Yesterday morning the State of New York’s AG sued the NRA, and the Washington DC AG brought suit against the NRA’s foundation. To understand why, follow the money. Don’t get distracted by NRA’s gripes about politics. Focus instead on the evolution of the organization that taught me gun safety (as a junior high student) to a political organization that spends millions on lavish lifestyles of its execs. That spending caused a $28 million surplus change into a $36 million deficit in just 3 years.
Here are excerpts from yesterday’s Letters from an American by Heather Cox Richardson. I selected passages about the history of NRA and then moved on to matters of NRA’s politics and finance. Cox Richardson has a lot more in her August 6 Letter. To close I tacked on some of what Charlie Sykes had to say about the suit in this morning’s bulwark email.
The NRA was chartered in New York in 1871, in part to improve the marksmanship of Americans who might be called on to fight another war, and in part to promote in America the British sport of elite shooting. By the 1920s, rifle shooting was a popular sport.
In the 1930s, amid fears of organized crime, the NRA backed federal legislation to limit concealed weapons, prevent possession by criminals, the mentally ill and children, to require all dealers to be licensed, and to require background checks before delivery. NRA officers insisted on the right of citizens to own rifles and handguns, but worked hard to distinguish between, on the one hand, law-abiding citizens who should have access to guns for hunting and target shooting and protection, and on the other hand, criminals and mentally ill people, who should not. The NRA backed the 1934 National Firearms Act, and parts of the 1968 Gun Control Act, designed to stop what seemed to be America’s hurtle toward violence in that turbulent decade.
But in the mid–1970s, a faction in the NRA forced the organization away from sports and toward opposing “gun control.” It formed a political action committee in 1975, and two years later elected a president who abandoned sporting culture and focused instead on “gun rights.”
The NRA had gone into politics. Its officials now opposed all limits on gun ownership, even though basic safety measures have always been popular, even within the NRA’s own membership. In 1980, the NRA endorsed a presidential candidate for the first time ever, standing behind Ronald Reagan. Now a player in national politics, the NRA was awash in money from gun and ammunition manufacturers. By 2000, the NRA was one of the three most powerful lobbies in Washington. It spent more than $40 million on the 2008 election.
In 2016, donations to the NRA jumped sharply. While in 2012, it spent $9 million, and in 2014 it spent $13 million, in 2016, it spent more than $50 million on Republican candidates, including more than $30 million on Trump’s effort to win the White House. This money was vital to Trump, since many other Republican super PACs refused to back him. The NRA spent more money on Trump than any other outside group, including the leading Trump super PAC, which spent $20.3 million.
The lawsuit announced this morning concerned a different kind of NRA spending. For six and a half years, NRA leaders have misspent funds, lavishing the money of the nonprofit organization on their own lifestyles. In 2015, the NRA had a surplus of almost $28 million. By 2018, it was running a $36 million deficit. This spending came to light after Republican operative Oliver North, a key player in the Iran-Contra Scandal, became president of the organization in September 2018. In April 2019, North called for an investigation into the NRA’s finances and asked longtime chief executive of the organization Wayne LaPierre to resign. LaPierre responded that North was trying to get him out of the organization by threatening to release “damaging” information about him. North resigned.
Now New York Attorney General Letitia James has taken up the issue. She sued LaPierre. She also sued John Frazer, the organization’s general counsel; Josh Powell, a former top lieutenant of LaPierre; and Wilson Phillips, a former chief financial officer. Their trips to the Bahamas, Nieman Marcus clothing, and nights at the Four Season cost the organization $64 million over the past three years. James wants to bar all four men from running non-profits in New York in the future. “It’s clear that the NRA has been failing to carry out its stated mission for many, many years and instead has operated as a breeding ground for greed, abuse and brazen illegality,” James said. “Enough was enough. We needed to step in and dissolve this corporation."
As James announced her lawsuit, the Washington D.C. Attorney General, Karl Racine, sued NRA Foundation, the organization’s charitable arm that teaches, for example, firearm safety, say it has been diverting funds to the NRA to pay for top official’s spending sprees.
The NRA immediately countersued, claiming James’s lawsuit was about politics, not the law, and that James is violating the First Amendment to the Constitution, which mandates that the government must not hamper free speech. Mr. LaPierre said: “This is an unconstitutional, premeditated attack aiming to dismantle and destroy the N.R.A. — the fiercest defender of America’s freedom at the ballot box for decades. We’re ready for the fight. Bring it on.”
Asked to comment, Trump said “That’s a very terrible thing that just happened. I think the NRA should move to Texas and lead a very good and beautiful life.”
UPDATE: Here is some of what Charlie Sykes had to say about [The NRA’s Bonfire of Grift] in this morning’s bulwark email.
The lawsuit lays out a pattern of breathtaking grift, self-dealing, and greed.
Whatever AG James’s ideological motivations, the suit ultimately isn’t about gun rights or protecting the Second Amendment; it’s a story of old-fashioned, flat-out corruption. According to the lawsuit, NRA boss Wayne LaPierre and his cronies “engaged in a decades-long pattern of fraud to raid the coffers of the powerful gun rights group for personal gain, according to a lawsuit filed Thursday by the New York attorney general, draining $64 million from the nonprofit in just three years.”
And much of it is not new.
The group’s bitter internal battle burst into public view in April 2019 at the NRA’s annual convention in Indianapolis, when then-NRA President Oliver North was forced out by LaPierre after pressing for an internal financial review.
The Washington Post and other news organizations subsequently revealed how the NRA directed funds to board members and how LaPierre racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars in charges at a Beverly Hills clothing boutique and on foreign travel.
The Post also reported how, after a mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla., LaPierre told close associates he was worried about how easily he could be targeted and needed a more secure place to live and sought to buy a $6 million, 10,000-square-foot French-style country estate in Westlake, Tex.
The suit expands on previous allegations that LaPierre improperly charged the NRA for private jet travel and luxury vacations that had no clear business purpose. The filing claims he billed the NRA more than $500,000 for private charter flights he and his family took to visit the Bahamas eight times over three years.
Last year, a spokesman for LaPierre told The Post his visits to the Bahamas were for NRA business. But the New York attorney general’s investigation found the trips were private vacations.
Shouldn’t gun rights activists who have been systematically ripped off be upset about this? Some are, but we expect the usual tribal reactions to the suit.