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The Cold, Dead Hand of the NRA

Jeremy Hogan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
Images of the National Rifle Association’s chief executive, Wayne LaPierre, its former president, Oliver North, and its then chief lobbyist, Chris Cox, at the association’s national convention, Indianapolis, April 27, 2019

On Thursday June 20, in a turn of events that surprised even close followers of the vicious internecine boardroom strife that has recently overtaken the National Rifle Association, the organization placed Christopher W. Cox, the head of its lobbying arm the NRA–ILA, on administrative leave. Cox’s suspension came a day after he had been named in a lawsuit filed by the NRA in the New York State Supreme Court against its former president, retired Lt. Col. Oliver North. Cox, identified in the suit as “a likely successor for Mr. [Wayne] LaPierre,” the association’s long-time chief executive, was accused of conspiring—a claim Cox denies—in North’s attempted ouster of LaPierre: a failed coup that played out in real time at the NRA’s annual national convention this past April.

At that meeting, usually a showcase of the NRA’s power and prestige, North attempted a putsch by calling for LaPierre’s resignation. But overplaying his hand, he failed to gather sufficient support for his insurgency either at the convention itself or among the NRA’s board. By the end of the week, it was North, not LaPierre, who was standing down. Since then, both camps have traded blows in a series of strategic leaks to the media, notably via The Wall Street Journal as the conservative paper of record, with allegations of financial impropriety, reckless spending, and personal enrichment.

Despite the bad publicity and legal fallout of this power struggle, LaPierre appeared to have survived. But for the NRA to name and shame Cox as a co-conspirator was an astonishing development. While LaPierre and North had brand recognition as NRA figureheads, Cox has since 2002 been by far the organization’s most effective political operative. For the NRA to all but defenestrate Cox in full view of the public square is an act of stunning self-harm for the organization.

For now, without the leading architect of its legal and political strategy, the NRA confronts a trifecta of challenges, any one of which could threaten its very existence: a hostile investigation of the NRA’s tax-exempt status; a discredited leadership and broken system of governance; and a very large hole in its finances. As the smoke produced by the internal feud clears, it is becoming apparent that America’s once most powerful and feared political lobbying group is facing an epochal crisis, one likely to drastically curtail its influence on American public life.

More immediately concerning to the NRA itself, no doubt, will be the short-term collateral damage. While the NRA communicates with its members mainly through fundraising emails and mailings, many grassroots members follow popular pro-gun YouTube channels like those of influential NRA member and firearms trainer Rob Pincus and the Tennessee-based Greg Kinman, aka Hickok45, who has more than 4 million subscribers—almost as many subscribers as the NRA claims members. In April, Pincus took to the online shooting ’zine Ammoland with a radical call to “Defund the NRA… [and] divert any NRA dues or donations directly to programs you support to other National or State Pro-2A Organizations.” And on Friday, in direct response to the news about Cox, Kinman and his son and co-producer, John, released a vlog statement announcing that their channel was officially withdrawing from its participation in the NRA’s membership recruitment program. It is difficult to overstate the significance of this: it’s like The New York Post telling its readers to boycott Yankees’ games.

The catalyst for the blood on the carpet at the NRA’s Virginia headquarters has been a series of public-relations and legal-political setbacks. In reverse chronological order, the latest boardroom mayhem was precipitated by New York State Attorney General Letitia James’s legal challenge to the charitable status of the NRA (enabled by its historical incorporation in the state). That, in turn, had developed out of the earlier effort by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to pressure New York-based banking and insurance companies doing business with the NRA to boycott the organization. Above all, these “inside” moves against the NRA gained vital momentum from the “outside” wave of gun-control sentiment that followed the February 2018 mass shooting at Parkland, Florida. The powerful advocacy on a national stage of the surviving high-schoolers—followed by the financial services boycott, and then the attorney general’s investigation into the IRS status and business dealings of the NRA—created the sustained pressure that forced open the internal rift in an organization already troubled by a financial shortfall and growing disquiet about how much of its budget was going to one media and marketing agency, Ackerman McQueen, and who inside the NRA was benefitting from that relationship.

These, at least, are the proximate causes of the NRA’s disarray. But viewed in the longue durée, the NRA’s vulnerability to this spectacular implosion can be seen as the result of a political movement that had won its “long war” of marching through the institutions of legislative government and conquering them. In short, the NRA became a victim precisely of its own success. The NRA’s current predicament is thus in part a historical consequence of its evolution—a story aptly told by the historian and law professor Adam Winkler in Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America (2011)—from a quiescent hunting association up until the early 1970s into the radical Second Amendment rights group that progressives came to fear, despise, and secretly envy for its ability to channel the energy of a social movement into effective political action. As Michael Waldman of the Brennan Center for Justice has described in his 2014 book The Second Amendment: A Biography, a radicalized NRA then succeeded in changing the political weather on gun rights. It mobilized a more or less racialized fear of crime to advocate for an absolutist redefinition of the Constitution and create a new personal right to bear arms as a necessity for domestic self-defense.

