The NRA Cancels Its Annual Meeting Again, Underscoring The Group's Uncertain Future

Sep 3, 2021
Originally published on September 3, 2021 9:28 am

One way the National Rifle Association projects its power is through the image of tens of thousands of members in a convention center, in front of the politicians who back the powerful gun rights organization.

But this weekend, for the second year in a row, the NRA's chosen convention center will stand empty, after the group was forced to cancel its annual meeting due to the COVID pandemic.

The National Rifle Association planned to hold its 150th anniversary celebration during the convention, and even more importantly, the second cancellation in as many years has cost the organization money.

"It has a very real impact on their finances, specifically because the NRA annual meeting is the largest fundraising event of the year for this group," said Steve Gutowski, the founder of The Reload, a pro-Second Amendment gun issue publication. "It usually features over 80,000 attendees. It's also a big rallying point for their membership."

The forced cancellation is the latest setback for an organization that has seen a series of financial and legal problems due to allegations of misconduct by its executives.

In April 2019, a group of members revolted on the floor as reports of financial malfeasance by NRA executives bubbled up in the press. Members demanded a change in leadership, but executives managed to survive the rebellion, and it was the last time the NRA held its premier members gathering.

"Members have been leaving in droves as a result of the not only negligence, but perhaps pillaging and plundering of the association by the NRA leadership," said Ron Carter, the vice president of Save the Second, a group of NRA members that is seeking accountability within the organization. "The NRA is ineffective and unaccountable, and no one can really take them seriously. That's such a detriment to those of us who would want the Second Amendment to be expanded and protected."

Over these past two years, the National Rifle Association has faced external threats, too. New York Attorney General Letitia James has accused the organization's leadership, including CEO Wayne LaPierre, of tens of millions of dollars in improper spending — luxurious meals, private jet travel and exotic vacations. James filed a lawsuit to dissolve the NRA because of alleged violations of the law.

In an attempt to halt the march of James' litigation, the NRA tried to file for bankruptcy, but that bid was rejected. The NRA did not respond to an interview request on this topic.

New financial disclosures filed recently with the North Carolina Secretary of State show that the National Rifle Association has been struggling to raise the kind of money it used to.

In 2020, it raised $284 million, nearly 25% less than in 2016. And it spent just $239 million, down 43% from four years prior.

But the National Rifle Association isn't doomed, far from it. The new normal may simply be a smaller NRA with a lighter footprint.

"Financially speaking, I would say it is sustainable," said Brian Mittendorf, an accounting professor at Ohio State University who has studied the NRA's financial state. "They seem to have a pretty robust revenue stream, pretty robust membership ... It's just going to be a much smaller version than they had in 2016."

With deep cost cutting, the NRA has been able to make up for the drop in fundraising that resulted as the group became entrenched in scandal. And its opponents have been unable to pass gun control legislation into law.

"They still have 5 million members. That hasn't grown since 2013. But it's still by far the largest of any gun-related group," Gutowski said.

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A MARTINEZ, HOST:

This weekend, the National Rifle Association would have held its 150th anniversary celebration. But it got canceled because of the pandemic. It's the latest setback for an organization that has seen a series of financial and legal problems due to allegations of misconduct by its executives. NPR's Tim Mak has more.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: The last National Rifle Association annual convention was held in Indianapolis in April, 2019? And it was a sign of things to come.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MICHAEL PEMBERTON: My name is Michael Pemberton (ph). I am from Radcliff, Ky. Just tell us what the allegations are.

JOSHUA PRINCE: Joshua Prince (ph). Bechtelsville, Pa. And I demand the right to be heard.

ALLEN BLATMAN: My name is Allen Blatman (ph). These issues have been consistently issues for over 20 years.

MAK: There was a revolt on the floor at the annual meeting that year as reports of financial malfeasance by NRA executives bubbled up in the press. Members demanded a change in leadership. But executives managed to survive that rebellion. And it was the last time the NRA held its premiere members gathering. The second cancellation in as many years has had real monetary costs for the NRA.

STEVE GUTOWSKI: I think it has a very real impact on their finances specifically because the NRA annual meeting is the largest fundraising event of the year for this group.

MAK: That's Steve Gutowski, the founder of The Reload, a pro-Second Amendment gun issues publication.

GUTOWSKI: It usually features over 80,000 attendees. It's also, you know, a big rallying point for their membership.

MAK: Over these past two years, the National Rifle Association has faced a threat to its very existence, an ongoing effort by the New York Attorney General Letitia James to dissolve the organization.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LETITIA JAMES: They will answer for their actions. The rot runs deep.

MAK: James has accused the organization's leadership, including CEO Wayne LaPierre, of tens of millions of dollars in improper spending, luxurious meals, private jet travel and exotic vacations. In an attempt to halt the march of James' litigation, the NRA tried to file for bankruptcy. But that bid was rejected. The mayhem has frustrated NRA members like Ron Carter.

RON CARTER: Members have been leaving in droves as a result of the - not only negligence, but perhaps pillaging and plundering of the association by the NRA leadership.

MAK: Carter is the vice president of Save the Second, a group of NRA members that is seeking accountability within the organization.

CARTER: The NRA is ineffective and unaccountable. And no one can really take them seriously. That's such a detriment to those of us who would want the Second Amendment to be expanded and protected.

MAK: The NRA did not respond to an interview request on this topic. But new financial disclosures filed recently with the North Carolina Secretary of State showed that the National Rifle Association has been struggling to raise the kind of money it used to. Nearly $100 million less than it did a presidential cycle ago. And spending is way down, more than 40% in that same timeframe. But the National Rifle Association isn't doomed, far from it. The new normal may be a smaller NRA with a smaller footprint.

BRIAN MITTENDORF: Financially speaking, I would say it is sustainable.

MAK: That's Brian Mittendorf, an accounting professor at Ohio State University who has studied the NRA's financial state.

MITTENDORF: They seem to have a pretty robust revenue stream, pretty robust membership, so something sustainable. It's just going to be a much smaller version than they had in 2016.

MAK: With deep cost-cutting, the NRA has been able to match the drop in fundraising that resulted as the group became entrenched in scandal. And its opponents have been unable to pass gun control legislation into law. Here's Steve Gutowski again.

GUTOWSKI: They still have 5 million members. That hasn't grown since 2013. But it's still by far the largest of any gun-related group.

MAK: One way the NRA projects its power is through images set in a massive convention center, thousands of boisterous members in front of powerful politicians who back the gun rights group. But this weekend, for the second year in a row, that center will stand empty.

Tim Mak, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF FAZER'S "HARLESDEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.