The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How did Caribbean yacht vacations promote the Second Amendment? We may find out in court.

Wayne LaPierre, CEO of the National Rifle Association, in 2013.
Wayne LaPierre, CEO of the National Rifle Association, in 2013. (Nikki Kahn/THE WASHINGTON POST)
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AFTER AN 18-month investigation, New York Attorney General Letitia James has filed a lawsuit against the National Rifle Association seeking to dissolve the nation’s largest gun rights group. Supporters of the NRA immediately criticized the move as unfair and nakedly partisan — a liberal Democrat going after a conservative group that supports President Trump just three months before the election. But there is damning detail to the allegations of fraud and financial abuse. We question whether dissolution is the right penalty, even if the charges are proved in court. But contributors who thought their funds were being used to promote gun-owner rights should, more than anyone, welcome this chance for accountability.

According to the 164-page civil suit filed Thursday in State Supreme Court in Manhattan, longtime NRA chief executive Wayne LaPierre and three other current or former NRA leaders misused charitable funds for their own personal gain, including on lavish travel, excessive expenses, and contracts benefiting relatives and close associates. The suit characterized “a culture of self-dealing, mismanagement, and negligent oversight” that contributed to the organization’s loss of more than $64 million over a three-year period, in violation of state nonprofit laws.

The NRA, denying any impropriety, hit back with a federal lawsuit charging political motivations by Ms. James’s office and claiming a violation of its First Amendment rights. A separate suit against the NRA and its charitable foundation was brought by D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine, also a Democrat. Concerns about political motivations cannot be dismissed. But the financial misconduct alleged in the lawsuit is vast, going well beyond the already disturbing earlier revelations by The Post and other newspapers. It justifies, it demands, legal action from officials charged with enforcing the rules that apply to all charities. Those rules endow the NRA with certain benefits as a nonprofit but obligate it to use its funds to further its mission and serve the interests of its members.

Whose interests were served when, according to the lawsuit, Mr. LaPierre put his niece up at a Four Seasons hotel for eight nights at a cost of more than $12,000? What mission was furthered when, the lawsuit alleges, Mr. LaPierre took eight trips since 2015 to the Bahamas by private air charter, often stopping off in Nebraska to pick up relatives, at a cost of more than $500,000?

If it is proved that Mr. LaPierre and the other three executives violated their fiduciary duties, Ms. James is right in wanting them to make restitution and be banned from any nonprofit boards. And if she thinks state and federal laws have been broken, she should make criminal referrals to the proper authorities.

But dissolution? We have been vehement critics of the NRA — of its dangerous stances against any sensible gun-safety measures and its heavy-handed tactics — and we would not mourn its demise. But other nonprofits that have had corrupt leadership were given the chance to clean house and institute reforms. A 148-year-old organization with, it claims, 5 million members would seem to merit a similar second chance.

Read more:

Read a letter in response to this piece: The appropriate penalty for the NRA

Henry Olsen: New York’s lawsuit to dissolve the NRA is outrageous

Alexandra Petri: If you’ve never supported the NRA, now is the time to start

Megan McArdle: If conservatives want to keep their guns, they’re going to have to find a way to stop mass shootings

E.J. Dionne Jr.: The NRA is imploding. We have fancy clothes to thank for that.