Wednesday, July 19, 2023

What Has Become of the NRA?

Joe Biden and Senate Democrats are escalating their anti-firearm discourse. Democratic state leaders and legislatures are reinforcing their stance on outdated, and implementing new, unconstitutional gun control laws. This is accompanied by the continuous coverage of "gun violence" stories by the traditional media that put guns and gun owners in a negative light. Amidst this turmoil, many gun owners are left wondering:

"What is the NRA doing?"

Contrary to what some may believe, the NRA continues to operate in Washington D.C and state capitals, fighting for our rights. Even in the face of internal disarray and corruption, a dedicated group of Second Amendment advocates are actively striving to uphold the right to bear arms for all Americans. However, due to the internal turmoil, their visibility has reduced significantly, they are operating on a tighter budget, employing fewer staff, and to a great extent, functioning in a leadership void. The NRA is still in the battle, but like a fighter who has sustained too many hits, a lot of the NRA's efforts are scattered and inefficient currently, sometimes even backfiring. They seem to be completely unable to defend themselves, let alone take the fight to the opposition and safeguard the rights of America's gun owners.

But not all news is dire.

In the past couple of years, the NRA financed and guided what could be the most critical Second Amendment case in history to the Supreme Court: New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen. This case challenged New York's "proper cause" stipulation for obtaining a carry license. Supporters hoped it would alleviate the burden for gun owners in New York and other "may issue" states with similar "valid justification" requirements that have served as a blanket reason for refusing carry licenses. Positive spectators expected the Court to recognize the right to carry a firearm for protection outside the home, and perhaps even clarify the legal standard for judging Second Amendment cases in lower courts.

The outcome from the Bruen decision exceeded even the most optimistic supporters' expectations. Justice Clarence Thomas, representing the Court majority, stated that New York's law was unconstitutional and that the Second Amendment does cover the right to carry arms for personal defense outside the home. This verdict went beyond discussing courts balancing individual rights against politicians' and officials' views of "the common good," and "public safety." Justice Thomas and the Court majority emphasized that the only measure for the constitutionality of a law impacting Second Amendment rights is its "text, history, and tradition." According to Bruen guidelines, a law impacting the right to bear arms can only be deemed constitutional if similar laws were adopted and accepted during the time the Bill of Rights and/or the Fourteenth Amendment were enacted. This ruling, particularly the "text, history, and tradition" test, brings almost all gun control laws into question and opens the door for further Second Amendment litigation. Groups such as the Second Amendment Foundation, the Firearms Policy Coalition (not associated with The Firearms Coalition), Gun Owners of America, and others, quickly sprang into action. They reformulated and expedited cases they were already working on and began seeking new plaintiffs and filing new cases based on Bruen and its clear standard for assessing gun laws.

Now, for the unfortunate news.

Regrettably, the NRA was caught off guard. Even though Bruen was essentially their case, they were not prepared for the win. If you're unaware of the allegations of corruption among senior NRA executives, especially Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre, which made headlines in early 2019, information is readily available at FirearmsCoalition.org where a search for "NRA" will yield dozens of in-depth articles (also search "NRA" at FirearmsNews.com). In brief, while LaPierre and other top executives were earning large salaries and benefits, they were also paying friends and family members millions for "consulting" and other vague services. This resulted in investigations and lawsuits by the attorneys general of New York and DC, and a botched bankruptcy filing attempt.

When the scandal first broke, LaPierre went on the offensive, painting himself as the victim of a coup attempt led by his former close advisors at the PR firm Ackerman McQueen. LaPierre's "coup" accusations began with a letter alleging that then-NRA President Oliver North had tried to use extortion to force LaPierre to step down. This eventually led to a widespread purge of any NRA employees or contractors who were seen as disloyal to LaPierre. This included the NRA's chief lobbyist, Chris Cox, along with his top deputy and numerous external attorneys who were contracted by the NRA to work on Second Amendment litigation nationwide. As a result, several NRA-led Second Amendment cases were effectively dismantled, either collapsing entirely or being hindered as new, often less experienced, attorneys attempted to salvage the situation.

Who's responsible?

In essence, the NRA's downfall was the result of unchecked greed and complacency among those tasked with leading it. The greed was primarily exhibited by a handful at the NRA's helm, and the complacency by the majority of the NRA Board of Directors who were supposed to establish and enforce its rules and strategic policies. Responsibility also falls to the NRA membership who elect the board but failed to fully comprehend the candidates, the ongoing situations, and hold the directors and staff accountable.

