Days after 19 kids and two adults died in an assault rifle attack at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, the National Rifle Association’s annual convention will get underway this Friday in Houston. Former President Trump, Texas Governor Greg Abbott, and Senator Ted Cruz are slated to speak.
KCRW is reairing a conversation about how the NRA amassed so much political power and wields it after assault rifle attacks on schools like Columbine and Sandy Hook. NPR correspondent Tim Mak, author of “Misfire: Inside the Downfall of the NRA,” explains that the organization wasn’t about political advocacy during much of its history. Initially, it was meant to encourage marksmanship among Civil War veterans, and it supported a lot of gun restrictions through the 1960s. In his book, Mak details a rich story of infighting and backstabbing within the NRA, million-dollar corruption, and a red-headed Russian spy.
Since 1991, Wayne LaPierre has been CEO of the organization, and much of its legal and financial problems have stemmed from his tendency to be anxious, says Mak.
“If you talk to people who have known him … for decades, even they describe him as this deeply anxious, weak-willed, almost cowardly person who easily gets bowled over by people around him,” Mak tells KCRW. “People in power in the NRA have realized that if you yell at him loud enough, or you berate him long enough, eventually he's going to say yes to millions of dollars in contracts for preferred NRA vendors with sweetheart deals or golden parachutes for senior NRA staffers and executives who lead the organization but get paid handsomely to do nothing at all.”
Mak notes that those traits made LaPierre an attractive CEO candidate to the powers that be at the NRA. And actually, LaPierre’s dream job was to run a Maine ice cream shop, not the largest gun advocacy group.
“The NRA had gone through a series of executive vice presidents. One after the other all had ended in scandal, and they wanted Wayne because he was boring. He was bland,” he explains. “He doesn't really want all the controversy and anxiety that comes with being the head of the NRA and yet here he is, decades later still in that role. It's weird. I mean, he doesn't really even like to shoot firearms.”
He adds, “By being so malleable, he's made himself indispensable to the powerful players in and around the NRA. They've all benefited and have an incentive to keep him at the top of the organization. And he has an incentive to stay too, because he benefits greatly in his personal life. He and his wife do.”
Mak considers LaPierre’s wife Susan to be a huge power player in the NRA.
“She's very bold, she's very assertive. And to some folks, she's downright rude. But she has this enormous power as Wayne's wife, inside the NRA. She doesn't have a paid position there. But many people see her as a kind of the first lady of the NRA. She's not an executive, but she certainly gets the perks. She's a hidden hand behind the scenes,” Mak says. “If you wanted to get in touch with Wayne, you'd call Susan LaPierre. ... She is someone who demands loyalty from people at different parts of the last decade.”
From advocacy to politics
The NRA was founded in 1871 as a way to promote marksmanship among soldiers. But during the 1977 annual meeting, a group of NRA members revolted, kicked out certain executives, and decided to hone in on political advocacy. Mak says those actions helped shape the NRA that we know today.
In 1991, when LaPierre became CEO, the NRA hired a consulting agency named Ackerman McQueen. And its chief, Angus McQueen, quickly butted heads with LaPierre.
“People would really be shocked by how Angus McQueen treated Wayne LaPierre. There would be a lot of shouting [and] a lot of yelling … this bullying relationship between the two. Wayne LaPierre couldn't really make any decisions without conferring with Angus McQueen first, as if Wayne LaPierre was the one who was doing the job, and Angus McQueen was the client.”
Throughout the years, Mak says that Ackerman McQueen became a facilitator of the NRA’s corruption. Top officials at the gun organization, including Susan LaPierre, billed thousands of dollars on Ackerman McQueen credit cards, and then the consulting agency billed the NRA back in nondescript ways.
To date, Mak says serious charges haven’t been filed against Ackerman McQueen, but the NRA has been investigated over the legality of these dealings. That includes an 18-month probe by the New York Attorney General, who found millions of dollars of spending misconduct.
“They're seeking to dissolve the NRA in its entirety. It's a very serious threat that actually poses mortal danger for the NRA’s existence as an organization,” Mak says.
NRA’s grassroots power, impact on gun legislation
Following the 1999 Columbine school shooting, Mak says the NRA developed a playbook to guide it through high-profile incidents.
“[It outlines] any concession they make, whether it's canceling their convention or even money for victims and the victims fund. Any concession they make is to accept responsibility or admit complicity with the shooting. … Their playbook involves going after the media and what the media might think, as well as saying that society, not guns, is the reason for these mass shootings. And finally, the NRA strategy has been, ever since Columbine, to say that any sort of discussion about gun legislation going after these tragedies is inappropriate politicization of the issue.”
