April 27, 2019; New York Times and the New Yorker
There was no doubt that this year’s National Rifle Association (NRA) membership conference and convention would be full of surprises. It opened with a surprise resignation by letter from its president, Oliver North. What followed were calls for NRA Vice President Wayne LaPierre to step down, an argument about whether or not to talk about the state of the organization’s finances, and, eventually, a declaration from US President Donald Trump that he would be pulling the United States out of the UN Arms Trade Treaty.
The 2019 convention had a contentious start as the organization’s members reacted to recent revelations about the organization’s finances and the subsequent declaration by New York Attorney General Letitia James that she would investigate formally with an eye toward potentially lifting its state tax exempt status. The gun control group Everytown for Gun Safety, which initially funded The Trace in 2015, had already filed a detailed complaint with James’ office on April 18, 2019.
On the Wednesday before the convention, North urged LaPierre to resign. The next day, LaPierre “sent a letter to the board in which he accused Mr. North of threatening to release damaging information about him and other executives if he refused to step down.” Then, this past Friday, as per Danny Hakim at the Times,
Ms. James’s office sent letters instructing the NRA and affiliated entities, including its charitable foundation, to preserve relevant financial records. Some of the NRA’s related businesses also received subpoenas, according to people with knowledge of the inquiry. Both the attorney general’s office and a lawyer for the NRA confirmed the investigation.
All of this is consequent to revelations from the New Yorker and The Trace involving hundreds of millions in questionable transactions and payments between top leadership and vendors, one of which—PR firm Ackerman McQueen—was paid $40 million in a single year even as the organization ran a deficit of approximately the same size.
North not only said in his letter that he would not seek a second term as president—a position which apparently has been paid through Ackerman McQueen—but that he was convening a committee to investigate LaPierre’s involvement in the alleged financial improprieties.
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“If true, the NRA’s nonprofit status is threatened,” North’s letter said. “There is a clear crisis that needs to be dealt with immediately and responsibly so the NRA can continue to focus on protecting our Second Amendment.”
A member then put forward a resolution to dump LaPierre, who has been at the helm of the organization for 30 years, for long refusing to address the questionable relationship the NRA has with Ackerman McQueen. That resolution, however, was finally sent along to the board.
LaPierre, for his part, simply kept his own focus on the external environment. “We are in the fight for our political lives here at the National Rifle Association,” LaPierre declared. “But I promise you, in the spirit of true patriots, we are fighting back.”
Of course, the NRA has surged back from such upheavals before. But this time, it will need to do so in the context of an opposing national movement with its own investigative arm, and for that, we owe some thanks to Michael Bloomberg, who seeded Everytown for Gun Safety with $50 million. They, in turn, seeded The Trace, and other funders soon crowded in to help. Here is what we wrote about The Trace in 2015:
What is to be done when the media does not do a thorough job of covering a major social issue? Setting up a single-issue site can help feed better coverage all across the country. Modeled after The Marshall Project and InsideClimate News, a new single-issue nonprofit journalism site bankrolled by a billionaire is being launched this week in the form of The Trace. The site, focused on chronicling gun violence, has the backing of Michael Bloomberg, who has already devoted $50 million to Everytown for Gun Safety, a national anti-gun violence effort. John Feinblatt, the president of Everytown, said that The Trace grew out of their frustrations with the enormous media-feeding capacity of the National Rifle Association. He believes that the NRA needs to be countered with serious, research-based journalism on the topic.
Tapped to lead the journalism effort as editorial director is James Burnett, who left the New Republic back in January. The outlet is not intended to have a particular point of view regarding gun regulation or laws, but it is intended to challenge the NRA’s dominance in the gun debate while appealing to people across a spectrum of opinions.
Clearly, this investment in grassroots organizing and a nonprofit media site is working. Funders should take note.—Ruth McCambridge