Under Wayne LaPierre, the NRA lost its course. They failed to staunchly uphold core principles, which severely compromised their credibility. The NRA transitioned from an organization fighting for Second Amendment rights and raising funds for that fight, to an entity focused on raising money using the fight for Second Amendment rights as leverage. They went from a close-knit group dedicated to fighting for our rights and accepting lower salaries for the privilege of working for an organization they genuinely believed in, to a corporate body fueled by greed and corruption. While many at the lower levels were deeply committed and severely underpaid, top management was living large, traveling in private jets, staying in presidential suites, receiving multi-million-dollar salaries, all while ensuring their families and friends were also benefiting.

The most glaring warning signs.

For about the first 120 years of the NRA's existence, all salaries were notoriously low. People joined the NRA not for the income, but because they wanted to contribute to something they cared about, and they were willing to accept less money for it. This was the norm from the top down until January 1985, when G. Ray Arnett, a former Reagan administration official, was introduced. At this time, Harlon Carter was in his fourth year of a five-year term as Executive Vice President (EVP) when he abruptly announced his retirement. He already had Arnett lined up as his replacement, and after some negotiations with the Board, the transition was approved. As soon as Arnett was elected by the Board, Carter proposed to raise the EVP's salary from the $87,500 he'd been earning, to $150,000 per year. Carter argued this salary was more aligned with the average rate for such a position in DC at that time. The Board dutifully approved the raise. This was just the first of many raises.

By the mid-'90s, when Wayne LaPierre had ascended to the EVP role, the salary had increased to around $200,000 per year. After 1997, when my father and other steadfast advocates were ousted from the power structure, LaPierre's EVP salary began to grow exponentially, and he began traveling exclusively by private jet. By 2004, LaPierre's total annual compensation had risen to over $890,000. By 2018, that

That’s about 20 times the average NRA member’s income, and about 19 times the EVP salary at the time LaPierre took over as EVP.

While LaPierre’s salary was growing, so too was the breadth of his self-aggrandizing behavior. During this same period, LaPierre’s wardrobe expanded to an impressive collection of Zegna suits, purchased at NRA expense. He was provided with private jet travel for himself, his wife, and even his security detail. He was also receiving first-class, five-star accommodations wherever he went, from five-star restaurants to five-star hotels, and presidential suites. He was even allocated a “travel and expense” budget of $300,000 per year in addition to all the other perks.

The bottom line is that LaPierre, and the rest of the top brass at the NRA, have been treating the NRA like their personal piggy bank. This includes former President Oliver North, who was getting a $1 million contract from Ackerman McQueen for a TV show that was barely watched, in addition to other perks. The fact is, it's not just LaPierre. The whole upper management structure of the NRA has been getting fat off the membership’s money, while the real work of protecting Second Amendment rights has been left to others.

The Struggle

The COVID-19 pandemic hit the NRA hard, leading to cancellations of key revenue-generating events and substantial cutbacks in foundational operations such as training and competitions. Simultaneously, the Carry Guard program, essentially liability insurance for those potentially involved in a defensive shooting, was in disarray. Hastily launched, it neglected key details, such as its status as an insurance program subject to regulation in each state, leading to significant issues. By 2019 and 2020, the program was defunct. Financial woes already plagued the Association, forcing them to make cuts. Then, when the pandemic arrived, the cuts deepened, slashing fundamental Association programs to a minimum and leading to layoffs of two-thirds of the staff. The remaining staff were asked to stay on with substantial pay reductions. NRA's membership and income fell drastically, while other gun groups saw increases. Despite these challenges, LaPierre's salary remained over $1.5 million, and he continued to enjoy private jet travel. Meanwhile, legal costs skyrocketed.

The Legal Quagmire

These soaring legal costs were not aimed at protecting the Second Amendment, but rather to manage the myriad lawsuits resulting from the Carry Guard debacle and an impending management scandal. Brewer Attorneys & Counselors, the law firm hired in 2017, was brought in response to whispers of a forthcoming investigation from the New York Attorney General's office. The NRA is chartered in New York and, as such, falls under the purview of the state's AG office. The newly elected AG, Letitia James, a staunch critic of the NRA and gun rights, had vowed to dismantle the organization during her campaign.