Mak notes that many Republican lawmakers have taken up the same policies because they fear the organization’s grassroots power.
“What lawmakers are really worried about … is the NRA mobilizing its millions of members against them. And in particular, they're worried about their phone lines getting jammed up. They're worried about their inboxes getting slammed and flooded with complaints. They're worried about getting yelled at town halls.”
Following the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, there was NRA buy-in on certain gun restrictions, such as universal background checks included in the Manchin-Toomey proposal. Mak says NRA negotiators were even part of the negotiations and didn’t feel like the legislation was an affront to the Second Amendment. And yet, at the last minute, the NRA as a whole pulled out of the negotiations and rallied their members against the bill.
Today, despite a Democrat-controlled Congress and White House, there isn’t serious talk about gun legislation. Mak credits that to how NRA lobbying has changed the political environment around gun conversations.
The Russian operative who infiltrated the NRA
Mak first learned about Maria Butina, the red-headed Russian operative who infiltrated the NRA, when he sat down at breakfast with a long-time source who described a woman who would present herself as a different person to everyone she met.
“Depending on the audience, she says that she's a Russian government official … a graduate student, or a journalist, or a translator, or just a gun rights activist. And she's been bragging, by the way, about connections between her and the Russian government and the Trump campaign, as well as between her and the National Rifle Association.”
Mak, who first broke the story about Butina when he worked at The Daily Beast, says the NRA was laying out the proverbial red carpet for her, helping facilitate her networking, paying for travel, and opening all sorts of doors for her.
The NRA’s willingness to host Butina stems from the self-interest of its members, Mak says. That includes the then-incoming NRA president Pete Brownell — who also led a large gun sales and manufacturing company and was interested in new commercial opportunities — plus former NRA president David Keene who wanted to land an interview with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“Each of these people had their own interests in mind. They had nothing to do with the Second Amendment or the NRA, but they were willing and able to use the NRA as a kind of piggy bank to facilitate their own personal desires. And this is a story that's told over and over and over again in ‘Misfire’ about how people use the NRA money to achieve their own personal ends.”
Ultimately, Butina was charged and convicted for being an unregistered Russian government agent and was deported, but Mak says she’s an example of how fallible the NRA is.
“I started this investigative book thinking that the NRA was this really ruthlessly efficient, effective organization powerful beyond measure. And this is an organization that's chaotic and disorganized, easily played, and Maria Butina played the NRA to get what she wanted.”
The Trump effect
During the Obama presidency, Mak says the NRA built up its coffers and membership by instilling fear among Americans concerned about gun restrictions or the taking away of their firearms. And during the 2016 presidential race, the NRA put lots of money toward Donald Trump.
But after Trump’s win, Mak says the NRA’s finances plunged and made way for serious problems.
“Membership goes down. Fundraising goes down. They just don't have that fear that they've typically used to fundraise or raise membership. And in this financial contraction, and it's become pretty serious, the NRA can't pay its bills. At one point in 2018, almost can't make payroll, which is a very, very serious problem for any organization to have.”
He adds, “In this financial contraction, all these allegations of corruption begin to bubble up, internal whistleblowers, [and] investigative reporters, like myself, start making headway into the organization. And the dam begins to show these cracks that eventually will burst.”
In efforts to save the NRA, LaPierre asked his old friend Oliver North to fundraise the organization out of its problems. Mak says North then demanded an internal audit and was pushed out of the company.
The future for the NRA and LaPierre look murky, as the organization is being investigated by New York Attorney General Letitia James, Mak says.
In secret court depositions, he says LaPierre feigned ignorance over the millions of dollars in financial misconduct.
“He's asked repeatedly why this kind of spending occurred. Why did this misconduct occur? And often, he says he didn't know about it. He didn't see the bills. He didn't ask about the bills. And his defense has always been one of ignorance, that he wasn't looped in while he was the CEO of the organization. And it seemed that he made a deliberate statement by not asking, by not trying to figure it out.”
The NRA has sought bankruptcy, and a judge has refused to let the organization relocate to Texas to avoid James’ investigation.
“The way that [this] case plays out is really going to have a huge impact on gun politics in this country. Wayne LaPierre, it's been reported in The Wall Street Journal, is the subject of IRS investigation for potential tax fraud. And he himself, it’s been testified in court, has told associates that he's worried about going to jail for his actions as the head of the NRA.”
And even if the NRA is dissolved, Mak says that the gun rights movement is still strong in the U.S.
“There's a difference between the organization and the movement. If you look at its millions of members, even if the NRA were to just kind of magically disappear overnight, the folks who support it — its grassroots — they might not be as organized, but they'll still exist. And they'll still be kind of an implicit threat for lawmakers concerned about whether they should make a move on gun legislation.”