‘Misfire’ dives into the chaos behind the seemingly powerful NRA

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo, produced by Brian Hardzinski

The NRA was founded in 1871 as a way to promote marksmanship among soldiers. But during the 1977 annual convention, a group of NRA members revolted, kicked out certain executives, and decided to hone in on political advocacy. Author Tim Mak says those actions helped shape the NRA that we know today. Photo by Shutterstock.

Little did the National Rifle Association know, Donald Trump’s election would trigger their downfall — due to a New York state lawsuit, federal investigations, and bankruptcy. But along the way is a rich story of infighting and backstabbing, million-dollar corruption, and a red-headed Russian spy. NPR investigative correspondent Tim Mak chronicles it in his new book, “Misfire: Inside the Downfall of the NRA.”

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.


“What [Republican] lawmakers are really worried about … is the NRA mobilizing its millions of members against them,” says Tim Mak, author of “Misfire: Inside the Downfall of the NRA.” Photo by Shala W. Graham.

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.

What’s next

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.”


“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,” says author Tim Mak. Credit: Penguin Random House.

Excerpt from Misfire: Inside the Downfall of the NRA by Tim Mak

"Where the fuck is Wayne?"

It's a question that everyone close to Wayne LaPierre has asked from time to time. The answer is usually "I have no idea," followed by another series of profanities. The bookish NRA executive has a habit of disappearing in times of stress. But this question, this Saturday in the late summer of 1998, was different. It was his wedding day, and he was missing at the worst time. Wayne had gotten cold feet.

It was not a problem that could be papered over. Guests had already arrived at the Basilica of Saint Mary in Alexandria, Virginia's Old Town district. With the ceremony delayed, word began to spread throughout the crowd as to the reason why. The priest was prepared to mediate, if only the groom could be found. The bride, Susan, began to cry. The guests, numbering between 100 and 150, casually congregated outside in the warm late-summer air as organ music played over and over.

His closest friends began to fan out to search for him. Wayne had made no secret of his reluctance to get married in the days leading up to the ceremony. He had been married once before and had been separated from his ex-wife for years, but the divorce had been finalized only four months prior to this date.

Wayne's conduct in the time leading up to his wedding with Susan was, to any outside observer, absolutely humiliating. He scurried around, according to a witness, nervously polling anyone he ran into about whether he should go through with it. He asked his staff. He asked a secretary. He asked his friends. To anyone watching, it was clear he was looking for a way out of a wedding that he had felt pressured into by the bride. According to two close friends of Wayne, Susan had sent out the invitations for the wedding without telling him.

When Wayne was finally found on the day of the wedding, he said he didn't want to get married. The best man honored that by placing a single, crisp hundred-dollar bill on the dashboard of his car, a Jeep Wagoneer. With the engine running, Wayne's best man told him they could leave whenever he wanted. The best man later recounted to friends that he offered to drive Wayne away.

But Wayne was ultimately persuaded not to leave by Susan and the priest. Wayne was a remarkably weak-willed man, friends said, and could be counted on to yield to any demand if it was issued strenuously and loudly enough. This in itself might not have been so consequential if he hadn't risen to head what would become a $400-million-a-year firearm advocacy organization.

The guests began to stream back into the church. But it is impossible to hide the disappearance of a groom. Wayne's reluctance had delayed the wedding for close to an hour, and the reputation-conscious Susan would not forget this humiliating blow to her social standing-a concept she valued above all else. Her social standing was largely determined by the people sitting in the pews of that Catholic church. Many of Wayne's invitees were linked to the NRA in some form: Angus McQueen, the gruff head of the NRA's symbiotic advertising and public relations agency, Ackerman McQueen, was there. As was Tony Makris, Wayne's longtime business associate who called him a "brother." Oliver North, the Iran-Contra figure and future NRA president, was present. So were Millie Hallow, Wayne's personal assistant; Woody Phillips, the accused (though never charged) embezzler whom Wayne chose to be the NRA's chief financial officer; and Chuck Cooper, who would be the NRA's outside counsel for decades.

Even though he went through the motions during the ceremony, Wayne's nervousness and anxiety seemed to betray his true feelings. As she said her vows, Susan stared deeply and lovingly at her groom, but Wayne looked like he was about to faint. His eyes darted everywhere but to his bride: the audience, the priest, the ceiling, the floor. For the guests who looked on, it was extremely uncomfortable to witness, and not the kind of wedding they would forget.

Wayne's wedding is emblematic of his character. By many accounts, he is a man driven by fear and anxiety over all other forces, and his reaction to these emotions is usually to flee and hide. He had told friends that he didn't want to get married, but if this was the case, he nonetheless permitted the ceremony to go forward because he didn't want to cause trouble. Despite being the head of one of the most controversial organizations in America, he is deeply unsettled by personal conflict. This has been his fundamental flaw, and why he has been prey to so many con men over his decades-long tenure at the National Rifle Association. His friends could only look on in horror as those around him manipulated this simple weakness. His best man did not attend the wedding reception that night.

