For decades, the National Rifle Association has told members that the Second Amendment was imperiled by left-leaning politicians, the liberal media, and billionaire philanthropists. But amid ongoing turmoil and financial malfeasance at America’s most prominent gun advocacy organization, a group of members believes gun rights are increasingly threatened by a new nemesis: the NRA’s own leadership.
This May, a small faction of longtime NRA members launched the “Save the Second” campaign to reform the gun group. What started as a Facebook discussion concerning the NRA’s poor management morphed into a nonprofit organization seeking wholesale reforms.
“The thing we all have in common is frustration with dysfunction at the top of the NRA and a desire to move forward without that albatross around the neck of the cause,” said Rob Pincus, a firearms instructor and public speaker, who serves as the spokesperson for Save the Second.
Save the Second wants to change the NRA by turning its board of directors into a more independent, muscular body. The campaigners want to shrink the number of directors by more than half, institute attendance requirements for meetings, and encourage a greater number of NRA members to actually vote in board elections. The Save the Second leadership hopes these organizational changes will not only put the NRA on sounder financial footing, but reorient it away from its current broad reactionary politics to a stricter focus on Second Amendment advocacy.
Over the next several months, the insurgent group will embark on a public relations campaign aimed at NRA voting members, whom they will ask to pressure the current directors and elect reform-minded candidates in subsequent board elections.
Though the NRA appeared at the apogee of its power as recently as the 2016 election, its problems have multiplied over the last several years. It is in a dire financial situation. The NRA’s Carry Guard self-defense insurance, launched to much fanfare in 2017, fizzled after financial regulators cracked down. And the gun group was outspent by gun reform groups for the first time ever in the 2018 midterms. But perhaps the most damaging upheaval at the NRA has come in the aftermath of investigations by The Trace and other news outlets into high-level financial mismanagement and self-dealing. Those revelations have led to three separate external investigations since April looking into the NRA’s finances and nonprofit status — two originating from Congress and one from the New York Attorney General’s Office.
Moreover, infighting has claimed several major organization figures, including former NRA President Oliver North — who was forced out in April after a power struggle against NRA leader Wayne LaPierre — and Chris Cox, who resigned on June 26, just days after the gun group accused him in court of conspiring with North’s alleged coup attempt. On the same day that Cox’s resignation was accepted, the NRA formally ended its business partnership with Ackerman McQueen, its longtime marketing firm with which it has been locked in a months-long legal battle.
The organization’s leadership is focused on external threats, but the real crisis is of its own making.
Not only were the founding members of Save the Second campaign disappointed by the series of crises, they felt that the response from NRA executives and board members was woefully inadequate. This spring, when rank-and-file NRA members confronted board members about allegations of financial mismanagement at the group’s annual meeting in Indianapolis, the directors’ response was to “circle the wagons and attack the people asking the questions, to cast aspersions on the information without actually disputing it,” Pincus said.
After the meeting, a number of concerned gun rights activists formed a Facebook group called “NRA Members for Accountability.” The idea for a reform campaign emerged out of the online discussions, and led to the incorporation of Save the Second as a nonprofit, which publicly debuted on June 17. The group is led by five longtime NRA members: Anthony Garcia, a Colorado-based gun activist; Ron Carter, a former gun store employee and competitive shooter; Steve Hoback, a military veteran and firearm instructor; Andrew Lander, a former NRA employee; and Pincus. Save the Second has since had an inaugural in-person meeting in Colorado.
The activists say the leadership failures on display in Indianapolis were in large part a function of unwieldy and bloated organizational structure that cannot hold the NRA’s executives accountable. Save the Second’s most drastic reform proposal is to dramatically shrink the size of the NRA’s board. According a 2017 survey by the nonprofit governance tracking group BoardSource, the average nonprofit has 15 members on its board; the NRA has 76, most of whom are LaPierre loyalists who have been re-elected multiple times with his support. Many board members absent themselves from meetings. Ted Nugent, the provocative guitarist, did not attend a single board meeting between 2015 and 2018. Under Save the Second’s proposal, the NRA’s board would drop to 31 members, who would be subject to attendance requirements.
Yet even with all of the turmoil, it’s not clear for now how much traction Save the Second will have with NRA members, particularly the deep-pocketed donors who have largely remained loyal to LaPierre.
MidwayUSA, a massive online retailer of outdoor products, has for several years been the NRA’s top donor. From 1992 to the present, the company gave the organization more than $16 million. In an email to The Trace, Midway CEO Larry Potterfield said his company had no intention of giving up its support. “NRA supporters are a pretty loyal lot,” he wrote. “Certainly we are here.”
Dennis Reese, the CEO of gunmaker Springfield Armory, which has contributed millions of dollars the NRA over the years, struck a more measured tone, but declined to say his company would stop donating. “I think there’s a lot of misinformation circulating and I’m just waiting for [all the facts] to get out before I’m ready to make a final decision,” he said. “I’m more than confident that things will settle out and be fine with the NRA.”
The NRA’s competitors may also try to take advantage of the group’s troubles. Gun Owners of America, a more radical organization which bills itself as “the only no-compromise gun lobby in Washington,” has recently received a significant uptick in calls from disgruntled NRA members looking to join another group, a GOA spokesperson said by phone.
The leaders of Save the Second know their campaign could prove difficult. Pincus said the group’s first real test will come on September 13, when the NRA board has its next meeting in Anchorage, Alaska. But he is hopeful.
A handful of prominent NRA board members, including former Congressman Allan West, have called for reform at the highest levels of the group, including the ouster of Wayne LaPierre. In January, Timothy Knight, a prominent Colorado lawyer and NRA board member, published an open letter on the gun blog Ammoland pleading with NRA members to get more engaged, scrutinize board candidates, and not take the organization’s word for anything when it comes to corporate governance. Knight did not respond directly to a request for comment. But after The Trace attempted to reach Knight, he told his followers on Facebook that “if this group wants to promote a strong NRA based on attendance, term limits, and a more focused Association, who am I to argue? That is grassroots and members in action.”
Additional reporting by Champe Barton.