support the bipartisan Safer Communities Act when it passed in 2022. 

“We worked with the NRA, listened to their concerns,” Cornyn said, “but in the end I think they simply have a membership and a business model that will not allow them to support any legislation.” 

Congress passed and President Joe Biden signed that bill in response to the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas. It was the first major piece of federal gun reform since the 1993 Brady bill, which  mandated federal background checks on firearms purchasers. Five years later, the Supreme Court ruled that the law was unconstitutional because it required state and local officials to conduct the background checks. The 2022 Safer Communities Act requires background checks on gun purchases for young adults, increased mental health funding, and expanded prohibitions on gun ownership for people convicted of domestic violence, and created incentives for states to pass “red flag” laws.  But the law fell far short of what gun control advocates have called for, including universal background checks, a ban on the sale of assault weapons, and longer waiting periods for gun purchases.

The NRA has two knee-jerk responses to the epidemic of gun violence. The first is that the Second Amendment gives all Americans the right to possess guns of all kinds — not just hunting rifles but machine guns and semi-automatics. Efforts to restrict gun sales and ownership is, according to the NRA, an assault on our constitutional freedoms. The second is the cliché that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.”

To the NRA, weak gun laws have nothing to do with the epidemic of gun-related killings.

About 83 million Americans own at least one gun. Forty-four percent of U.S. adults say they have a gun in their home or on their property, with 30% saying the gun belongs to them personally and the remainder saying it belongs to another household member. U.S. adults with a gun in their household say their house has an average of 4.9 guns.  

A 2017 report revealed that about half of all privately-owned firearms in the U.S. are owned by 3% of American adults. Americans own about 393 million firearms. That’s 46% of all civilian-owned firearms in the world, even though the U.S. accounts for only 4.2% of the world’s population.

In 2019, the most recent comparable data available, the number of U.S. deaths from gun violence was 4.11 per 100,000 compared with 0.19 in the 27-nation European Union (EU). That’s 22 times larger than in the EU, according to a report by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington. No country comes close to the U.S. in terms of gun deaths. Italy has 1/12th of the U.S. rate, 1/13th  of France’s, 1/16th of Sweden’s, 1/32nd of Spain’s, 1/51st of Germany’s. Bulgaria has the highest rate in the EU, with 0.56 gun deaths per 100,000 people  – over seven times lower than the U.S. 

It is no accident that the United States ranks first in the world — by a wide margin — in gun-related civilian deaths and injuries. Compared with every other democracy, we have the most guns and the weakest gun laws. Multiple studies show access to guns contributes to higher firearm-related homicide rates.

But the danger isn’t simply the number of guns. It is the type of guns we allow people to legally purchase. Other countries permit hunting rifles. But many Americans believe it is their right to own an assault weapon.

It is tempting to say that all these gun deaths reflect something basically wrong with American culture or the nation’s very soul. But the majority of Americans favor strict gun control laws. Unfortunately, their voices have been drowned out by the NRA. 

Majorities have consistently favored stricter gun laws since 2015, with notable upticks after well-publicized shootings, such as in Parkland in 2018 and in Uvalde in 2022, when the number favoring tougher laws spiked to 66%.  

The Gallup poll’s most recent study in October found that 56% of U.S. adults — including 88% of Democrats, 56% of Independents, and 26% of Republicans — say gun laws should be stricter, while 31% believe they should be kept as they are now, and 12% favor less strict gun laws.

A significant majority of Americans (61%) say it is too easy to legally obtain a gun in this country, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in June 2023. Even 38% of gun owners say it is too easy to legally obtain a gun. The same poll discovered that 60% of Americans — including 91% of Democrats and 60% of Republicans — oppose allowing people to carry concealed firearms without a permit, which is legal in 26 states. Sixty four percent of Americans – including 85% of Democrats and 42% of Republicans — favor banning assault-style weapons. Roughly the same number support outlawing the sale of high-capacity ammunition magazines that hold more than 10 rounds. Almost all police chiefs favor requiring criminal background checks for all firearm sales.

The NRA claims to speak for America’s gun owners, but fewer than 5% of gun owners are NRA members, and the number is shrinking. According to a 2017 Pew poll — the most recent data available — 77% of NRA members are Republicans, while only 58% of gun owners who are not NRA members are Republicans.  

The NRA’s extreme views are also increasingly out of touch with most Americans, most gun owners, and even many of its own members. For example, according to the 2017 Pew poll, 52% of NRA members favor background checks for private gun sales, compared with 75% of Republican gun owners who are not NRA members. Gun owners who don’t belong to the NRA were also more supportive than NRA members of banning assault-style weapons and high-capacity magazines, and creating a federal database to track gun sales, with NRA members much less likely to support each respectively. 

Although the NRA is no longer the political powerhouse and lobbying dynamo it once was, it can still mobilize its troops to oppose  efforts to regulate gun sales and ownership, particularly in red states. Its influence has come from a small but vocal number of extremist members in key states, backed by campaign donations funded by gun manufacturers.   

Josh Sugarman, executive director of the nonprofit Violence Policy Center, who has written extensively about the NRA, says that the organization’s most vocal members are a small proportion of its members for whom “guns are their life.” They represent perhaps a few hundred thousand members. Yes, they can make lots of noise but they don’t represent the general public or even most NRA members who didn’t fall for LaPierre’s extremism.

