When Donald Trump addresses cheering throngs at the National Rifle Association annual meetings on Friday, he will again be throwing red meat to his base before an election. This time, however, it could be argued that the NRA needs Trump more than Trump needs the NRA.
The world’s most powerful gun lobby is in disarray. The organisation is still reeling from disclosures that Russian operatives tried to use contacts in the NRA to influence US elections. Its leaders have been accused of straying from the association’s original mission of gun safety and shooting sports by wading into politics and “culture wars”. And, plagued by financial troubles, the NRA is suing its longtime public relations firm over its refusal to hand over financial records to account for bills worth millions of dollars.
Opponents hope these are omens that the NRA is past its prime, its influence in Washington finally on the wane. Gun control activist groups are thriving as never before, infused with youthful energy and big money donations, while many Democrats running for president in 2020 have pledged to break the gun lobby’s stranglehold and regulate firearms in the wake of mass shootings.
“The NRA are the weakest they’ve been since the 1990s – weaker than they were even back then,” said Shannon Watts, the founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. “Internally there’s infighting and self-dealing. Externally they’re being looked at for their ties to Russia and their non-profit status could possibly be removed. They are a toxic brand now for the first time in a couple decades. They no longer have the same sway over lawmakers that they used to and their demographic is ageing out. They have not been successful in marketing guns to this next generation.”
Trump and the NRA forged a relationship rooted in mutual interest in 2016. Along with Christian evangelicals and anti-tax activists, the NRA was a crucial part of his electoral coalition, spending $30m (£23m) to help him beat Hillary Clinton. In return, he has resisted basic measures such as signing background checks for gun sales into law, although his administration did ban “bump stock” attachments that enable semi-automatic weapons to fire rapidly.
In the run-up to Trump’s speech – which will make him the first US president to address the NRA three years in a row – it looked like business as usual for the lobbyists at the Indiana Convention Center in Indianapolis. Outside, giant banners displayed revolvers of the faces of prominent figures such as the chief executive, Wayne LaPierre, and president, Oliver North, a retired lieutenant colonel infamous for the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s.
Inside, corporate booths included a taxidermy company displaying dead deer and a firm called AmericanSnipers offering bumper stickers with slogans such as “Extremely Deplorable”, “Extremely Rightwing” and “God Bless Our Troops … Especially Our Snipers”. There was an airgun range (“closed to press”), a “wall of guns” display, a man playing guitar and singing on the “NRA country sound stage” and a photo of a young girl advertising “NRA youth day” where activities include a virtual reality hunting simulator. The exhibit hall promised “15 acres of gun and gear”.
But among the rank and file wandering the corridors, there were signs of unrest and dissatisfaction with the NRA leadership. An article in the New Yorker magazine headlined “Secrecy, self-dealing and greed at the NRA” detonated under the organisation last week. It laid bare the influence of PR firm Ackerman McQueen, which for two decades has powered the NRA’s aggressive messaging, including Charlton Heston’s 2000 vow to resist efforts to take away his guns “from my cold dead hands” – a rallying cry for gun owners around the country. The NRA paid the firm $40m in 2017 alone.
Ackerman McQueen created and runs NRATV, an online channel whose hosts expand into topics such as immigration, or the diversity of children’s TV. One feature, for example, depicted Thomas the Tank Engine characters wearing Ku Klux Klan hoods. In its lawsuit against Ackerman McQueen for withholding crucial financial details in its billing documents, the NRA said some members had questioned NRATV’s spending to weigh in on “topics far afield of the second amendment”.
Thomas Laumann, 59, an NRA member since 1984 and now a life benefactor, said on Thursday: “We’re looking at the same level of political cronyism that has crept into all levels of government. They need to be open and I don’t think they’re being open; a lot has happened behind closed doors. We have given our money freely, expecting these people to lobby and protect our second amendment rights.
“I don’t like sweetheart deals, whether it’s a local politician with school textbooks or the NRA. They’re becoming just as bad as politicians and I fear we’ll lose our rights. There is a possibility the NRA will start cannibalising itself through fracturing into factions and the mission will be lost. If people at the fringes see that, they will become disinterested.”
LaPierre, a staunch Trump ally, has close ties to Ackerman McQueen, while North has a million-dollar contract with it. Laumann, a purchasing professional from Wales, Wisconsin, added: “Wayne LaPierre has overstayed his welcome. I hate to say he needs to go but I think he needs to go. We need fresh blood, like we do in government.”
The NRA has other headaches, too. The tax-exempt organisation’s filings for 2016 and 2017 show combined losses of nearly $64m. Income from membership dues fell about $35m in 2017. In last year’s midterm elections, the NRA was outspent by gun control groups headed by the ex-New York mayor Michael Bloomberg and former congresswoman Gabby Giffords. More than a dozen NRA-backed congressional candidates were defeated.
A weakened NRA could spark similar setbacks in 2020. Several Democratic presidential candidates have criticised the organisation and promised to curb gun violence. Senator Kamala Harris unveiled a plan this week to take executive actions if Congress fails to pass comprehensive gun safety legislation in her first hundred days in office. These would include requiring anyone who sells five or more guns per year to run a background check on all gun sales.
Congressman Eric Swalwell, who is making gun control the centrepiece of his election campaign, told the Guardian: “I believe we have the NRA on the ropes and that’s because of what we’ve seen post-Parkland. They’re so desperate for money they’re willing to take money from Russians, a country where they don’t even have gun rights. They’re so thirsty to keep unrestricted weaponry that they would allow any person or even adversary to contribute to their cause.”
Swalwell, whose proposals include having the government “buy back” military-style semiautomatic assault weapons, added: “The NRA is a mirage. They’re out of step with their own members and I figured this out by going across the country in 26 states in the last two years and in talking to gun owners. I have come to realise that they are willing to tolerate more dead kids or nothing happening on the unrestricted weaponry that we have in this country. That’s the leadership of the NRA; that’s not the members.”
Trump’s patronage is likely to encourage a show of NRA unity and give a temporary boost to an organisation which, after decades of dominance in Washington, may find the tide is at last turning against it.
Watts, by contrast, said Moms Demand Action has trebled in size since last year’s high school massacre in Parkland, Florida. “We have 350,000 donors and this grassroots army that is really making a huge difference in electoral politics. Lawmakers have seen the writing on the wall, that over several election cycles where we’ve gotten stronger, the NRA has got weaker, and in the midterm elections not only did we outmanoeuvre them, we also outspent them.”
She added: “The days when the NRA could whip up fear among Americans around gun confiscation or overturning the second amendment are long gone. Americans have seen that other countries can figure out how to balance both the right to gun ownership but also the right to personal safety and do not want to live in a country where over a hundred Americans are shot and killed every single day. I just think those days are over.”