Oliver North cut a lonely figure as he walked through the Indianapolis airport, quietly slipping out of the city midway through the National Rifle Association’s (NRA) convention which was still in progress. A day later, North announced from afar that he was not seeking a traditional second term as its president, while it also emerged that the New York attorney general was investigating the NRA’s tax-exempt status.
That was April 2019. More than a year later, the turmoil that heralded North’s departure has culminated in the New York attorney general, Letitia James, suing to put the NRA out of business, alleging that senior leaders used charitable donations for family trips to the Bahamas, private jets and lavish meals that shaved $64m off the organisation’s balance sheet in three years, turning a surplus into a financial crisis.
The NRA has been the most powerful gun lobby in the world since another former president of the group, Hollywood actor Charlton Heston, promised to resist efforts to prise firearms “from my cold, dead hands”. It has fought to suppress research on the danger of guns in society, keep open loopholes for background checks on gun sales and even for firearms to be present in schools.
The NRA also has been an electoral ally of Donald Trump, spending $30m to help him beat Hillary Clinton in 2016. Democrats, gun control activists and others have fought long and hard to curb its influence. But in the end, the NRA’s worst enemy was the NRA. Victim of its own success and hubris, it strayed from its core purpose and shot itself in the foot.
James’s lawsuit is not about politics but the actions of the NRA’s leaders. Far from a heady battle over the second amendment and soul of America, the non-profit organisation has been brought low by allegations of petty corruption and banal self-dealing.
The suit, filed in state court in Manhattan after an 18-month investigation, names the NRA as a whole and four senior executives including Wayne LaPierre, the executive vice-president who become the face of the NRA and frequently gives pro-Trump, red-meat speeches to thunderous applause.
LaPierre, in charge of the NRA’s day-to-day operations for nearly three decades, stands accused of spending millions of dollars on luxury black car services and private jet trips, including eight visits to the Bahamas, as well as accepting expensive gifts such as African safaris, hair and makeup for his wife and use of a 107-foot yacht. He also engineered a $17m post-employment contract for himself, according to the lawsuit.
North, a retired lieutenant colonel infamous for the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s, exited the NRA accusing LaPierre of behaving like a dictator. Chris Cox, the NRA’s longtime lobbyist, quit after being accused of working behind the scenes with North to undermine LaPierre.
At a news conference on Thursday, James said NRA leaders “used millions upon millions from NRA reserves for personal use” and failed to comply with the organisation’s own internal policies along with state and federal law. The NRA “has operated as a breeding ground for greed, abuse and brazen illegality”, James added. “No one is above the law.”
The NRA is subject to New York law because it is registered as a not-for-profit organisation in New York, where it conducts most of its financial transactions.
In the current toxic political climate, less than three months before an election, the theatre of James, a female African American Democrat from the liberal bastion of New York, seeking to dissolve the NRA will inevitably be seen through a partisan prism. On Thursday the US president branded the lawsuit “a very terrible thing”.
But although the NRA has been seen by conservatives as a champion of the constitutional right for ordinary Americans to keep and bear arms, the conduct of its leaders has left many members with a sense of betrayal. The organisation went from a surplus of almost $28m in 2015 to a $36m deficit in 2018 and has been plagued by factional infighting and a legal battle with its longtime advertising agency Ackerman McQueen.
Thomas Laumann, 60, an NRA member since 1984, said on Thursday: “I don’t feel good spending any of my hard earned dollars on an organisation that’s full of graft and corruption. If they’re not out there defending the rights of the people or advocating for safety, but just more advocating for lining their own pockets, it’s almost like the politicians in Washington.
“Even if half of what has been reported is correct, it’s still a terrible violation of trust by members of the NRA. The people that are in charge are very powerful and they’ve run roughshod over it and they’ve buried what has happened. The only thing that would satisfy me would be for these individuals that I feel have transgressed our trust as a group to leave the organisation.
“They’ve alienated many, many young people that are strong proponents of all rights, including our second amendment, and pushed them aside. The old guard that’s there is not going to give in. It’s been their cash cow for decades. They’ve done some good but I would say the news that’s come to light in the last two or three years, I don’t trust them any more.”
Laumann, a building and grounds supervisor from Wales, Wisconsin, added: “I understand the mission but for all the money they’ve collected through charitable foundations and donations and honorariums when people pass, I think they’ve greatly abused it for personal gain. It’s disheartening that everyone we try to trust, that we thought was doing right for the community, for the good of everyone, is now become corrupt.”
More than a hundred people are killed every day by gun violence in America. The NRA has found its influence waning in the face of gun control groups such as Everytown for Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action, funded by the billionaire and former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg.
John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, said: “Even casual observers of the NRA can see that the organisation has changed over the last four decades from a safety focused non-profit to a front group for gun manufacturers and a personal piggy bank for its leadership. As attorney general James said today, the NRA leadership was determined to loot the organisation’s assets.”
Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action, said: “I want to offer my thoughts and prayers to the NRA,” – inverting a common Republican refrain after mass shootings.
She added: “The vast majority of NRA members actually support commonsense laws, like a background check on every gun sale. It is the leadership, the organisation, that has become so radicalised and they are propped up by greedy gun manufacturers. The bottom line is that they accumulated wealth and power as a special interest. They are certainly not a gun safety organisation.”