The Decline and Fall of the National Rifle Association

Estimated Reading Time: 6 minutes

You could make a plausible argument that the National Rifle Association (NRA) was responsible for Donald Trump winning the election in 2016. They spent over $50 million on the 2016 election, of which over $31 million was for Trump, with the most important part being ads in swing states in the final weeks before election day.

You could also make a plausible argument that the NRA was responsible for Donald Trump losing the 2020 election. While the NRA had been a major factor in 2016, they were essentially non-participants in 2020. Their total spending on the 2020 election (federal and state, all offices) was $29 million, less than they had spent for Trump alone four years earlier. About $17 million of that was spent on ads either supporting Trump, or opposing Biden without mentioning Trump.


The NRA recently declared bankruptcy, and the Attorney General of New York (where the NRA is incorporated) is trying very hard to put them out of business completely. Opponents of the rights to keep (own) arms and to bear (carry) arms have been gleefully predicting the demise of the NRA for decades, but this time, they may be right. There is a very real possibility that the NRA may cease to exist.

What happened?

The NRA was formed in 1871 in New York (then a gun-friendly place). The organization’s purpose was to provide marksmanship training to American civilians, so that when called to active duty, they would not be as incompetent with rifles as they had been in the recent American Civil War. At that time, “a nation of marksmen” was still deemed to be a worthy aspiration. A state militia system – well-regulated (i.e., well-trained) citizen soldiers – was still deemed to be preferable to a standing army. Then, as at the founding a century earlier, a strong standing army was deemed to be a threat to freedom, as a President with ambition to be a tyrant could order the army to “turn its guns inward” to subjugate the citizen


Individual self-defense against criminal attack was not a consideration, nor was resistance to tyranny. Volunteering in time of war against foreign enemies was considered to be a man’s patriotic duty. Nor was lobbying against anti-gun legislation a consideration in the NRA’s formation. There was no anti-Second Amendment legislation; it was universally understood that Americans (albeit, only white Americans) had the individual rights to own and carry guns.

The NRA’s mechanism for training Americans in riflery was organized competition. Participation in rifle competitions became one of the most popular sports in the country. Over time, the organizers lost track of the mission of preparing men for war, and competition became an end in itself. Shooting became more sport and less training.

In the 1920s, Prohibition gave rise to violent gangs of bootleggers. In the 1930s, the Great Depression gave rise to violent gangs of bank robbers. The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre so outraged the public that it became the catalyst for the modern “gun control” movement. Congress, under pressure to “do something,” decided that the way to curtail gang violence was to prohibit those guns favored by gangsters – machine guns, sawed-off shotguns and rifles, and handguns. The NRA objected to prohibiting handguns which were used in NRA competitions and got handguns removed from the “evil guns” list, but the target-shooting competitors heading up the NRA fully supported severely restricting machine guns and short-barreled shotguns and rifles, because those were not used in the NRA’s organized competitions. The NRA showed no interest in protecting the rights to keep and bear arms for individual self-defense or protection against oppressive government; their only interest was “sporting purpose.”


Another crime wave came along in the ‘60s. The government focused again on the guns, not the criminals. They determined that the cause of all the violent crime was the prevalence of “Saturday Night Specials,” a colloquial term generally meaning “low-priced, low-quality, underpowered, unreliable handguns favored by urban criminals (i.e., people with dark skin).” The sportsmen at the NRA enthusiastically supported the Gun Control Act of 1968, because such guns were not the sort those gentlemen used in their target-shooting competitions. Plus, American manufacturers were happy to eliminate competition from foreign manufacturers. Again, “sporting purpose,” which is completely irrelevant to the purpose of the Second Amendment, took precedence over individual self defense and defense against government oppression. As a consequence of the Gun Control Act of 1968, criminals now are forced to use high-quality, more powerful, and more reliable guns. Thanks, Congress!

Everything changed at the NRA’s annual meeting in Cincinnati in 1977, the “Cincinnati Revolt.” Up to that point, the NRA had been run by “sportsmen” – target shooters and hunters. In Cincinnati, the gun rights faction took over, led by Harlon Carter and especially, Neal Knox. The NRA became primarily a gun rights organization, emphasizing lobbying and grassroots political action, intent on preserving the rights of individual self defense and the ability to own guns as a deterrent to government misadventure. The “NRA gun rights lobby” is the NRA with which most of us are familiar – the NRA that tyrant wanna-bees like Bloomberg and Schumer excoriate for objecting to ‘reasonable” laws (i.e., the infringement prohibited by the Second Amendment).

