January 5, 2022
The NRA has been unbelievably successful in achieving its goals. Now, it’s falling apart. How is that possible? On the show today is National Public Radio’s Washington Investigative Correspondent and author Tim Mak. You can check out his book, Misfire, at factuallypod.com/books.
138 — The Downfall of the NRA with Tim Mak
Speaker 1 [00:00:22] Hello, welcome to Factually. I’m Adam Conover, thank you so much for tuning into the show again. I hope you’re having a wonderful new year and I hope you have a great 2022. At the very least, I hope you have a better 2022 than you did a 2021. I know that I will be hoping for the same thing. I’ve got some big things planned. My new Netflix show, ‘The G-word,’ is on the way and I’ve got some big podcast news that I want to tell you about very soon, just as soon as I get all my ducks in a row. But for now, let’s just enjoy a brand new episode of ‘Factually, together. The first one of the New Year. As we kick it off in style, we’re going to start this year by talking about the National Rifle Association. Now, when I say that name: National Rifle Association, I’m sure a lot of associations come to your mind. The NRA is one of those topics where no matter what I could possibly say about them, you probably already have an opinion. But it’s precisely because we have such strong opinions, that we often have trouble seeing what this organization actually is. So much of the time we tend to fundamentally misunderstand what the organization actually is. For instance, a lot of gun control advocates, liberals, often blame the fact that we haven’t made progress on gun control on NRA money. ‘The NRA is buying off all of these politicians’ when, in reality, the NRA’s money (even though it does have quite a bit) is only a small part of the story. The NRA’s real power is that it isn’t just another lobbying organization, it’s a mass membership organization that counts millions and millions and millions of Americans among its members. It provides services to them: firearm training and all kinds of other important things. But even more importantly, when the NRA wants to get something done, it’s able to politically and socially organize those members to turn out in support of issues that they genuinely care about. Politicians don’t live in fear of the NRA donating or not donating. They live in fear of the NRA, mobilizing its members to send letters, make phone calls and even show up at their office if they make a vote that the NRA and those members disagree with. In other words, far from being another money driven lobbying group, the NRA is actually one of the most effective single issue mass organization campaigns in American political history. If you’re an advocate for more gun control, that’s something that you should probably pay attention to because it’s going to take at least that level of organization (if not greater) to undo what the NRA has done. Let’s be honest, the NRA has been astoundingly successful. Gun control legislation has fallen in state after state, and for most Americans, there’s actually very little separating you from buying a firearm. The Supreme Court finally even ruled that that is what the Second Amendment means: that you have a constitutional right to that firearm. In other words, the NRA has achieved an almost total victory on their chosen issue. I mean, they did it. You got to hand it to them. They got to be popping champagne bottles over there every damn day, right? Well, hold on a second, because if that’s the case, if they have achieved such a historic victory over the past few decades, why are things going so poorly at the NRA? Why are they filing for bankruptcy? Why are they being taken to court by the New York attorney general? Why does it seem like the entire organization is on the verge of collapsing? Well, to answer those questions and many, many more we have on the show today, Tim Mak. He’s an incredible journalist. He is NPR’s Washington Investigative Correspondent and he is the author of the new book, ‘Misfire: Inside the Downfall of the NRA.’ I cannot wait for you to hear this interview. I think you’re going to find it fascinating. So without further ado, let’s get to my conversation with Tim Mak. Tim, thank you so much for being here.
Speaker 2 [00:04:17] Of course, anytime. Thanks for having me, Adam.
Speaker 1 [00:04:19] So you have a new book out about the NRA. The NRA is an organization that really looms large in American politics. I think a lot of people think they understand it, but there’s a lot more to it than I feel like we normally appreciate. How do you describe the power of the NRA in American life over the last many decades?
Speaker 2 [00:04:44] I think you can’t have a conversation about gun politics without understanding the National Rifle Association and its effects, both culturally and politically, that a lot of the current basis for this cultural signifier of gun ownership, the coolness of accessories or kitting out your firearm. A lot of that’s been pushed by the NRA. Then you have the laws, both at the state level and the federal level, that’s been heavily influenced by the NRA over the last few decades. In the mid 80’s, just a handful of states allowed concealed carry, for example. Now, all 50 states allow concealed carry, and you can’t have that conversation without understanding the power of the NRA.
