A decade ago, the National Rifle Association seemed like an unstoppable force in American politics. A shooter had killed 20 children at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., in 2012. Democrats and Republicans in Congress appeared ready to pass new restrictions on guns. The N.R.A. called on its members to contact their representatives and voice their opposition, and the bills died.
Today, the N.R.A. has shed hundreds of thousands of members and large sums of money. It is standing trial for fraud and self-dealing in New York. “The N.R.A. is little more than a shell of itself after hemorrhaging hundreds of millions in legal fees,” Joshua Powell, a former top N.R.A. official who settled with the state before the trial, told The Times. The organization’s fall is not a death knell for Second Amendment advocates, but it is a blow.
Today’s newsletter will explain what went wrong with the group.
Loss of trust
The N.R.A.’s troubles began with a feud with its advertising agency, Ackerman McQueen.
The agency was effectively the public face of the N.R.A. for decades, spearheading the group’s online channel NRATV and campaigns like “I am the N.R.A.” But the relationship between the company and its client deteriorated. They disagreed about political messaging. At one point, N.R.A. leadership accused Ackerman McQueen of trying to oust the group’s leader, Wayne LaPierre.
The N.R.A. and Ackerman McQueen fought out their differences in court and settled in 2022.
But the infighting drew government officials’ attention. After an investigation, New York’s attorney general, Letitia James, filed a lawsuit in 2020. She has cited exorbitant spending by the N.R.A.’s leaders, particularly LaPierre’s use of the nonprofit’s funds to cover millions of dollars in expensive clothes, travel and other luxuries.
Many of the N.R.A.’s members lost trust in the organization and quit, which meant they also stopped paying their dues. To deal with shrinking revenue and mounting legal expenses, the N.R.A. cut programs that were popular with members, such as gun training and education.
The result: The N.R.A. has lost more than one million members, out of six million at its peak in 2018. Its revenue has dropped by more than 40 percent since 2016.
For many liberals, the N.R.A.’s troubles are a cathartic dose of good news. But its decline may not lead to an immediate shift in gun politics, in part because the N.R.A. was so successful in the past.
First, the organization has already transformed American politics and culture around guns. In 1959, 60 percent of Americans supported banning civilian handgun ownership, according to Gallup. Last year, just 27 percent did. Republicans in particular have embraced the N.R.A.’s agenda.
Second, the Supreme Court has cemented gun rights into law. Over the past two decades, it has ruled that Americans have an individual right to bear arms and that restrictions on firearms must cross new legal hurdles. Even if lawmakers overcome political opposition to pass new gun laws, they may not survive the courts.
The N.R.A. “does not have much else left to do,” said Mike Spies, who has investigated the group for ProPublica and The Trace. “It already turned the gun issue into a tribal issue, and gun ownership into not just a matter of owning a gun but a set of values and lifestyle.”
Finally, other groups — some much more strident — have risen to take the N.R.A.’s place. Gun Owners of America, which has described the N.R.A. as “too liberal,” has in recent years spent millions lobbying against gun control. The Second Amendment Foundation has focused on the legal battles, challenging the constitutionality of local and state laws.
Still, the N.R.A.’s decline does not help the gun rights movement. Already, the N.R.A.’s opposition was not enough to stop Congress from passing a bipartisan gun safety law in 2022.
Some state and federal lawmakers hope to pass additional measures that expand background checks, ban assault weapons and remove guns from dangerous people. In the past, the N.R.A. could call on its members to defeat such bills. It is now less able to do so.
Related: On “The Daily,” listen to an interview with a man who counts every shooting in America.
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