For the tens of thousands of people who attend the NRA’s annual meeting each year, it is mostly an enormous trade show, where firearms enthusiasts check out the latest guns, ammunition, scopes, hunting bows and other outdoor gear. The past two years, it has dished out a healthy dose of politics, featuring speeches by President Trump and Vice President Pence.
It also is where the organization’s leadership gets reelected each year and the board meets. The typically bland corporate fare this year exploded with strife, including allegations of extortion, financial mismanagement and a leadership battle that have publicly overtaken all else at the event.
Former NRA president Oliver North was ousted from the organization Saturday, one day after NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre issued a letter to the NRA’s board, claiming that North tried to extort him. The battle, which LaPierre appears to have won, was centered on what some claim are exorbitant payments to the group’s outside counsel and a lawsuit the NRA filed against its longtime public relations firm, Ackerman McQueen.
The spat played out as most attendees were perusing a football-field-size hall filled with guns as far as the eye could see. Some were unfazed by what they characterized as political noise and said they still have full faith in the NRA and its mission to protect constitutional gun rights.
Others were more concerned with the external pressures now facing the organization, including an investigation by New York Attorney General Letitia James into the NRA’s tax-exempt status and challenges from gun-control organizations that are now trying to use the discord to their advantage. And some think that the crisis playing out should push the NRA to be more transparent about its finances and focus more on its traditional mission of firearms training and education rather than polarizing the nation’s gun debate.
The Sharps, who split their time between Louisiana and New Zealand, think the NRA’s mission is more important than ever. After 50 people were killed in attacks at mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, that country’s government passed a law barring most semiautomatic weapons; gun owners there have until the end of September to turn in firearms through a buyback program. The couple see the changes as an overreaction that will hurt responsible gun owners and said the NRA and the Second Amendment are crucial in ensuring that such drastic change doesn’t happen in the United States.
Jeannette Sharp teared up as she talked about the prospect of handing over her guns.
“My firearms are sitting in my safe at home; they’ve never done any harm,” Errol Sharp said.
Rick Gibbs, a lifetime NRA member, often votes for board positions and said the organization needs to be more transparent about its finances. He would like to see contracts get greater public scrutiny. Gibbs is “extremely” concerned that the NRA paid $40 million to Ackerman McQueen in 2017; the organization has since sued the company, alleging that Ackerman is refusing to hand over business records.
Gibbs said he was hoping that North would stay on as president and that more information should be offered about alleged financial impropriety within the organization.
There was also mounting concern inside the convention hall about outside pressures on the organization, including increased scrutiny from Democrats in Congress, lawsuits and investigations.
“I’m hoping that this isn’t our last NRA convention,” said Jim Graf of Orlando, a friend of Gibbs.
The men said the NRA should fight back against those who want to tighten gun laws, but they also said it needs to tone down its rhetoric and political positions.
“I’m not a terrorist,” Gibbs said. “I’m not for a violent overthrow of the government.”
“What I think we’re seeing is an organization that once claimed to represent all gun owners in America that over the years became obsessed with power and money, and now it is power and money that is fracturing its leadership at its own convention,” said Peter Ambler, executive director of the gun-control group Giffords.
Kris Brown, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said she thinks the NRA has become a “propaganda machine” that is not focusing on firearms education and safety — something she said her organization is doing.
“They deserve a nonprofit status like a Superfund [site] deserves organic certification, and it needs to be revoked,” she said. “Join Brady — that’s really our message.”
Mike Carroll, a podiatrist from Greenwood, Ind., and his 15-year-old son, Michael, came to the convention to check out hunting gear. The father and son were encouraged by what they said was a great show of support for gun ownership and the Second Amendment. But Carroll said he would like to see the organization focus more on its traditional mission of gun safety.
“I think most people are afraid of guns because they don’t know how to use them,” Carroll said.
Schroeder is a freelance journalist based in Indiana. Zezima reported from Washington. Colby Itkowitz in Washington contributed to this report.