But, no sooner had Knox come to power than the counter-revolution began. The sportsmen removed Knox as head of the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action (ILA) in 1982. In 1991, the NRA board hired Wayne La Pierre as its Executive Director. Knox recalled that at La Pierre’s first board meeting, he promised that he would make the NRA into the nation’s “leading fund-raising organization.” That concerned Knox, because he had been under the impression that the NRA should be the “leading gun rights organization.”

At the 1997 annual meeting, Neal Knox had “moved through the chairs” and was scheduled to become the President of the NRA. However, he was unceremoniously “canceled,” in favor of actor Charlton Heston. When he attempted to speak, board member Marian Hammer cut off his microphone. (In Heston’s first radio interview, he declared that Americans did not have the right to own AK-47s, because AK-47s were not suitable for hunting deer, as if the Second Amendment had something to do with hunting.) At that point, the decline of the NRA was inevitable.

In 2018, the NRA sued the state of New York for “blacklisting” them. Governor Cuomo had sent letters to banks and insurance companies urging them to “reconsider” doing business with the NRA. That was Mafia-style pressure. “Nice bank you have here. It would be a shame if you should run into problems in your next audit. You don’t want to do business with the NRA, do you?” That blacklisting really did hurt the NRA’s ability to operate – quite seriously. They have a very good chance of winning that lawsuit. The question is whether the win will come too late.

Since the 1980s, the NRA had employed the public relations firm of Ackerman McQueen (“Ack-Mac”). The NRA was Ack-Mac’s biggest client – in fact, its primary client. In 2017, the NRA paid over $42 million in fees to Ack-Mac. Some members suspected that the NRA was using Ack-Mac to launder money, by charging off misappropriated funds (like expensive vacations) as “public relations fees.” Then, in 2019, the guacamole hit the windmill. After a decades-long mutually profitable relationship, the NRA sued (and fired) Ack-Mac, accusing them of overbilling. Ack-Mac countersued, alleging defamation. Wayne La Pierre and his supporters purged those board members who questioned the self-dealing and money-laundering. What happened? What caused them to turn on each other? So far, nobody knows.

Simultaneously, the Attorney General of New York sued the NRA, alleging that they violated their charter, and demanding that the organization be shut down. As a 501(c)(4) charitable organization (one to which donations are not deductible, but whose income is non-taxable), the NRA has a fiduciary duty to use the members’ money prudently. New York alleges that Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre, general counsel John Frazer, former CFO Woody Phillips and former chief of staff Joshua Powell (and others) used the NRA as their personal piggy bank, spending funds for personal expenses, giving contracts to friends and relatives, and issuing contracts to former employees to ensure their loyalty, to the tune of millions and millions of dollars. (Expensive clothes being the most titillating, but least in dollar amount.)

La Pierre counters that New York’s allegations are politically motivated. No doubt they are. However, what he did not say is that the allegations are false, effectively admitting that they are true. La Pierre gave the New York AG the ammunition to pursueher political agenda.

Sadly, executives of charities dipping into the cookie jar is not a new thing (see, for example, the American Red Cross and the Nature Conservancy), but the remedy for such malfeasance is not shutting down the organization (which cannot be in the members’ best interest), but requiring reimbursement, forcing the cheaters to resign, and fining and/or imprisoning the cheaters. That New York wants to shut down the NRA is strong evidence of political motivation; nevertheless, the allegations appear to be true.

Recently, the NRA filed for bankruptcy, but on the same day, they assured their members that the NRA is in solid financial shape. But if they are financially solvent, why did they tell the court that they are financially insolvent? Why should the court grant their petition to be declared bankrupt if they themselves say they are not?

So, what will happen next with the NRA? Many members had been hoping that Wayne La Pierre would resign at the most recent annual meeting. He is 70 years old; he has been paid enough over the years that he should have saved up an ample nest egg. He has a $4 million retirement plan, and a $17 million post-employment consulting contract. However, he announced his intention to stay on, to the dismay of many members.

My personal prediction is that the NRA will wither away and be no more, like Trans World Airlines, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the Whig Party. On the other hand, I predicted that Hillary Clinton would win in 2016 and Donald Trump would win in 2020, so my track record is not great.

Maybe the NRA will rise from the ashes and become effective again. Maybe a new organization will come along to pick up the torch.

I can predict with 100% accuracy, though, that although I am a Benefactor Member, I will not be sending any money to the NRA so long as Wayne La Pierre is a part of the organization in any capacity.

Nowadays, my donations go to Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership (JPFO), the Second Amendment Foundation, and the lobbyists that so far have been very effective in Arizona, the Arizona Citizens Defense League (AzCDL).


As we move through 2023 and into the next election cycle, The Prickly Pear will resume Take Action recommendations and information.

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