By Larry J. Schweiger
Pittsburgh Current Columnist
After more than one hundred and ten mass shootings since 1982, Americans overwhelmingly want responsible gun legislation. Who can ever forget the articulate and brave Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students organizing many street protests calling for action after the deadly Parkland, Florida, in February 2018?
According to a 2019 Pew Survey, around nine-out-of-ten American voters favor preventing people with mental illnesses from buying guns. Overwhelming majorities of both Democrats (93%) and Republicans (82%) favor background checks closing the loopholes for private gun sales and gun shows transactions. Yet after so many heartbreaking mass shootings including the eleven people killed and six others injured in a hate crime at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue, Congress, blocked by NRA’s Republicans, has failed to enacted proper gun laws despite the repeated carnage.
At the time of the Parkland shooting, President Trump indicated in private conversations to lawmakers and aides that he was open to endorsing extensive background checks in the wake of the two mass shootings. When the word got out, Trump got a call with National Rifle Association’s CEO, Wayne LaPierre. Trump changed his tune and has since gone radio-silent.
Few single-issue organizations have amassed as much power and influence in Washington DC and state capitols as the National Rifle Association. The NRA spent a staggering sum on behalf of Trump’s campaign in 2016, relentlessly attacking Hillary Clinton. They own him, and he knows it. For Trump, re-election support from the NRA overrides concerns for school children.
The NRA campaign contributions to Trump and congressional Republicans in 2020 was dramatically out of proportion to what the group could raise and spend in the past. The NRA spent more than $54 million on the 2016 elections, with about $30 million going to Trump’s 2016 election. According to Federal Election Commission data, in 2016, the NRA spent more than $30 million compared to 2012 when the group spent about $13 million to try to unseat President Barack Obama. The question remains, where did the surge in new money to the NRA’s campaign coffers come from? With flawed election laws, the group is not required to disclose funders, nor are they prevented from taking foreign money. There has been much speculation that money came from Russia since NRA’s leaders have been actively courting Russian oligarchs in recent years. We will never know because the NRA does not have to disclose its funders and the Federal Elections Bureau is now the toothless and leaderless compliments of Trump.
The NRA has long been one of the most inflexible right-wing political organizations in the U.S. using hyped-up fears of a slippery slope to gun confiscations by Democrats to attract funding from reactive naïve gun owners. Gun owners bought the big lie that background checks and closing loopholes would lead to gun confiscations. In 2007, Richard Feldman, a former high-ranking NRA employee, watched the organization go off track and wrote a book called “Ricochet: Confessions of a Gun Lobby,” where he revealed NRA’s successful fundraising strategy thrived on manipulating its most rabid members. NRA succeeded with establishment media providing “invaluable fodder for the fundraising drives in NRA semiannual crisis du jour.” To the “cynical glee of the NRA’s leaders,” the media helped their fundraising by calling for legislative action after covering a deadly mass shooting. However, there is no evidence that the 2016 election triggered such a large-scale crisis. There is little likelihood that the enormous surge in campaign spending came from the organization’s largely aging, white, middle-income, blue-collar base.
The Old National Rifle Association:
It is hard to imagine a different NRA, but there once was, and it lasted for more than 100 years. The NRA was initially incorporated in New York in 1871 as a 501-c4 tax-exempt organization with an original mission focused on improving shooting skills for the military and gun safety. Union General Ambrose Burnside is mostly remembered for his civil war service, his dramatic facial hair that spawned the name “sideburns,” and for launching the National Rifle Association in 1871. After his varied war experience, Burnside wanted to teach shooting skills to improve the soldiers’ dismal shooting abilities. After the Civil War, an official study found that Union troops, on average, fired about 1,000 rounds for every bullet that struck a Confederate soldier. (Wisconsin “Black hats” were a notable exception to this pattern.)
For its first century, the NRA actually lobbied for rational gun laws working closely with police departments and other governmental agencies to promote gun safety and marksmanship. In 1968, Retired General Maxwell Rich was head of the NRA. He and the board of the NRA were more open-minded about reasonable gun laws than we might imagine today.
General Rich worked with lawmakers to make the 1968 law more workable. They agreed to end the mail-order sale for firearms like the Italian Mannlicher Carcano rifle that Lee Harvey Oswald ordered from an ad in NRA’s American Rifleman.
