When it comes to political firepower, no organisation in the United States has been more effective in influencing the gun debate than the National Rifle Association (NRA).
Its lobbying has stymied US gun law reform and its donations have helped put countless politicians into office.
But this month, the NRA is on trial in New York.
It stands accused of grossly mismanaging or overlooking the misuse of funds from its members, and the man who ran the NRA for more than 30 years, Wayne LaPierre, and other key executives are alleged to have pilfered money from the NRA for years.
“We’re talking about multiple millions of dollars in all,” said journalist Rachel Scharf, who is covering the case for Law360.
“The allegation is more than $10 million ($AU15.1 million) in improper, private jet travel, for example, and other lavish personal expenses.
“It’s also alleged that … Mr LaPierre was negotiating contracts to the tune of more than $US100 million with vendors [from] whom he was accepting improper gifts, such as trips on a super yacht, trips to the Mediterranean and things like that.”
Mr LaPierre, 74, once one of the most feared political operators in Washington, stepped down earlier in January.
“It was a surprise when, just days before the trial, he resigned,” Scharf said.
“Since the trial has opened, it’s become very clear that the NRA’s way of defending against this lawsuit is saying we are not Wayne Lapierre.”
The NRA operates as a charity and was founded in New York. Since New York Attorney-General Letitia James launched the civil lawsuit more than three years ago, the organisation moved to dismiss the case. It even unsuccessfully attempted to declare bankruptcy and relocate to Texas.
In the end, it couldn’t stop a jury trial, which is expected to last well into next month.
“It’s really been a crisis. Or, if you will, a come-to-Jesus moment, for those among the NRA who are trying to rescue the NRA and save it from being completely dismantled,” said Professor Robert Spitzer, author of The Politics of Gun Control, now in its ninth edition.
“This bundle of misdeeds really isn’t about ideology or politics. It’s about old-fashioned graft.”
The New York attorney-general is seeking an admission of liability from the NRA, which faces the possibility a monitor will be appointed to oversee its operations. Mr LaPierre and other key executives face millions of dollars in damages with a guilty verdict.
But whatever the outcome, Professor Spitzer says the case has severely damaged the NRA and its political influence. It’s a far cry from the position it was in just eight years ago.
“The year 2016 was a high watermark for the NRA. They endorsed Donald Trump for president before most other traditional conservative groups came on board with Trump. And of course, Trump wound up winning that election,” Professor Spitzer said.
“They spent over $31 million just on Donald Trump’s campaign. The NRA spent over $70 million to aid Republicans around the country.”
But with each mass shooting in the US, public pressure mounted for at least a limited reform of gun laws. The NRA lobbied hard against any changes, and it was the target of numerous lawsuits.
The organisation’s stance helped drive away some former members, such as Ross Baker of New Jersey.
“I think that their knee-jerk reaction to every firearm outrage in the United States is to throw up the barricades and say … there should be no restrictions. You know, that the Second Amendment is absolutely clear. And the Supreme Court has basically taken their position,” Mr Baker said.
Mr Baker, a lifelong gun owner, joined the NRA in the 1990s. He quit as the organisation’s influence in the gun control debate grew. He believes the civil lawsuit against the NRA and Mr LaPierre couldn’t have come soon enough.
“He was able … to use those dues that the members pay to lead an incredibly lavish lifestyle,” Baker said.
“This may have contributed to the decline of membership or that people simply didn’t want to subsidise Wayne LaPierre’s lavish lifestyle.”
A new NRA?
The NRA has lost more than one million members from its peak of 6 million in 2018. But Professor Spitzer doesn’t believe this trial will be the end for the body.
“I think the NRA can recover and probably will, but not in the form in which it has existed in past years and decades,” he said.
Regardless of the trial’s outcome, gun owners in the US will always be a political force that can’t be ignored.
“There are still millions of Americans out in the country who still believe in the gun rights cause. I mean, they’re still true believers,” Professor Spitzer said.
“They’re still worried about the government coming and taking away all their guns. They’re worried about possible new gun laws, and they’re still out there. And that, of course, has really been the key to the NRA strength over the decades.”