Speaker 1 [00:05:29] Yeah, they have really achieved (in many ways it seems like) an overpowering, durable victory; both legally and culturally. The NRA’s version of what the Second Amendment means; they’ve really injected it into the minds of the majority of Americans, it seems like. And the legal system, to a degree that’s often unappreciated. I don’t know, do you agree with that?
Speaker 2 [00:06:03] Yeah, I think so. One thing that I’ve been reporting on recently are these tapes. These secret tapes that I obtained of NRA meetings. Top officials: executives, lobbyists, gathering on the day after Columbine. This is right after the shootings in 1999, and they’re scrambling on to this conference call and they’re trying to figure out, ‘What are we going to do?’ By chance, the NRA had scheduled an annual convention in Denver just days after that shooting. It’s a real crisis for them to try to figure out what to do next. What’s remarkable, is that you hear them on these tapes talking in real time about what they should do to respond to this terrible mass shooting. You hear them coalesce onto their playbook that they’re going to use for decades and decades to come, in order to shift blame off of guns, shift blame off themselves onto other issues: societal problems, video games, movies, things where the media is to blame, so on and so forth. One thing I realized as I was reporting this out is that if you look at it, for all the mass shootings that that have happened, what’s remarkable is that Columbine was the start of this very sad era in which mass shootings at schools become, sadly, much more common. But the NRA’s messaging has remained the same; from Virginia Tech to Sandy Hook to Parkland all the way to present. Now, arguably, it’s easier to get a gun. At least if you look at federal law, it’s easier to get a gun today than it was right after Columbine. Despite all the intervening shootings and all the horror and all the efforts and the politics and the advocacy.
Speaker 1 [00:07:58] Michael Moore made a whole movie blaming the NRA for Columbine, basically. It was a hit movie. It’s been a part of our national dialog that, ‘Hey, aren’t guns responsible for these shootings?’ At least many Americans have advocated that position. That position has lost and the position that’s one has been the NRA’s. Let me ask, by the way, do you know? Why were they taping, in the 90’s, a conversation on the phone? I could understand if it was today, and it’s like, ‘Hey, it’s just Zoom and someone hit the record button.’ But why would this conversation be taped?
Speaker 2 [00:08:39] A participant just decided to do it. Someone who was on the call secretly recorded those conversations. So there are like two and a half hours of this tape. It’s really remarkable just hearing them. As they consider, for example, a million dollar victim’s fund after Columbine. Or even apologizing, taking the softer tone. Then they land on this idea, which they’ve basically held ever since, which is if we apologize, if we scale back, if we cancel our convention, it’ll be like we’re accepting responsibility and we can’t be seen to do that. That’s been something that’s been applied ever since.
Speaker 1 [00:09:18] But it sounds, like based on what you’re saying about this call, that they were on the back foot. That they, perhaps, did feel somewhat responsible or they felt that others would say they were responsible. And ‘Should we accept any of that?’ And they decided not to, they decided to pull away from it. But there was a moment at which they wondered, ‘Maybe are we responsible?’ Does that come out on the tapes? Any sort of hint of that?
Speaker 2 [00:09:46] I don’t think that they considered for a moment that they might be responsible. But I think the latter part of what you’re saying, that they knew that other people would consider them to be responsible and it’s their strategy for how to dodge that responsibility. Yeah.
Speaker 1 [00:10:05] Talk a little bit about how the NRA came to that position. I know that the NHRA, when it started out, was much more of a club for people who liked rifles, I guess. It transformed, there was this revolution. What’s it called? There’s a particular moment that there was – Is it the revolt in Cincinnati or something like that?
Speaker 2 [00:10:30] It is the revolt in Cincinnati, yeah.
Speaker 1 [00:10:31] [laughs] I got it. We did this topic on ‘Adam Ruins Everything’ a couple of years ago, and I’m like fishing around in my brain cells. One out of the 65 episodes we did of that show. But, yeah, so that it became much more politically radicalized. But how did it build this incredibly powerful base of support?