General Rich and his COO Dale Gaskill were planning on moving the organization’s headquarters out of D.C. to Colorado Springs. Gaskill was in the middle of building a Conservation Center there and a National Shooting Center in northern New Mexico. (Full disclosure: I was an NRA certified Hunter Safety Instructor in the 1960s and 70s.)
When I was first trained in 1964, the organization was devoted to hunting, wildlife conservation, the promotion of marksmanship, and gun safety. There was little mention of protecting the Second Amendment.
Moving “green” and accepting the 1968-gun law was a bridge too far for Harlan Carter. Carter, a hardline former border guard from Texas, was once convicted of second-degree murder of a Mexican-American Ramon Casiano. Carter was sentenced to a light term of three years in prison. The conviction was later overturned.
Carter had no interest in conservation and whipped up a grassroots campaign based on a hardline position that the Second Amendment was absolute and that the NRA should oppose all gun laws. He won the election and took over the organization replacing board members and firing General Rich. Dale Gaskill, seeing the dark direction that NRA was headed, resigned.
Until Harlan Carter overthrew the NRA leadership, the NRA along with its hunters generally took responsible positions on wildlife conservation, hunting issues and other related resource matters. That has changed. The organization has opposed critical conservation measures like steel shot, Mo Udall’s Alaska Lands legislation, and scores of other necessary conservation measures. In recent years, the NRA has repeatedly campaigned for anti-conservation lawmakers so long as they voted right on guns. Many of these same lawmakers were passing laws favoring the fossil fuel industry while hurting wildlife conservation and diminishing resources for hunters.
Since Carter, the grassroots have valued CEO’s who where hardliners but not necessarily good fiduciary managers. It has had more than its share of exploitive CEOs. When President Reagan fired him, Ray Arnett became NRA’s CEO and ended up running the NRA into the ground. According to the Violence Policy Center, Arnett was ousted for putting his female friend on the payroll and for many other indiscretions. Other CEO’s mismanaged the institution by outsourcing critical elements for years. None, however, has been as bad as the crew that controls NRA today.
Attorney General Letitia “Tish” James takes on the NRA
Following a lengthy investigation and audit, New York Attorney General Letitia James filed a lawsuit seeking to dissolve the NRA charging the organization with illegal conduct diverting millions of dollars away from the mission of the organization for personal use by senior leadership, awarding contracts to the financial gain of close associates and family, and doling out lucrative no-show contracts to former employees to buy their silence and continued loyalty. The chief executive of the National Rifle Association and several top lieutenants were engaged in a decades-long pattern of fraud. According to the lawsuit filed last week, they raided the coffers of the gun-rights group for personal gain, draining $64 million from the nonprofit in just three years.
The suit charges NRA explicitly as a whole, as well as Executive Vice-President Wayne LaPierre, former Treasurer and Chief Financial Officer (CFO) Wilson “Woody” Phillips, former Chief of Staff and the Executive Director of General Operations Joshua Powell, and Corporate Secretary and General Counsel John Frazer with failing to manage the NRA’s funds and failing to follow numerous state and federal laws, contributing to the loss of more than $64 million in just three years for the NRA. According to a statement given to the press, in the complaint, “Attorney General James lays out dozens of examples where the four individual defendants failed their fiduciary duty and used millions upon millions from NRA reserves for personal use, including trips for them and their families to the Bahamas, private jets, expensive meals, and other private travel.
In addition to shuttering the NRA’s doors,” Attorney General James seeks to recoup millions in lost assets and stop the four defendants from serving on the board of any not-for-profit charitable organization in the state of New York again. Attorney General James made clear, “The NRA’s influence has been so powerful that the organization went unchecked for decades while top executives funneled millions into their own pockets. The NRA is fraught with fraud and abuse, which is why, today, we seek to dissolve the NRA, because no organization is above the law.”
LaPierre responded to the lawsuit calling it “an affront to democracy and freedom. This is an unconstitutional, premeditated attack aiming to dismantle and destroy the NRA – the fiercest defender of America’s freedom at the ballot box for decades. The NRA is well-governed, financially solvent, and committed to good governance. We’re ready for the fight. Bring it on.” The lawsuit will no doubt provide LaPierre with “invaluable fodder” for the next fundraising drive to pay lawyers and accountants. He will need them.