The US Supreme Court’s decision establishing for the first time a constitutional right to carry a handgun outside the home for self-defense is a bright spot in what’s been a bleak time for the National Rifle Association.
The gun rights group has faced unprecedented challenges in recent years. They include financial strain and an investigation and lawsuit brought by the New York State attorney general alleging fraud and misuse of the nonprofit’s funds by Wayne LaPierre, who has led the NRA since 1991, and other senior executives.
The concealed carry victory Thursday in a suit filed by one of its affiliates is “much needed wind beneath the NRA’s wings,” said Adam Winkler, a UCLA law professor and author of “Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America.” Still, the victory alone isn’t likely to help the organization rebound.
“Not until Wayne LaPierre is removed from that position are they going to be making any kind of comeback,” former NRA lobbyist Richard Feldman, who is now president of his own gun rights group called the Independent Firearm Owners Association, said ahead of the court’s ruling on Thursday.
The NRA remains defiant in the face of litigation and calls for the removal of LaPierre, its executive vice president. The board of directors at the May annual meeting voted to re-elect LaPierre, 54-1, after he avoided a no-confidence vote pushed by members opposed to his continued leadership.
In a statement provided prior to the Supreme Court decision, NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam said the organization is thriving and emerged from the pandemic “strong, secure and successfully fulfilling our mission.”
“Based on the turnout from our recent Annual Meeting in Houston, NRA members are eager to return to our grassroots activities, participate in firearms education and training, and engage in events and competitions. All of this bodes well for 2022 and beyond,” Arulanandam said.
The NRA has been embroiled in litigation since New York Attorney General Letitia James (D) sued in 2020 following a 15-month investigation. The suit alleged self-dealing by LaPierre and others at the top who she said exploited the nonprofit’s charitable mission to enrich themselves and benefit a close circle of NRA staff, board members, and vendors.
James originally sought to dissolve the NRA, but New York County State Supreme Court Justice Joel Cohen in March ruled the litigation doesn’t allege the type of public harm that would require this sort of “corporate death penalty.” James has asked a court to order the money allegedly improperly taken from the organization to be repaid, and for senior management named in the suit barred from managing any nonprofit allowed to conduct business in New York.
The NRA sought bankruptcy protection in Texas in response to the litigation, but the case was dismissed last year. US Bankruptcy Judge Harlin Hale said the existential threat the NRA is facing isn’t the kind the Bankruptcy Code is meant to protect against and noted the group “is using this bankruptcy case to address a regulatory enforcement problem, not a financial one.”
The NRA said in a statement that the March ruling against James’ dissolution claims “vindicates” its position. It said her effort to shut down the NRA “ran afoul of common sense, New York law, and the First Amendment.”
The group has seen a significant decline in its finances and membership in recent years. In his book “Misfire Inside the Downfall of the NRA” published last year, NPR reporter Tim Mak detailed how President Donald Trump’s election, which the NRA helped make possible, softened support for the organization as the threat of gun control eased.
The NRA and its affiliates reported $282 million in revenue in 2021, down from $329 million in 2020, according to a copy of the organization’s annual report obtained by Bloomberg News. Membership may be stabilizing now with 5 million members, but that’s down from the 6 million it reported having in 2018.
Abra Belke, a former NRA lobbyist, partly blames the group’s aggressive tone that encourages feelings of victimization for declining membership.
“Gun ownership didn’t used to be a single party issue,” she said in an interview prior to the court’s ruling. “You still have in rural America millions of Democrats who own firearms, who no longer feel at home inside the NRA. The second side of that coin is the fiery rhetoric firms up existing membership, but it doesn’t do much to acquire new membership.”
The group has also moved away from its core mission of gun safety education and training, said Belke, who is now on the board of 97Percent, an organization that’s working to bring gun safety advocates and gun owners together.
The Supreme Court decision on Thursday stems from a case brought by the New York State Pistol & Rifle Association, an NRA-affiliate. The ruling could trigger litigation against a variety of state laws aimed at reducing gun violence.
“This is more than just a great day for New York because this ruling opens the door to rightly change the law in the seven remaining states that still don’t recognize the right to carry a firearm for personal protection,” said Jason Ouimet, executive director of NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action, said in a statement.
While the decision is validating for the NRA and its reading of the Second Amendment, it will probably have little impact on the organization’s fortunes, said Kristin Goss, a professor of public policy and political science at Duke University and co-author of “The Gun Debate: What Everyone Needs to Know.”
As is often the case with nonprofits, “what’s good for the organization’s goals is often not good for its bottom line,” she said.
That’s because nonprofits like the NRA actually do better when they’re under pressure, which is why some political science professors say mass shootings can both help and hurt the organization.
While tragedies like the recent mass shootings of Black shoppers at a grocery store in Buffalo and students and teachers in Uvalde, Texas, mobilize political opponents of the NRA and generate new efforts to enact gun control legislation, they also cause gun rights supporters to rally around the NRA.
“When it comes to NRA fundraising and membership growth, it often thrives when people who support gun rights feel threatened,” said Matthew Lacombe, an assistant professor of political science at Barnard College of Columbia University, who wrote “Firepower: How the NRA Turned Gun Owners into a Political Force.”
“I don’t know if I want to go as far as to say those sort of events are a net benefit for the NRA, but I do think organizationally they’re beneficial in so far as they can create feelings that are conducive for fundraising and membership growth.”
(Everytown for Gun Safety, which advocates for universal background checks and gun-safety measures, is backed by Michael Bloomberg, founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent company Bloomberg LP.)
—With assistance from Neil Weinberg.