Less a Powerhouse Than a Parasite
What happened to the NRA?
Misfire: Inside the Downfall of the NRA, by Tim Mak, Dutton, 384 pages, $29
Wayne LaPierre, head of the National Rifle Association (NRA) and supposed political giant, is actually an indecisive wimp who hides from staff, from public appearances, and from conflict while enjoying the perks of running a well-heeled nonprofit organization. That's one juicy revelation in Tim Mak's Misfire: Inside the Downfall of the NRA, an eye-opening and often gossipy exposé of the financial shenanigans and abuses of trust behind the organization's legal woes. The NRA's political enemies are savoring its troubles, but the book leaves the impression that the greatest beneficiaries of the group's implosion could be advocates of self-defense rights, who could gain more honest, competent representation.
"After the shootings in Columbine High School in 1999, NRA higher-ups had a series of tense strategy sessions," Mak, an NPR correspondent, writes. "When NRA executives and consultants arrived at one especially high-stakes meeting, they spotted wingtip dress shoes sticking out from behind the floor-to-ceiling drapes. Wayne had gotten so overwhelmed by the situation that he hid behind the curtains, apparently for comfort."
Wayne Anthony Ross, a conservative Alaskan attorney, once said LaPierre has the "backbone of a chocolate éclair." (That must make for interesting interactions, since Ross currently serves on the organization's board of directors.) "His heart was never really that much into gun rights advocacy," Mak writes of LaPierre.
If LaPierre is so timid, how can the organization he has run since 1991 wield such clout? Part of the answer lies in the Oklahoma City–based Ackerman McQueen advertising agency, which represented the NRA for decades before the relationship degenerated into recriminations and litigation. Ackerman CEO Angus McQueen "shaped the public image of Wayne LaPierre as a Second Amendment warrior," Mak reports, to the point that LaPierre called the ad man "Yoda." In the process, McQueen and his well-compensated firm often displaced the NRA's in-house talent on policy and messaging. They also pushed the organization into white-elephant projects, such as NRATV, on which tens of millions of dollars were wasted.
In addition to advice, McQueen apparently passed along a taste for the finer things. From an early rumpled disdain for personal appearance, LaPierre, along with his wife and their cronies, developed an affinity for pricey clothing, private jets, and five-star accommodations. Personal expenses were regularly charged to Ackerman McQueen, which then billed the NRA, concealing the expenses from auditors and donors who might object to subsidizing a luxurious lifestyle.
"The National Rifle Association said it had found additional examples of excessive benefits paid by the nonprofit gun rights organization in recent years to CEO Wayne LaPierre, including $44,000 in private jet flights," The Wall Street Journal reported of a tax filing in November 2021, confirming Mak's points. "The NRA made similar admissions in its 2019 filing, when it disclosed that current and former top executives received at least $1.4 million in improper or excessive benefits from the organization in violation of nonprofit rules."
But a bigger part of the explanation for the NRA's effectiveness is that LaPierre and Co. never really led the gun-rights movement. They just tried to stay ahead of a motivated constituency. "Contrary to popular belief," Mak writes, the NRA "is not powerful because of money from the gun industry, which makes up a relatively paltry amount of its contributions. It's powerful because of its millions of passionate dues-paying members."
Those members transformed a sporting organization into a civil liberties advocate—at least at the Institute for Legislative Action, the NRA's lobbying arm. They jam phone lines to defeat anti-gun legislation with little more than a nudge in the right direction. The NRA leadership has bilked them, but their energy "will remain there to be mobilized if and when it does turn around," Mak notes.
New York Attorney General Letitia James's effort to disband the NRA, which is the source of much material in Misfire, deserves more context than the book offers. James "made no secret of how much she despised the National Rifle Association," Mak acknowledges; she even called the group a "terrorist organization." Amid real concerns about NRA leadership's abuse of its members' trust, that raises serious questions about politicians weaponizing their offices against their enemies.
David Cole, national legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), raised the issue in a public challenge to James—one that's missing from Misfire. "If the New York attorney general can do this to the NRA, why couldn't the attorney general of a red state take similar action against the ACLU, the AFL-CIO, Common Cause, or Everytown for Gun Safety?" Cole asked. "The right to associate can't survive if officials can shut down organizations with which they disagree."
Unfortunately, such ideological alliances have become remarkable in recent years, as partisanship often displaces other concerns. While many NRA leaders, including LaPierre, started as Democrats, the group is now a Republican monolith.
"By the time of the 2016 presidential election, the NRA had completed its metamorphosis from a gun organization into a conservative culture war organization," writes Mak. "The NRA dedicated more than $50 million to candidates in the 2016 elections, 99 percent of that on Republicans."
The ACLU suffered a similar transformation, with The New York Times reporting in June 2020 that growing devotion to progressive causes fuels "internal tensions over whether it has stepped away from a founding principle—unwavering devotion to the First Amendment." So the ACLU's support for the NRA's rights is an example of principle triumphing over tribalism worth mentioning in a book that frequently documents the opposite.
At times, Mak can't help reminding us of his gun-averse NPR affiliation. He refers to NRA members opposing "modest gun reforms" as if it's a given that an organization dedicated to a civil liberty should give ground. It's difficult to imagine him suggesting that the ACLU should embrace "modest censorship." Mak also expresses an NPR-ish strain of wishful thinking when he opines that the 2018 Parkland shooting "would irrevocably change the gun control landscape by mobilizing America's students." In fact, the stresses and unrest of recent years have sent firearms purchases through the roof and depressed support for restrictive laws. "The public's priority on enacting new laws to try to address gun violence has waned from its level three years ago," an ABC/Washington Post poll found in April 2021. "The decline is sharpest among 18 to 29-year-olds, from 65 percent to 45 percent." But we're here for Mak's exposure of the NRA's flaws, not for Mak to embrace the NRA's mission.
More serious weaknesses appear in the pages devoted to Maria Butina and Aleksandr Torshin's infiltration of the NRA for the purposes of schmoozing Republican politicians. Butina "spent years genuinely and eagerly promoting gun rights" and founded an advocacy organization in Russia, Mak reports. Along the way she met Torshin, a crook connected to Vladimir Putin's regime in Russia, and her NRA contacts became back-channel connections to the American political party that went on to win the next presidential election.
Much ink is spilled on Butina's flirtatious ways, her ever-morphing biography, and a joint gun-rights conference in Moscow in 2015. But most of the networking predated worries about malicious social-media memes and the now-discredited Steele dossier, "when the world was not yet concerned about Russian interference in elections," Mak acknowledges. And it's unclear why private figures should have been particularly leery of Russians just three years after President Barack Obama mocked his opponent's concerns about Putin by snorting that "the Cold War's been over for 20 years."
The real scandal was NRA officials again piggybacking personal projects on organization activities. Multiple U.S. attendees at the Moscow conference charged what were really private business trips to the gun-rights group. Mak describes "an expectation among NRA bigwigs that the NRA would foot the bill for their international jaunts." That's probably of greater import than any Boris-and-Natasha shenanigans.
Subsequent corruption revelations spurred an exodus of dedicated staff, including longtime lobbyist Chris Cox, and crisis-driven layoffs led to further downsizing. There's little question that the scandals have eroded the NRA's effectiveness.
Amid the titillating gossip and the appeals to true-believing NRA critics, Mak has documented tremendous corruption and dysfunction at an organization that seems less a leader of the gun rights movement than a parasite on its energy and resources. If the group disappeared, that might allow nimbler, more principled advocates to step out of the NRA's shadow and thrive.