Brewer set about a large-scale cleanup operation within NRA headquarters, reviewing contracts and completing overdue financial reports for various NRA contractors and executives. The firm's involvement brought considerable disruption. Long-serving NRA Treasurer Woody Phillips retired, replaced by a new treasurer. Several contracts and conflict-of-interest items, which should have been approved by the Board's audit committee – the committee responsible for ensuring all NRA activities comply with policy, law, and ethics – were never submitted for approval. Some concerned employees raised alarms about Brewer's aggressive approach and questionable contracts, payments, and potential conflicts of interest among NRA leadership. Despite bringing their concerns to the audit committee, these whistleblowers were ignored, and no action was taken to correct reported issues or protect the whistleblowers – who were subsequently expelled from the organization. The audit committee retroactively approved the issues raised by the whistleblowers and those presented by Brewer. Brewer then filed a lawsuit against then New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and the state, accusing them of abusing their power to harm the NRA. LaPierre announced in 2021 that the lawsuit and related issues had cost the Association over $100 million. Despite this investment, Brewer and the NRA ultimately lost the lawsuit, though they continue to spend money on the case, having appealed the decision to a higher court.

A particular point of contention during the July 2018 audit committee meeting was the $40 million annual payment to the NRA's longtime PR firm Ackerman McQueen. In that meeting, LaPierre fervently defended the critical relationship between the NRA and Ack-Mac, convincing the audit committee to continue backing the PR firm despite their hefty fee. Just a few months later, Brewer and LaPierre, seemingly without any prior discussion with the audit committee, legal affairs committee, or nearly any NRA Board member, filed a lawsuit against Ackerman McQueen. The lawsuit alleged the company failed to provide detailed invoices and other supporting documents to justify many of its charges to the NRA. This lawsuit was even more surprising given that William Brewer, the lead at the Brewer law firm, is the son-in-law of Angus McQueen, a founding partner and then CEO of Ackerman McQueen.

In 2019, just before the NRA's Annual Meetings & Exhibits, the management scandal became public. Simultaneously, an in-depth exposé in The New Yorker by investigative journalist Michael Spies was published. Spies, hired by Mike Bloomberg’s anti-gun platform The Trace, had been assigned to unearth dirt on the NRA. However, what he discovered was far more than dirt; he uncovered an extensive compost heap.

Spies revealed the whistleblower complaints, the audit committee’s negligence, and a list of self-serving activities, favoritism, nepotism, and excessive spending among the upper echelons of the NRA. Soon after the article was published, then NRA Board President Oliver North contacted LaPierre with a damage control proposal. North offered to assist LaPierre in exiting the Association discreetly, with a handsome severance package, in return for LaPierre's support for North's bid for a second term as President. That night, LaPierre sent a fiery letter to the NRA Board, paraphrasing North's proposal and accusing him of extortion in an attempt to oust LaPierre from the Association.

From that point on, the situation worsened. At the next day's members' meeting, a group of members tried to force a vote of "no confidence" in LaPierre, but were thwarted by LaPierre's loyalists on the Board. During the following Board meeting, several Directors expressed concerns about the current situation, but no one put forward a nominee to challenge LaPierre for the EVP position. Consequently, without a contender, he was declared the winner by "acclamation." This was all conducted behind closed doors, with the waiting members only learning about the "unanimous election" from a New York Times reporter.

A few days later, Ackerman McQueen revealed some of LaPierre's charges on an Ack-Mac credit card. The charges included over $270,000 at a single Beverly Hills clothing store, significant expenditures on luxurious accommodations and transport in high-end holiday resorts, and approximately $6,000 per month for the rent of a luxury apartment for an NRA intern who was a former beauty queen.

This disclosure prompted a series of lawsuits and countersuits, almost all of which Brewer and the NRA lost. They achieved a minor victory against North, barring him from charging his legal fees to the Association, but lost over $10 million in a suit attempting to evade paying Chris Cox the $2.5 million severance package outlined in his contract. The NRA also had to pay around $12 million to settle the Ackerman McQueen suits. Plus, there was the loss of over $100 million in the suit against Cuomo and New York. Some NRA Board members, led by Tom King of New York, even started proceedings to expel Ollie North entirely from the Association, which is still ongoing.

Additionally, a lawsuit was filed against the Association by prominent NRA donor David Dell’Aquila. He filed the lawsuit on behalf of all NRA members and donors, alleging fraud on the NRA's part for misuse of donated funds. This case is still ongoing and has experienced some intriguing developments recently. Then came the lawsuits by New York and DC against the NRA and the NRA Foundation, respectively.

The situation was further complicated in January 2021 when LaPierre and Brewer, unbeknownst to all but a select few Directors, filed for bankruptcy protection for the Association. Widely viewed as a thinly veiled, poorly calculated, and clumsily executed legal maneuver designed to dodge New York's lawsuit against the Association, the bankruptcy filing backfired. 