Speaker 2 [00:10:54] Well, the NRA is originally founded in New York. That point is going to be important later. It was originally founded in New York after the Civil War, because there was this debate at the time about whether individual soldiers should be taught marksmanship. At the time, there were leading military officials and officers and strategists who were into line infantry. Everyone point in that direction and fire that way. There was some concern among a lot of the strategists, that teaching individual soldiers how to fire their firearms accurately would lead to some untoward individualism on behalf of those troops. So the NRA was formed in contravention of that, to oppose that, to teach individual people how to aim and fire their rifles. For many years, it was considered a gun safety and shooting sports organization. Most of the 20th century, until (as you mentioned) in the late 70’s, there’s this revolt in Cincinnati. The NRA’s a grassroots organization, so members can kick out its leadership or change the policy of the group. At the time, the NRA was considering moving to Colorado. They were going to be focusing on the gun safety and shooting sports elements of the organization. But there was a revolt on the floor in the late 70’s, and that kind of pivoted the NRA towards a much more politically aggressive organization and into the direction that we know it today.
Speaker 1 [00:12:38] What are the things that the NRA does as an organization that has won it these victories? Obviously, it does gun safety, it does gun training. Those are the things you would expect it to do. But the way that people who are involved in this way of thinking feel about the NRA and feel about gun rights, it starts to feel almost religious. It becomes a real true article of belief for people, in a way. How did it build to that? Because that does seem new, over the past few decades, versus the way people thought about guns in the 50’s or 70’s.
Speaker 2 [00:13:17] Yeah, I think that the NRA definitely, a lot of people describe it as a secular religion. It’s definitely, at least, a cultural market. That you’re an NRA member. The NRA has done a very good job over the last few decades trying to make membership in the NRA synonymous with being a gun owner, synonymous with being not just a gun owner, but a cool gun owner. All the cachet that comes involved that is involved with the newest firearms, the coolest accessories, whatever. Building cultural issue around gun ownership. There are a lot of different turning points along the way, but particularly after Sandy Hook. After the shootings at Sandy Hook, the NRA made itself into a culture organization. It was no longer just interested in the firearms issue and the Second Amendment. It wanted to be that organization that stood between the government and its members on all sorts of issues, unrelated to guns. It kind of doubled down on becoming an organization that exclusively reached out to conservatives and Republicans.
Speaker 1 [00:14:34] And why is that? Why go in that direction? Why join the culture war? Why would an organization that’s so focused on guns pivot in that direction so hard?
Speaker 2 [00:14:49] Well, previous to Sandy Hook, one of the most important strategic allies for the NRA were these moderate Democrats who supported them on this issue. There used to be quite a few. Now there are less than a handful at the federal level. The reason why this all happened? Sandy Hook led to the failure of this gun legislation called Manchin-Toomey, which sought to expand background checks in the United States. The NRA took part in those negotiations and then pulled out at the last minute, dooming it to failure. After that happened, basically, it was very difficult for Democrats to work with the NRA and vice versa. There’s also all these incentives pulling on the NRA. A big theme of ‘Misfire,’ my book, is the factionalism inside the NRA. So we take you behind the scenes, into the boardrooms, into the meeting rooms. One of the big points of tension throughout the book is between the lobbyists on Capitol Hill and the people in charge of fundraising and membership. During the Obama era, the people in charge of membership and fundraising basically won out, there are deep incentives to more incendiary messaging that lead to more money raised and more people joining your organization. This is a sharp turn that the NRA makes after Sandy Hook and the failure of Manchin-Toomey.
Speaker 1 [00:16:23] It’s just wild. I mean, look, I understand that the NRA is providing a service. If you’re a gun owner, it genuinely provides a AAA style service, right? I also understand it as a marker of cultural identity. I mean, you’re an NPR reporter. So many people are NPR members because, ‘Hey, I’m a good liberal. I’ll join NPR. It’s 50 bucks a year or whatever.’ But it’s so unusual for an organization like that to then wade into political life so hard and also to be so massively successful at it. That’s what I keep having trouble wrapping my head around. You’ve seen, in the last couple of years (or at least I’ve seen), even people on the left almost abandon the issue of gun control and say, ‘You know what? I’ll buy a gun, too. Why not?’ I’ve started to see more armed leftist groups and things like that. It seems to be almost like an, ‘I can’t beat them, join them.’ Kind of thing, you know? ‘Ah it kills a certain number of people every year. But hey, we still got climate change to worry about. So why don’t we forget about guns for a little bit?’ Because it’s just we have lost so thoroughly on it.
