The National Rifle Association, after shedding its president and top lobbyist this year amid a string of internal disputes and legal battles, finds itself at a crossroads with Republican politicos wondering whether the group is still high powered or a campaign dud.
The cloud of doubts about the NRA is stunning just four years after the gun rights group helped Donald Trump win the presidential election.
The NRA says it plans to play a pivotal role, as always, in elections this year, especially because gun rights advocates are rallying against gun control platforms of the Democratic presidential contenders.
It’s an open question, however, whether Mr. Trump and like-minded political candidates can expect the same level of financial and organizational support as they did in 2016.
“Perhaps really, for the first time in modern history, I think it’s hurt with gun owners questioning why NRA does what it’s doing,” said Richard Feldman, a former NRA lobbyist who has challenged the group’s leadership structure in recent years.
The NRA’s most pressing fight is with New York Attorney General Letitia James, whose office recently issued a wide-ranging subpoena for its investigation of the group’s coveted nonprofit status.
The subpoena deals with campaign finance issues, payments to board members and tax compliance, according to multiple reports.
William A. Brewer III, an attorney for the NRA, said the group will supply the necessary information and that the financial records of the group and its affiliates have already been audited and reported in tax filings.
“It is easy to understand why the NRA believes that the NYAG’s zeal with respect to this inquiry reflects the investigation’s partisan purpose — not an actual concern that the NRA is not effectively using its assets to pursue its members’ interests,” Mr. Brewer said. “Regrettably, the NYAG seems to credit hollow rants by a handful of actors who are no longer associated with the NRA.”
The NRA already was engaged in a high-profile legal battle with New York — a lawsuit filed last year over claims that the state had illegally discouraged banks and insurance companies from doing business with the group.
In April, NRA President Oliver North left the group after an apparent failed coup against Wayne LaPierre, the longtime executive vice president and CEO.
In June, Chris W. Cox, the longtime head of the NRA’s legislative lobbying arm, resigned after he was accused of taking part in the attempted coup. Mr. Cox denied the allegations but was suspended as the group looked into the issue.
In a rare public interview, Mr. LaPierre acknowledged that the swirling issues have taken their toll on him.
“It’s the most painful period of my life,” he told The New York Times. “Somebody asked me in a deposition how you feel about all of it. … I said I feel sad.”
The NRA also went through a messy public breakup last year with Ackerman McQueen, its longtime advertising and public relations firm that helped turn the gun rights group into a political and cultural force.
Some of the 76 members of the board of directors have stepped down amid reports of financial mismanagement and lavish spending, presenting an opportunity for the rank and file to try to step in and make changes.
“I think it’s an organization at a crossroads,” said Frank Tait, an NRA member who is running to win a seat on the board. “There’s an impact that they need to be making, and because of the internal challenges they’re not meeting it, and I think as a whole the membership is negatively affected by that.”
Mr. Tait pushed a no-confidence resolution for Mr. LaPierre at the NRA’s annual membership meeting in April.
“I think there’s a little bit too much focus on lawyering and lawsuits and appeals, and not enough on the grassroots and stopping these things before they even get started,” he said.
The NRA also has been facing questions from Congress over its ties to Russia, adding to its problems while it gears up to try to reelect Mr. Trump.
“They can do what they can do as long as they have the money to do it. But even if they have the money to do it, the question is … their impact amongst gun owners,” Mr. Feldman said. “There’s no question it’s been hurt — how much has it been hurt?”
The NRA is vowing to press forward and said this year will be like any other in terms of its influence and reach.
“The NRA has always — and will always — play a pivotal role in presidential elections,” said spokeswoman Amy Hunter. “This year is no different.”
But gun control groups are sensing weakness in the NRA after helping propel several Democrats into Congress in the 2018 elections.
“I think the NRA is at very diminished strength, but not just because of their internal problems and misdealings, but because the American people have rejected them and their agenda is deeply unpopular,” said Jonathan Lowy, chief counsel and vice president, legal, at Brady. “So the NRA’s got a lot of problems, but the fact that the American people have rejected them is the biggest one.”
Perhaps emboldened by the NRA’s internal issues, Democratic presidential contenders have campaigned aggressively on gun control.
Before he left the race, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas went as far as proposing an Australian-style mandatory buyback of semi-automatic “assault” rifles and helped prod other major contenders into expressing at least qualified support for the idea.
“Our 5 million members know what’s at stake in 2020 with a field of Democratic contenders pushing for radical gun control schemes like confiscation and registration,” said Ms. Hunter. “Our members will be out in force … and the NRA will make sure their voices are heard.”
Gun rights activists are also using impeachment proceedings as a rallying cry for Second Amendment supporters to stand with Mr. Trump.
“The president’s court appointments have frustrated and infuriated congressional liberals and their gun control supporters,” said Alan Gottlieb, chairman of the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms. “Imagine what the president could do in one more year, much less over the next five years. His appointments will become his greatest legacy and make the Second Amendment great again.”
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