The National Rifle Association’s internal turmoil is preventing the once-mighty organization from crafting a plan to blunt the latest gun control push, highlighting the group’s weakness at a crucial political moment.
The disarray at the NRA is alarming allies who say President Donald Trump and Congress appear to have a brief opening to pass legislation while the group is so politically feeble that it isn’t able to aggressively lobby lawmakers against proposals or hold them accountable for their votes, according to a half-dozen Republicans familiar with the situation.
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“There’s no coordinated effort,” according to a person familiar with the NRA’s outreach on the current gun debate. “The staff feels like there is no plan. There’s not a lot of direction or a plan for how to proceed.”
In recent months, the NRA has battled numerous scandals — from lavish spending by top executives and a broader financial management crisis to a spate of board member resignations and an attempted coup at the group’s annual conference. It lost president Oliver North and top lobbyist Chris Cox, who is close to Trump. And Ackerman McQueen, its ad agency for nearly four decades, quit.
“There are some very significant problems with the NRA right now, financially, structurally, strategically, that need to be addressed,” said Rob Pincus, a lifetime NRA member who’s now involved in Save the Second, whose membership includes other NRA members, prospective members and former members. The group is focused on rebuilding the NRA by promoting institutional change at the organization.
As the NRA remains distracted by its internal woes, Trump and Congress are seriously considering changes — including strengthened background checks and red flag laws — following a pair of mass shootings in Texas and Ohio that left 32 people dead.
Multiple Republican Senate offices say they haven’t heard from the NRA, which touts 5 million members. The NRA has been slow to respond to the litany of scandals. And Trump himself has told aides that the NRA is vulnerable and on the verge of being “bankrupt,” according to a Republican close to the White House.
The NRA has a net negative rating for the first time, according to a new FOX News poll released this week. Only 42 percent of voters viewed the NRA favorably, compared to 49 percent in 2018. Forty-seven percent viewed the group unfavorably.
Even those who support the NRA say they are concerned. Michael Hammond, legislative counsel for Gun Owners of America, which opposes new gun restrictions, said his group contacted the NRA to ask its plan of attack on possible legislation. “What we got back was gobbledygook,” he said. “I’m worried.”
Hammond said the GOA will likely ask its 2 million members not to contact lawmakers to oppose legislation but to contact the NRA to make sure it acts. “I think the first thing we have to do is to make sure the entire movement on guns is on the same page,” he said.
In a statement to POLITICO, the NRA pointed to a string of recent victories, including preventing any gun control proposals from passing during a special legislative session in Virginia this summer after NRA’s new political team was in place.
“This is the desperate narrative of the NRA’s political enemies and the wishful thinking of the community of those opposed to gun rights,” said Andrew Arulanandam, managing director of NRA Public Affairs. “The truth is, the NRA’s financial condition is strong and the organization enjoys unprecedented grassroots support. That’s why our adversaries are spending so much time and energy talking about the NRA — we’re the immovable object in their path.”
White House officials have been meeting with congressional aides and expect to present some proposals — both legislative and executive — to Trump next week after he returns from his extended vacation at his resort in New Jersey.
Trump has expressed interest in legislation to expand background checks for commercial gun sales, introduced by Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), and to allow authorities to seize arms from people who are deemed an imminent threat to themselves or others, proposed by his ally Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), chairman of the Judiciary Committee.
Before he ran for president, Trump supported several Democratic-backed gun proposals, including a ban on assault weapons and a waiting period for firearm purchases. But Trump vowed to pay back gun owners for their support after he received an endorsement from the NRA, which spent $30 million to help his 2016 campaign and to blast his Democratic opponent in TV ads.
The February 2018 mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla., was the first time Trump telegraphed a willingness to buck the NRA in favor of gun restrictions, including background checks. Speaking to congressional Republicans at the White House just days after the shooting, Trump accused them of being “petrified” of the NRA, which has routinely threatened to mobilize its members against GOP lawmakers who give consideration to measures that the group believes would restrict gun rights. But after Republicans and the NRA protested, Trump didn’t follow through and has continued to loosen gun restrictions.
Trump struck a different tone last week after NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre warned him about embracing background check legislation and crossing gun owners, according to an administration official briefed on their conversation. Trump later told reporters the gun rights group would be “full represented and respected” as the White House and Capitol Hill explore various ways to curb gun violence in the U.S.
The White House didn’t respond to a request for comment.
But the potency of the NRA’s current influence is in real doubt. One Republican congressional aide said the NRA’s “tired tactics and empty threats” have become a joke among Republican staffers on Capitol Hill. “When the Democrats and gun control groups depict the NRA as this major boogeyman, they’re honestly giving them too much credit,” the aide said.
The NRA’s spending on federal elections dropped significantly to $9.5 million in 2018 from $27 million in 2014, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks money in politics. In 2016, the NRA never went after Toomey despite opposing his efforts to co-sponsor background check legislation with Manchin. “They didn’t help him, but they didn’t go after him either,” a Republican official familiar with the race said.
“The problem is that many people on both sides of the gun debate have looked at the NRA as the only voice for pro-gun efforts and the crisis over there is now allowing American gun owners to hit the pause button and realize the NRA hasn’t been the best voice or face of gun owners for a long time,” Pincus said.
David Chipman, a senior policy adviser for Giffords, a group founded by former Rep. Gabby Giffords after she was shot, said his organization has been able to partner with gun owners on restrictions in NRA strongholds in Colorado and Minnesota and, next week, in the gun-friendly state of Texas.
“Now there has been an opening where gun owners, veterans and police and civilian gun owners are feeling as if they can partner with organizations like us and not be bullied by the weakened NRA,” he said. “It’s something that could have only occurred recently.”
And several decentralized gun-rights groups — including the National Association for Gun Rights, the Second Amendment Foundation and GOA — formed over the last decade after they began to view the NRA as ineffectual and increasingly moderate.
Jason Ouimet, the NRA’s head of federal affairs, replaced Cox temporarily, and the NRA maintains a half-dozen lobbyists — and more outside — as well as public relations and research staff, though they have been shuffled.
Still, the organization’s troubles continue. The New York attorney general’s office recently issued a subpoena for documents from more than 90 current and former members of the NRA’s board as part of an investigation into the group’s tax-exempt status. And this week, news broke that the NRA promised $6.5 million to buy LaPierre a mansion.
But not everyone believes the NRA’s days are a political powerhouse are over forever. A former Trump adviser who remains close to the White House said many Republicans believe the group will once again become a political force. “It will reconstitute itself without a problem,” the adviser said.