LaPierre, in his bankruptcy announcement, inadvertently undermined his cause by stating that the Association was not in financial distress but was declaring bankruptcy for legal reasons. Prior to this announcement, the NRA had been arguing in court that its finances were sound and that New York's suit was an attempt to destroy a solvent, healthy organization because of political differences. But with this statement, LaPierre contradicted the NRA's defense, which had been costing the Association millions of dollars to maintain. 

Adding insult to injury, LaPierre and Brewer's plan to use the bankruptcy filing to reincorporate the NRA in Texas, away from New York's jurisdiction, was thwarted by the bankruptcy court judge. After a 12-day hearing, which involved the examination of multiple witnesses, including LaPierre, the judge concluded that the bankruptcy filing was not in good faith. He dismissed the case, effectively blocking the NRA's plan to reincorporate in Texas. This decision allowed New York's lawsuit to proceed unhindered. 

Since the bankruptcy filing, the NRA's financial condition has worsened. There have been more layoffs, more cuts in programs, and a further decrease in membership. Meanwhile, legal fees continue to mount, with over $54 million paid to Brewer's firm alone since 2018. Despite all these challenges, LaPierre remains at the helm, with his compensation package untouched. And, the NRA's Board of Directors seems unable – or unwilling – to effect any change.

However, change is inevitably coming for the NRA. New York's lawsuit is proceeding. The DC lawsuit against the NRA Foundation is also advancing. Dell’Aquila's lawsuit has seen recent developments, with the court granting him permission to subpoena numerous current and former NRA Directors, officers, and contractors to provide depositions under oath. These depositions are to examine the fiduciary duty violations alleged in the lawsuit, which could open a new can of worms for the Association. 

In conclusion, the NRA, once the most powerful gun rights advocacy group in the world, is currently struggling on multiple fronts. Beset by financial woes, legal challenges, dwindling membership, and internal strife, the Association's future remains uncertain. Its very survival depends on how effectively it can navigate these challenges and reform its leadership and operations.

Is He The Only Savior?

Those rallying behind LaPierre suggest that he is the singular figure capable of generating millions in donations, consulting the President and Congress, and rescuing the NRA. Meanwhile, major contributors have retracted pledges exceeding $100 million, membership has plummeted by over a million, revenue has decreased almost by half, and Washington officials shy away from being seen with him.

Where To Now?

The NRA is currently nestled within a sizable building in Northern Virginia, maintaining the facade of normality and blaming anyone daring to question or criticize their 'Supreme Leader'. They fervently hope for these issues to dissolve. Almost all of the Association's functions have been handed over to a New York-based attorney, a supporter of both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. This attorney now extends his influence beyond managing the organization's corporate affairs, dabbling in Second Amendment litigation.

In a recent event, Brewer, representing the NRA, attempted to involve himself in a pistol brace case that has seen more progression than NRA-backed ones. The court dismissed this move, leading to Brewer filing a similar case in the same district, aiming to mimic the success other rights groups have had in protecting their members from prosecution under the new pistol brace rule during litigation.

The impending New York lawsuit is on the horizon, with the judge demanding a trial schedule for October or November. Observers have been anticipating another diversion or delay from the NRA, with the likely option being another bankruptcy attempt, this time with genuine financial distress. Plans for a Texas relocation are in the air, with the headquarters building up for sale. However, these plans are kept from Board of Director members, who are left in the dark about developments and excluded from planning and decision making.

The DC lawsuit against the Foundation is expected to follow, although recent news has been quiet. It seems DC is biding time to observe the New York case's outcome. Both DC and New York seem content letting things progress slowly, enjoying a weakened, financially strained, and politically impotent NRA.

The NRA's predicament is disheartening, complex, and fluid. All could have been avoided had the Board acted responsibly and held their staff accountable over the past two decades. The situation was foreseeable in 1997 when it was flagged by my father, then the Board's First Vice President. Instead, he was replaced by Charlton Heston, and all those who supported him were removed. Finally, they could have taken prompt corrective measures in 2019 when the major scandal erupted, rather than blindly supporting Wayne LaPierre and being oblivious to the developments. The board members may pay a hefty price for their inaction, potentially losing their homes and retirement savings, as they could be next in Letitia James' crosshairs, and the NRA lacks sufficient legal insurance coverage.

Currently, LaPierre avoids public appearances for fear of questions concerning his alleged dishonesty, and no other figure holds the authority to represent the Association. Consequently, the hostility and venom directed at the NRA and gun owners by anti-gun politicians and media allies are left unchallenged. The NRA, still a leading player, is behaving like a terrified small dog, rather than the major force it should be. Regrettably, no positive change seems to be on the horizon.

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