By Greg Markley
For the Opelika Observer
The president of the Auburn University College Republicans invited me to a meeting at the Eagles Nest atop Haley Center in the late 1990s. After the guest spoke I had a short interview with this new official at the National Rifle Association. His name: Wayne LaPierre.
Jump ahead to 2020. LaPierre is a household name and a lightning rod. The NRA has grown but increasingly faces criticism and tarnishment.
LaPierre makes a million dollars a year, due to continually high growth in funds and memberships. Actually, he only earns $985,885 per annum.
LaPierre is a very good speaker in front of audiences. And, as I found out at AU’s event, he is soft-spoken one-on-one. That estimate is shared by many national journalists. Now, though, LaPierre faces an existential challenge: New York state is suing him and his coworkers for corruption. The end result, probably years from now based on legal progress, could force the NRA to dissolve.
The civil suit, filed in state court by NY Attorney General Letitia James, alleges that NRA’s leadership spent funds improperly, engaged in self-dealing and made false or misleading disclosures to the attorney general and the IRS.
According to SmartAsset, a financial information Website, “Self-dealing can happen when a financial advisor or other financial professional acts in his own best interest rather than in the best interests of their clients.”
Keller Williams, a local member of Gun Owners of America but not the NRA, said the NRA is a victim of partisan witch-hunting.
“It seems that the New York Attorney General filed the suit because it is an election year and the NRA supports Mr. Trump, so what better time to file a suit to defame a major gun rights lobbying group and in doing so, hurt the President’s reputation further,” Williams, a member of the Libertarian Party, said.
“The NRA has been weakened as a major gun rights organization,” he said. “In 2017 they supported the ban on bump stocks (a device used on a rifle that uses the recoil to continuously fire, albeit, inefficiently, in automatic fashion). This ban on a firearm accessory set the precedent that the [Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives] can arbitrarily ban components of a rifle, which could lead to the banning of whole firearms.”
If the NY lawsuit charges are true, LaPierre and his associates have explaining to do. Did he and his family fly to the Bahamas on private jets regularly using the money proudly donated for NRA, not LaPierre personally? Were lovers of the Second Amendment’s good money spent in financial wrongdoing and mismanagement? How did $89,000 in contributors’ money come to be used to settle a potential sexual discrimination claim against a high-up NRA employee?
The NRA had internal problems in the past decade. A major one was when Oliver North, a polarizing figure in the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s, assumed the association’s presidency in 2018. He reportedly found financial irregularies and told members of the NRA Foundation. In April 2019, North asked LaPierre to resign. But LaPierre rallied with wide support from members and North himself resigned. That’s a new one: a president ousted by an executive vice president!
“Supporters of the NRA have diminished to the older generations who remember the days when the NRA actively upheld the Second Amendment,” Williams said. “But now it seems the GOA and the Firearms Policy Coalition are the major gun rights lobbyists actively fighting against anti-gun rights laws. This, while being ‘no compromise’ on our God-given inalienable right to defend ourselves from domestic and foreign tyranny.”
I used to teach political science students why the National Rifle Association has such a historical footprint and such power today. First, the 5 million members: What politician can deny that influence? Second, the roster of donors: What organization wouldn’t be envious? And third, the zeal of its members: What group compares to their dedication to the NRA and the Second Amendment?
One thing about NRA members disappoints me. They announce themselves to be “constitutionalist” because they support the Second Amendment. Yet they complain when someone tries to burn the flag. What? Our First Amendment protects freedom of expression, popular or not. The Amendments aren’t pick-and-choose, are they? Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia disliked people burning the U.S. flag, but allowed it because the Constitution allows.
The NRA was founded in 1871 by former Union Army officers, who were upset that so many Northern soldiers, without good training, could barely use their weapons in the war that ran from 1861-1865. Only for the past 50+ years has the Association been so involved in protecting the Second Amendment.
NY’s Attorney General began a legal process that may destroy the NRA. But Wayne LaPierre can take comfort in words from Charlton Heston, former NRA president.
“In all of Shakespeare’s plays, no matter what tragic events occur, no matter what rises and falls, we return to stability in the end.”
Greg Markley has lived in Lee County for 20 of the past 24 years. An award-winning journalist, he has master’s degrees in education and history. He taught political science as an adjunct in Georgia and Alabama.