This doctrine was enshrined, essentially for all time, in the Supreme Court’s landmark 2008 decision in D.C. vs. Heller. Writing the majority opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia, who died in 2016 (after an afternoon’s quail-hunting in Texas), wrote:

It is no answer to say, as petitioners do, that it is permissible to ban the possession of handguns so long as the possession of other firearms (i.e., long guns) is allowed. It is enough to note, as we have observed, that the American people have considered the handgun to be the quintessential self-defense weapon. There are many reasons that a citizen may prefer a handgun for home defense: It is easier to store in a location that is readily accessible in an emergency; it cannot easily be redirected or wrestled away by an attacker; it is easier to use for those without the upper-body strength to lift and aim a long gun; it can be pointed at a burglar with one hand while the other hand dials the police. Whatever the reason, handguns are the most popular weapon chosen by Americans for self-defense in the home, and a complete prohibition of their use is invalid.

Thus, at a stroke, every American who so desired could claim the right, as his constitutional entitlement as a putative member of the nation’s “well-regulated militia,” to keep a loaded semiautomatic under his pillow. With that right thus inscribed in stone, the 2008 ruling left the NRA with a submerged existential question: for the nation’s pre-eminent Second Amendment campaign, it was “mission accomplished”—and other than some mopping up around the edges of state laws and city ordinances, what more was there to do?

With hindsight, that may have been the moment that the NRA machine started to get fat and lazy—when its executives began to see themselves entitled to the rewards of winners. As if they, too, should enjoy the lifestyles of their big donors. The NRA membership, after all, was an ever-loving milch-cow. And the organization had built a very efficient business model on scaring up cash: right through the recent crisis, on which the NRA has said nothing directly to its members, fundraising emails were going out with the typical carrot-stick combination of a lottery-draw for a Raptor-style pickup truck and panicked messaging to persuade members that it’s always the Alamo, every day, for their gun rights.

That brings us to the final element of the NRA’s crisis, another way in which it has become the victim of its own success. In 2016, the organization bet big on electing Donald Trump. It may have seemed like a long shot, given the conventional wisdom from polling at the time about the chances for election of this most explicitly pro-2A candidate in living memory. The NRA went all-in that year, with record fundraising of $367 million and a spending budget well in excess of that figure ($412 million). In that election year, Chris Cox’s NRA–ILA spent a staggering $76 million to put its thumb on the scale for Trump.

The NRA got its wish and Trump’s wooing of “Second Amendment people” as a bulwark against Hillary Clinton helped him win. But the paradox of the NRA’s business model caught up with it almost immediately: just as there had never been so effective a marketer of firearms as, inadvertently, Barack Obama—on fears that his election in 2008 (and re-election in 2012) would presage a crackdown on gun rights—so Donald Trump gave gun owners a rare sense of security that made them all but immune to the Chicken-Licken appeals of the NRA. A steep decline in dues in 2017 helped put the overspent organization deep into the red—creating pressure over spending priorities and budgets that cannot have helped the brewing internal rivalry over the organization’s business relationships and self-dealing largesse.

This story has many important dimensions—constitutional, legal, political—but what is its ultimate moral? The answer, I think, is simple but valuable: even as mighty an institution as the NRA is subject to the laws of political gravity. Arguably, only AIPAC on the foreign-policy front and Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform on the domestic scene have exercised as much influence on Capitol Hill in recent decades as the NRA has—with its scorecards for lawmakers’ gun-rights compliance. For more than thirty years, the ATR’s never-raise-taxes pledge dominated national politics as a shackle on elected representatives, especially Republicans, but who now talks of Grover Norquist? Yes, he still stalks Capitol Hill, but he doesn’t wield the same enforcer’s clout he once did. Republicans are still cutting taxes when they can, but they will also have to foot the bill for the heresies of a president who will pluck from the air a $2 trillion spending plan on infrastructure. As for the iron-clad “common sense” that taxes can never go up, an orthodoxy that used to imprison even Democratic candidates for office, Elizabeth Warren is running for the 2020 nomination first and foremost on a wealth tax.

In much the same fashion as Norquist and his group have done on taxation, the NRA has used its extraordinary financial and political power to shape American political discourse about gun ownership and gun rights. And its hegemony has brought the Second Amendment lobby historic victories: any schadenfreude about the NRA’s present trouble should be tempered by the recognition of its absolute achievement in the Heller ruling. The unpalatable truth is that the NRA has succeeded in ensuring for perpetuity that Americans are by far the most heavily armed citizenry of any liberal democracy.

The final outcome of the organization’s crisis is still unclear. The NRA may repair its finances—dues did rebound in 2018, though the recent scandal seems likely to reverse that trend. The organization may also effect a transition to a new leadership with cleaner hands. It may even survive relatively unscathed the inquisition of the New York attorney general. But the cracks have appeared, the aura of invincibility is gone. The Parkland students and their allies in states like New York have succeeded in opening a door to reform, and lawmakers are less afraid to walk through it. Whether this will reduce America’s annual toll of gun deaths—nearly 40,000 at the last count, of which three in five were suicides—is yet to be determined, but this much can be said: the era of NRA supremacy is over.

Jeremy Hogan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
Expended bullet casings on the floor of a booth at the NRA’s annual convention, Indianapolis, April 26, 2019