The NRA has a First Amendment right to its misguided understanding of the Second. Forcing its dissolution has disturbing implications — made even more disturbing by the fact that the attorney general seeking that step is a Democrat who vowed during her campaign to “take on the NRA” and labeled it a “terrorist organization.” In this country, we don’t go after entities because of what they advocate.
James’s lawsuit against the NRA does not mention ideology, even if it strains credulity to think that James would have gone after the ACLU or Planned Parenthood with equal zeal if there were similar facts. Still, the facts as alleged are jaw-dropping — and, if you were a donor who dug deep in defense of gun rights, should be enraging.
The NRA is chartered in New York as a not-for-profit. That being the case, it is not just James’s right to investigate whether the organization behaved properly; it’s her duty. And James has compiled more than enough evidence to justify her description of the NRA as “a breeding ground for greed, abuse and brazen illegality” and to scorch its executives for having “looted” NRA assets.
The 164-page complaint depicts LaPierre treating the organization as a personal piggy bank for himself, his family and a small group of allies. “Contrary to his statutory duties of care, loyalty and obedience to the mission of the charity, LaPierre has undertaken a series of actions to consolidate his position; to exploit that position for his personal benefit and that of his family; to continue, by use of a secret ‘poison pill contract,’ his employment even after removal and ensuring NRA income for life; and to intimidate, punish, and expel anyone at a senior level who raised concerns about his conduct,” the complaint says.
So by all means: Get rid of LaPierre and his top lieutenants. Make them repay any ill-gotten gains. Install a new board. Refer matters to the appropriate authorities: The Internal Revenue Service and federal prosecutors come to mind. Treat the NRA like a corrupt labor union, with strict new internal controls and intensive supervision.
But dissolution? This is within the attorney general’s powers to seek, and it has happened before, most notably to the Donald J. Trump Foundation, the pseudo-charity operated by the president and his family. James’s predecessor, Barbara Underwood, accused the foundation of “functioning as little more than a checkbook to serve Mr. Trump’s business and political interests,” and it agreed in 2018 to shut down and to distribute its remaining assets.
But there is an enormous difference between a tiny and moribund operation like the Trump Foundation and a behemoth on the scale of the NRA, which claims 5 million members. New York has shut down other charities — cancer scams and the like — but this would be a corporate death sentence of a different magnitude. Dissolution would mean taking whatever assets of the NRA remain and distributing them to like organizations; the NRA could then set up shop elsewhere.
That is an outcome that has experts in the field uneasy — and doubting that a judge will end up agreeing. “I don’t fault the attorney general for going for dissolution in this case,” Philip Hackney, a University of Pittsburgh expert in nonprofit law, told me, citing the depiction of “a long, substantial fraud that goes to the entirety of the organization.”
At the same time, he said, it’s necessary to consider the “incredible importance” to many Americans of the NRA’s mission to protect gun rights. “In weighing those two things, if I’m a judge I’m not going to dissolve this organization,” Hackney said.
Indeed, the request might be as much for leverage as it is a serious bid to dismantle the organization. Dissolution is “one of the weapons in her quiver, and if she doesn’t threaten to use it here, you would probably never use it, and it would make it harder for her to get the settlement that she wants,” Pace Law School professor James Fishman said of James.
Count me uncomfortable. Prosecutors shouldn’t seek sentences they think would be excessive because they figure the judge will end up going easier on the defendant. And while other groups aren’t likely to present such egregious fact patterns, consider the threat of a conservative attorney general going after a disfavored liberal group.
This country would be a better, safer place without the NRA. Dissolving it isn’t the way to get there.