For decades, the NRA outmuscled gun control groups, which have operated on shoestring budgets. Despite public opinion in favor of tougher gun laws, the gun control movement is still fragmented and small, comprised of thousands of local groups and a handful of national organizations. The largest national group is Everytown for Gun Safety, founded in 2014 by billionaire and former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, by merging several different organizations. He pledged $50 million to the group in addition to his donations to political candidates who support tougher gun laws. The movement’s most visible public voices are former Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-AZ), who was a victim of gun violence that ended her political career, and current Rep. Lucy McBath (D-Georgia), who became an activist after her 17-year-old son Jordan was shot dead at a Florida gas station by a man who complained about loud music. 

The gun control movement’s major strategy has primarily been to educate the public about the harmful impact of the nation’s gun culture and to lobby elected officials in cities, states, and Congress to strengthen gun laws. This approach has certainly helped influence public opinion. But public opinion, on its own, has little political influence. It has to be mobilized and organized — not just during episodic upsurges of moral outrage after a mass shooting but on an ongoing basis and in large numbers. 

In this arena, advocates for tougher laws have been outnumbered by the NRA, which has been better organized and more fanatical. In the past decade, some cities and a handful of states have adopted stronger laws, but more states have actually weakened their existing laws. And in terms of getting something done in Washington, the strategy of traditional lobbying and media campaigns has been almost a complete failure until last year’s modest victory in Congress. 

NEW YORK, NEW YORK – JANUARY 08: Former NRA Leader Wayne LaPierre (L) leaves New York State Supreme Court after the first day of his civil trial on January 08, 2024 in New York City. (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

In order for gun control groups to enact real reform in the wake of the NRA’s failing financial and political health, other strategies are needed. One is to mobilize reasonable gun owners for reasonable gun reform. Guns are a large part of American culture. Most Americans don’t object to the manufacture and sale of rifles used in hunting, a sport that millions of Americans enjoy relatively safely. But many gun owners think the NRA is too far outside the mainstream. A growing number of gun owners and enthusiasts want the services that the NRA once offered but don’t like the NRA’s extremist agenda. 

A more moderate gun group could not only steal some members from the NRA but, more importantly, recruit unaffiliated gun owners who don’t support the NRA’s close ties with the gun industry and don’t think the NRA speaks for them. It could grow into a kind of AARP for gun owners — one that provides services (such as gun safety courses) as well as mobilizes its members to support reasonable gun laws and candidates who voice similar views, and poses a challenge to the NRA.

Another strategy is for gun control groups to advocate for divestment from gun manufacturers, with the goal of convincing union pension funds, universities, churches, and other institutions to remove their investments from corporations engaged in socially irresponsible activities. 

Three companies  – Ruger, SIG Sauer, and Smith & Wesson – accounted for over 60% of all domestically produced firearms between 2016 and 2020, so the list of potential targets isn’t very large. 

In 2013, the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS), both large public pension funds, moved to divest from manufacturers of assault weapons. That year, a pension fund for Chicago public employees (the Municipal Employees Annuity and Benefit Fund) voted to withdraw its holdings in three companies — Freedom Group, Sturm Ruger, and Smith & Wesson — that manufactured assault weapons, while the Chicago Teachers Pension Fund voted to divest from gun makers. In 2014, at the urging of faculty and students, Occidental College in Los Angeles became the first higher education institution to pledge to stay away from any investments in companies that manufacture military-style assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines for general public sale. 

Several small activist groups have tried to expand this strategy, but lacked the resources to translate their ideas into a broader movement. If a well-funded group took on this challenge, it could have significant ripple effects of not only weakening the gun industry but also its chief lobby group, the NRA. 

Another potential target are the retailers that dominate the sale of guns. In 2022, there were close to 78,000 licensed gun leaders in the country. Over half of licensees are located at residential addresses, typically gun dealers who operate their business from their homes. But a small number of dealers dominate the market. Only 2.5% of gun dealers sell over 50 percent of all guns in the United States. The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, which allocates licenses, rarely monitors these businesses, which are inspected less than once per decade.  

Some major retailers have already bowed to public pressure to do something about the nation’s gun violence crisis. In 2015, Walmart banned the sale of assault-style rifles in its stores. Three years later, it raised the minimum age to purchase firearms and ammunition to 21. In 2019, it announced it would no longer sell handguns or ammunition that can be used in large capacity magazines or military-style weapons. But it still sells both firearms and ammunition. In 2018, Dick’s Sporting Goods, a major national chain, announced that it would gradually stop selling guns in its stores. In 2023, Big 5 stopped selling guns in its 220 California stores but still does so in 10 other states that account for half the chain’s outlets.

There are several other major retailers that play a role in the nation’s gun culture that could be influenced by expanded public pressure, such as Hyatt Guns, Academy Sports and Outdoors, Bass Pro Shops, and Bud’s Gun Shop, which claims to be “the Internet’s leading retailer for firearms, ammunition and accessories.”  

In the wake of the NRA’s impending demise, the time is ripe for gun control advocacy groups to expand their efforts so that the nation’s public policies toward gun sales and gun ownership more accurately reflect public opinion. Our children are counting on us to stop the deadly gun violence that is destroying the nation’s soul and their futures.



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