Less a Powerhouse Than a Parasite

The NRA’s Downfall: MisfireTim Mak and Dutton. 384 Pages, $29

Wayne LaPierre (head of the National Rifle Association, or NRA) is a shrewd, indecisive wimp. He hides from his staff and avoids public attentions. While enjoying all the benefits of running an upscale nonprofit, he also enjoys conflict resolution. Tim Mak has one surprising revelation. The NRA’s Downfall: Misfire, an eye-opening and often gossipy exposé of the financial shenanigans and abuses of trust behind the organization’s legal woes. While the NRA’s political foes are enjoying its problems, the book suggests that advocates for self-defense rights could be the biggest beneficiaries. They could benefit from more competent and honest representation.

Mak, NPR’s correspondent writes, “After Columbine High school shootings in 1999, NRA higher ups had a series tense strategy sessions.” NRA consultants and executives spotted the wingtips of dress shoes peeking out behind the drapes at a high-stakes meeting. Wayne was so upset by the circumstances that he decided to hide behind the curtains for his own comfort.

Wayne Anthony Ross, a conservative Alaskan attorney, once said LaPierre has the “backbone of a chocolate éclair.” Ross, who currently sits on the organisation’s board of director, must find that interesting. Mak says that LaPierre’s heart wasn’t really so much in gun rights advocacy.

LaPierre’s timidity is a reason why the organisation he runs since 1991 can wield such power. 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. Mak reports that Ackerman CEO Angus McQueen helped to “create Wayne LaPierre’s image” as a Second Amendment “warrior.” LaPierre even refers to McQueen as “Yoda.” McQueen’s well-paid firm and McQueen often replaced the NRA’s internal talent in policy and messaging. McQueen and his well-paid firm also encouraged the NRA to get involved in white elephant projects such as NRATV. These were a wasteful use of many millions of dollars.

McQueen seems to have passed his love of finer things along with the advice. LaPierre developed an affection for five-star accommodation, expensive clothes, and private jets from an early, disdainful attitude towards personal appearance. Ackerman McQueen charged personal expenses regularly to LaPierre, who then invoiced the NRA. This was to conceal the expenditures from donors and auditors, who may have objected to a lavish lifestyle.

“The National Rifle Association stated that it has found other examples of exorbitant benefits given by Wayne LaPierre’s non-profit gun rights group in the recent years, including $44,000 for private jet flight flights.” The Wall Street Journal reported of a tax filing in November 2021, confirming Mak’s points. The NRA also admitted similar facts in its 2019 filing. It disclosed that former and current top executives had received more than $1.4million in inappropriate or excessive benefits, in violation of non-profit rules.

LaPierre and Co. did not lead gun-rights movements. This is a larger explanation of NRA’s popularity. They simply tried to keep up with a motivated constituency. Mak writes: “Contrary what popular belief has it, the NRA does not have the money to support itself from the gun industry which contributes a very small amount.” Because of the millions of dues-paying, passionate members it has, it is powerful.

Those members transformed a sporting organization into a civil liberties advocate—at least at the Institute for Legislative Action, the NRA’s lobbying arm. With little more than a push in the right direction, they jam phones to stop anti-gun legislation. Mak points out that while the NRA leadership has been a thief, their energy will “remain there to mobilize if and when it turns around.”

Letitia James, New York’s Attorney General, attempted to disband NRA. This is the source for much of the material. Missing ConnectionsThis deserves more context that the book provides. Mak admits that James made no secret about how she detested the National Rifle Association. She even described the organization as a terrorist group. That raises grave questions regarding politicians using their offices to attack their enemies, despite real concerns about the NRA’s leadership abuse of members’ trust.

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 Missing Connections. “If New York’s attorneygeneral can take this action to protect the NRA, then why wouldn’t the red state attorney general do the same thing against the ACLU or the AFL-CIO? Common Cause? Everytown for Gun Safety?” Cole was curious. Cole asked.

These ideological alliances are becoming more common in recent years as partisanship can often replace other concerns. Although many NRA leaders including LaPierre were originally Democrats, today the organization is dominated by Republicans.

Mak writes that “By 2016’s presidential election, NRA was transformed from a gun organisation to a conservative culture war group.” The NRA spent more than $50,000,000 on 2016 presidential elections candidates. 99 percent of it was for Republicans.

A similar change occurred to the ACLU. 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.” In a book which often documents the contrary, the ACLU’s support of the NRA’s rights shows that principle wins over tribalism.

Mak sometimes finds it hard to forget his NPR membership that is gun-averse. Mak calls NRA members who oppose “modest gun Reforms” an insult. He does not believe it should be a surprise that an organization dedicated towards civil liberty would give way. His suggestion that ACLU members should accept “modestcensorship” is difficult to comprehend. Mak’s wishful thinking is reminiscent of NPR when he says that 2018 Parkland shooting would “undoubtedly change the gun control landscape through mobilizing America’s students”. The reality is that firearms sales have soared due to the unrest and stresses of the recent years, which has depressed support for strict laws. An ABC/ABC report stated that “the public’s prioritization on the enactment of new laws to combat gun violence has declined from its level three-years ago.”Washington Post poll found in April 2021. According to the poll, “The drop in popularity is greatest among those aged 18 to 29, where it ranges from 65 percent down to 45 percent.” We’re not here to make Mak embrace the NRA mission, but rather expose the NRAs faults.

Even more grave flaws are found in the pages that focus on Maria Butina (and Aleksandr Torshin)’s attempt to infiltrate the NRA to harass Republican politicians. Mak reports That Butina, who spent many years passionately and eagerly advocating gun rights, founded an advocacy organisation in Russia. Torshin was an ogre connected to Vladimir Putin’s Russia regime. She became an NRA contact and had back-channel links to the American political party which won the next Presidential election.

Many words are spilled about Butina’s flirtatious manners, her changing biography and the joint Moscow gun-rights conference held in 2015. Mak says that the majority of the networking occurred before the emergence of malicious social media memes or the discredited Steele dossier. This was “when there wasn’t yet concern about Russian interference with elections.” Private figures shouldn’t have been suspicious of Russians, just three years ago when President Barack Obama ridiculed his opponent’s worries about Putin and said that the Cold War was over after 20 years.

NRA officials were again involved in personal projects that were funded by organization activities. This was what really scandalized. Numerous Americans who attended the Moscow conference paid private business expenses to gun-rights groups. Mak said that there was a expectation by NRA top brass that they would pay for international trips. It’s likely to be more significant than any Boris and Natasha shenanigans.

The subsequent corruption scandals led to a mass exodus, which included Chris Cox, long-time lobbyist, and further reductions in staff. The scandals are a clear indication of how the NRA has lost its effectiveness.

Mak documented the corruption and dysfunction of an organization, which Mak says is less a leader in the gun rights movement and more a drain on the energy and resources. The NRA might be able to thrive if the group is gone.