Wayne is an awkward egghead type, and it's not hard to imagine that with a few different twists of fate he would have ended up as a college professor teaching political science, rather than rising to become one of the nation's most controversial gun rights advocates. He had a soft spot for children and was employed as a substitute special education teacher in Troy, New York, with poor and developmentally disabled students. In 1973 he started a Ph.D. at Boston University but dropped out to help a Democrat run for the Virginia state legislature; a few years later he received an M.A. in political science from Boston College.

His professorial demeanor is not well suited for leadership of a massive, powerful organization. He is easily bullied and doesn't have the ability to make firm commitments, or to keep his promises once he makes them. Perhaps the best description came from former NRA board member Wayne Anthony Ross, who said that Wayne had the "backbone of a chocolate eclair."

He has no core and has a reputation for never being able to say no, especially to the wrong people, NRA insiders said. He disdains the stresses of controversy-internal intrigue most of all-but by being unable to grow a spine and turn down bad ideas, he ends up causing a substantial portion of the drama inside the NRA described in this book. NRA insiders used to joke that even if you came into Wayne's office with a red nose and big rubber shoes, you could get him to approve an expenditure if you pressured him enough. In other words: if you could get in to see him, you could eventually get him to write a check. Wayne could never deliver critical news, and if it was absolutely necessary to do so, he would designate someone else to do it-then panic later over whether it was the right decision.

Originally a Democrat, like a substantial portion of the National Rifle Association's longest-serving staff, Wayne was active with the Roanoke Democrats in college but declined a job offer from the office of Democratic House Speaker Tip O'Neill. Instead, he got a job at the NRA. The NRA building at the time was right across the street from the Democratic National Committee, and so he walked right in and ran into some staff that he knew from his work in politics. They were looking for a Democratic lobbyist, so he signed on right away.

Wayne is a clumsy, meek, spastic man with a weak handshake, those who know him personally say. When he first started at the NRA, he was known for his wrinkled suits and detached gaze. Yet he was repeatedly promoted despite displaying no sense of professional ambition or charisma. After starting as a state-level lobbyist in 1978, he was promoted to head the state-level lobbying department in 1979 and then to direct the NRA's federal lobbying the next year.

The stories of Wayne's inattentive personality are plentiful. He had a habit of utterly disassociating from the world around him and was allergic to practicality. In the 1990s, Aquilino ran into his former subordinate at Reagan National Airport, near D.C. Wayne was sitting on the floor, his head in his hands, totally overwhelmed. He had lost his itinerary, or he had been insufficiently informed about what it was, and had no idea what he was doing or how to fix the problem.

One joke told in NRA circles was that you would only be able to make eye contact with him if you lay on the floor while the two of you were talking. In social settings, the same scatterbrained Wayne would emerge. He would almost begin to automate his interactions in crowds: "Hi. I'm Wayne LaPierre," he repeatedly told guests at one function, and continued this even when he came across his longtime associate Chris Cox, the head of the NRA's lobbying arm. They had known each other since the '90s. "Hi. I'm Wayne LaPierre!" Wayne said. Cox responded in consternation, "Wayne, what are you talking about?"

Wayne also has an obsessive personality when it comes to documenting the world around him. He doesn't take notes on any electronic devices but instead always carries four colored Sharpies and yellow legal pads. He scribbles constantly during meetings, using a color-coded system that only he can decipher. The terrible handwriting further obfuscates the meaning of the notes. "It was when he was in conversation and thinking," a Wayne associate said. "I think for him, writing like that . . . that helped him think." The practice grew so cumbersome that Wayne would carry a roller duffle bag, the size of a piece of carry-on luggage, specifically to carry the pads, and pull out different pads depending on the topic.

Wayne has a history of hoarding everything: he would attend political events and leave with a stack of notes, agenda items, and brochures. When Wayne was the head of the NRA's federal lobbying team, Aquilino once emerged into the office's lobby to find a long line of pads and congressional publications lining the floor from the elevator, through the lobby, to the curb. Wayne had rushed to a car and had been oblivious to the fact that he was leaving a trail of documents behind him.

Wayne's note-taking habit led to voluminous stacks of yellow legal pads. He once had an apartment in Arlington, Virginia, that appeared to be largely for his collection: filled with boxes, legal pads, and writing utensils-a collection of all the things he took out of his office and dumped there. It wasn't clear whether he ever lived there, or it was just a place to accumulate mail and papers.

He no longer has that apartment. His garage at his home in Virginia was once stuffed with these pads, filling up to fifteen bins, often organized by year. In a room near his NRA HQ office, yet more yellow pads were stacked up between his desk and the executive bathroom, in a pile approximately four and a half feet tall and six feet wide-yet he had the uncanny ability to find precisely what he was looking for in those messy stacks. The various government investigators looking into his conduct may have been stymied by this cumbersome system.

"It's kind of my own shorthand. It's hard to read if you're not me, but I can read it," Wayne once said when questioned by lawyers. "I used to keep them in my house. . . . They're all with the attorneys now."

From Misfire: Inside the Downfall of the NRA by Tim Mak with permission from Dutton, an imprint of the Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Tim Mak.

Credits

Guest:

  • Tim Mak - NPR investigative correspondent, author of “Misfire: Inside the Downfall of the NRA” - @timkmak