People walk outside the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston Friday as the NRA Convention is held a few days after the Robb Elementary school shooting in Uvalde, Texas.
Wally Skalij/Getty Images
Just three days earlier, and 300 miles away, 19 students and two teachers were killed during a school shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. A week before that, 10 people were shot and killed at a grocery store in Buffalo, N.Y.
The NRA’s last annual convention in 2019, before the pandemic, drew more than 80,000 attendees. The last time the convention was held in Houston, the fourth most populous city in the U.S., the NRA drew a crowd of 86,000.
On Monday, the NRA said that 61,000 people came to this year’s meeting, but a reporter from The Trace said that more than a quarter of the seats in the main hall (which seats 3,600) of the convention space were empty.
While attendance for an annual meeting doesn’t necessarily say much, it does signal the waning influence of the 151-year-old organization that has come to represent the face of pro-gun lobbying in the U.S. The recent tragedies may have soured the convention, but even before that, warning signs of the NRA’s decline were cropping up.
Declining revenue and membership
Citing IRS tax filings, CBS reported that the NRA’s revenue has decreased 23 per cent between 2016 and 2020, when the most recent filings were available. In 2016, at the peak of the NRA’s membership, the organization pulled in US$367 million. That declined to $282 million in 2020.
Contributions and grants from members and corporations have declined by 15 per cent in the same time period.
“The NRA relies on revenue from members, and they seem to be losing members,” said Frank Smyth, an NRA member who penned The NRA: An Unauthorized History. “They are doing their best to cover that up. It’s a trend that is probably going to continue.”
An internal financial report that was leaked to The Reload found that the number of NRA members has been steadily declining since 2018. In that year, the NRA proudly announced that its ranks had swelled to 6 million members, though the leaked document shows that its membership wasn’t even cracking 5.5 million. The financial report also showed that 2021 membership figure was just above 4.5 million people.
In an email to CBS, the NRA said that it has “approximately 5 million members.” In a 2021 deposition, NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre said that membership was “under 4.9 million.”
The NRA has disputed the legitimacy of the leaked internal document, called it “outdated” and “unaudited.”
Amy Hunter, director of NRA media relations, blames the pandemic for the NRA’s recent woes.
“With respect to questions comparing figures from a pre-pandemic 2018 to (figures in) 2020, the NRA, like many others, continues to confront this global pandemic that forced the cancellation of many events and impacted revenue streams,” Hunter said. “The safety and well-being of our staff and members is paramount. Through it all, the NRA has emerged stronger — better positioned to fight for its members and their freedoms. The Association and its patriotic members deserve an enormous amount of credit.”
Scandal has rocked the NRA’s foundation
Experts point to recent allegations and a lawsuit concerning fraud and financial mismanagement as one of the main reasons why support for the NRA is waning.
In 2020, New York Attorney General Letitia James sued the organization, claiming that top executives had been diverting the NRA’s funds for “years of illegal self-dealings,” enriching themselves and loved ones, and using the corporation as a “personal piggy bank.”
Specifically, LaPierre is accused of spending at least $500,000 on eight trips to the Bahamas over three years, paying for professional hair and makeup services for his wife, and obtaining a $17-million post-employment contract from the NRA.
The NRA soon filed for bankruptcy — but a Texas judge struck down the petition in 2021, saying that the NRA was seeking to gain an “unfair litigation advantage,” against James’ lawsuit.
In March, a New York judged blocked James’ attempt to shutter the NRA’s doors entirely for corruption, but allowed the lawsuit to continue. The judge recommended less intrusive remedies to the NRA’s problem and left the door open for one possible solution: the ousting of LaPierre as chief executive.
At the Houston annual meeting this year, the NRA’s board voted to re-elect LaPierre as CEO — showing no change of course in the midst of rising mass shootings and its internal upheavals.
Smyth predicts that James’ lawsuit will “eviscerate the NRA,” and bring about imposed financial reforms and sanctions against the organization. The NRA has called James’ suit an “unhinged and political attack.”
Speaking to CBS, the organization says that it is “fully engaged — as usual.”
Andrew Arulanandam, the NRA’s managing director of public affairs, pointed to recent political wins as evidence of the NRA’s continued strength.
“As an example of its winning advocacy, Georgia recently became the 25th state in the nation to pass constitutional carry.”
Constitutional carry means that legal gun owners can carry their handguns with them without a permit or licence.
Even in the midst of their worsening financial and internal state, the NRA still commands considerable political clout. Its 2022 Houston meeting had guest speakers including former president Donald Trump and Texas Senator Ted Cruz.
According to OpenSecrets.org, a group that tracks political donations, more than a dozen Republican politicians received at least $1 million in campaign contributions from the NRA over their careers.
Since 1989, the NRA has spent $171 million lobbying the U.S. government, of which $70 million has been dispersed to Republican politicians currently serving in Congress.
Gun rights advocates have long claimed that political attitudes about gun control do not mirror the desires of the American people.
According to a recent survey from Morning Consult and Politico, 73 per cent of respondents “strongly support” and 15 per cent “somewhat support” universal background checks for gun purchases in the U.S.
H.R. 8 is a bill that would require a federal background check for all gun purchases, closing the loophole for unlicensed gun show sellers and gun transfers. The bill was passed in the U.S. Congress in March 2021, but has been stalled in the Senate for over a year. Ten Republican votes are needed to end the filibuster.
Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action, a gun control advocacy group that started in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shooting, told CBS that politicians need to be more aware of the NRA’s declining status.
“Dismantling the power that the gun lobby accumulated over the years was never going to happen overnight, but it’s clear that this NRA consumed by chaos and mismanagement is in a weakened position,” Watts said.
“It’s on senators now to realize that this isn’t the NRA of years past, and actually do something because we can’t wait another minute.”
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