The National Rifle Association is having a hard time these days, and it comes right as Washington seems to have reached an inflection point on guns, when some key players are acknowledging that the gun-control measures the NRA adamantly opposes may not be a bad thing.
We know so much about the NRA’s struggles largely because of reporting by my colleagues at The Washington Post, which has published at least half a dozen articles since June about the gun lobby’s financial, political and legal struggles. The bylines include but are not limited to: Katie Zezima, Carol D. Leonnig, Tom Hamburger and Beth Reinhard.
Reinhard and Leonnig reported earlier this week that a country singer and a NASCAR team owner have left the NRA board. On Wednesday, I spoke to Reinhard, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist, to get a better handle on what’s going on at what has arguably been the nation’s most powerful advocacy group this century. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
The Fix: Is the NRA in a “clear crisis,” as its former president Oliver North said when he was forced out in April?
Reinhard: It really depends where you sit how severe you think the problems are. If you ask a lot of the leadership of the NRA, they would say: “We are in great shape. We have 5 million members.” They appeared to successfully beat back background checks, as they have in the past. I think if they hadn’t been able to do that, that would have been a serious sign of a loss of power.
But there is no question that the turbulence — the turnover, the resignation of so many board members — it definitely brings questions about the organization's ability. But I wouldn't underestimate the NRA's ability to ride it out.
Still, we’ve seen in the past couple years gun control groups really gain strength and momentum and fundraising power, and they’re not going away. So the challenges facing the NRA are stronger than ever.
The Fix: I feel as if the challenges couldn’t have come at a worse time for the NRA, as back-to-back mass shootings grab the nation’s attention.
Reinhard: Yes and no. I think that the cause is what unifies them. Even people who are on different sides of the fence in terms of whether Wayne LaPierre should continue to be chief executive, when it comes to background checks, they are on the same side.
You have a lot of these Democratic presidential candidates talking about gun control. That’s another unifying point for the NRA members. So the cause is what keeps them together and binds them. They share that determination not to allow any kind of restrictions on gun ownership or access.
Some of the discontent with the leadership has been about it being too radical or extreme. But it's really not on the issue of gun rights.
The criticism is more that the NRA was taking on too many issues too broadly, that they were just sort of becoming another hard-right group and not staying true to their core mission; they were kind of straying from gun rights and becoming the voice of the anti-left.
If you’re a gun owner but you feel like there should be some restrictions, the NRA doesn’t feel like a place for you anymore. That was the NRA of several decades ago; it’s not really the NRA of today, which is pretty hard on gun rights.
The Fix: What’s the debate over the NRA’s leadership about? Is it possible to summarize all your reporting in a paragraph or two?
Reinhard: It’s a debate about whether the leadership is looking out for itself and its financial interests or has the best interest of the nonprofit at heart. The revelations about spending and self-dealing suggest a culture in which the leadership have opened themselves up to this kind of criticism.
The way they’ve responded to the criticism has been very defensive. And they are a very large organization with large reserves, but they have been running a shortfall, so it’s fair of the dues-paying members to say, “Well, if we are running a shortfall, can we still afford to pay our leadership seven-figure salaries and so on?”
The Fix: You’ve reported that the internal critics are basically asked to just get out.
Reinhard: Yeah, they are also accused of being in league with the gun-control lobby. That’s how NRA leaders have tried to deflect the criticism by saying: “Oh, these attacks are ginned up by people who want to take our guns away.” And some of that is true, but there is not a lot of acknowledgment that there is some legitimate criticisms to deal with.
The Fix: It doesn’t sound as though they are dealing with it.
Reinhard: Privately, the feeling among the leadership and some of the board members who were calling for audits and reforms has been: “Good riddance.” It’s not a call to action in their mind, they’re glad to be getting rid of the rabble-rousers.
The Fix: At this point you’re reporting on board members resigning almost weekly. What happens next to the NRA?
Reinhard: There’s a board meeting next month, and we will continue to see shoes drop. There are some investigations going by New York’s attorney general and Washington, D.C.'s, attorney general. The gun control groups have been gaining strength, and the shootings in El Paso and Dayton only make them more determined. And we are getting into an election season.
So I think the NRA will continue to be under pretty tough scrutiny.