Speaker 2 [00:17:37] When you talk to lawmakers and you’re like, ‘Hey, what is it about the NRA that makes you, I guess, for lack of a better word, afraid? What scares you about them? What motivates you to act in alignment with what the NRA wants?’ They’ll tell you; it’s not about money. Although the NRA has hundreds of billions of dollars. Money only really goes so far. It’s that the NRA has millions of members, that the NRA is able to mobilize really, really effectively. That, when the NRA asks its membership to do something, they show up and lawmakers are worried about their phone lines getting jammed up. They’re worried about their email inboxes getting totally flooded, they’re worried about getting yelled at town halls and confronted in their districts. And the NRA can pull that off. I don’t know that there are that many other organizations in America that can pull off, to that scale, that sort of political mobilization,
Speaker 1 [00:18:44] The AARP, is pretty powerful. But if you cross the AARP, you don’t get a hundred old people showing up at your next town hall meeting or outside your congressional office. Banging on the windows like the NRA is able to. It’s seriously organized and able to mobilize people. What you’re describing sounds like something that labor unions used to do, for instance. It really strikes me that – What you said about it becoming a culture war organization seems so true to me because it doesn’t seem like an organization that is as focused strictly on a strict interpretation of gun rights, as I would expect. The best example of this is the killing of Philando Castile, which when you look at (and we did a segment of ‘Adam Ruins Everything’ about this case) the details of that case, this is a person who was killed because he said, ‘Officer, I want to let you know I do have a firearm in the car.’ He kept his hands on the wheel. He didn’t touch anything. That’s what you should do, if you have a firearm in the car. And a police officer took out his gun and shot him as he had his hands on the wheel. You would think that the NRA would say, ‘Hold on a second. This is someone who was killed because they lawfully were carrying a firearm in their car,’ but they did not make such a statement (to my knowledge) at the time. Why do you think that is?
Speaker 2 [00:20:12] This is something that even some of the NRA’s most ardent supporters question its own organization about. I haven’t gotten good answers about it. It’s one of those gaping holes. You’d think that if they were serious about the Second Amendment as their primary purpose, this they’d do something about. But I’ve heard from NRA lobbyists, I’ve heard from NRA members, I’ve heard from people who really care about this issue who are just aghast at why the NRA hasn’t done more. Part of the answer, if you were to guess, would be this culture. This culture war thing, that they’ve built certain coalitions and those coalitions have certain implicit demands.
Speaker 1 [00:21:02] Yeah, that because Philando Castile is a black man and they’re allied with people who can’t abide police shootings of black men as an issue of concern. That want to portray that as a fake issue, that are engaged in a culture war around that issue. They, therefore, can’t speak out about it. Is that basically what you mean?
Speaker 2 [00:21:25] Yeah, I think that’s a good way to put it.
Speaker 1 [00:21:28] But it also makes the entire organization appear that, at root, it’s also a white identity organization. Do you feel that’s the case for you? I know that there are nonwhite NRA members. Of course there are. But that is the appearance given by remaining silent on that issue.
Speaker 2 [00:21:47] This is the difference between their rhetoric and action. Because in a lot of their messaging, they’ll say, ‘We don’t care what race you are, we don’t care if you’re white or black or whatever else.’ But the actual actions on the Castile case, or the lack of action on the Castile case, really does raise those questions about why the NRA hasn’t done more.
Speaker 1 [00:22:12] Yeah. I don’t know, in my view, the questions are kind of answered by their lack of making a statement about it. But let’s move, though, to talk about -Again, this is an organization that has had such success. Yet at its moment of greatest victory, with Donald Trump as president as well, it seems like everything is starting to fall apart. That the organization is in deep trouble. Tell me about that, and that is the title of your book is ‘Misfire.’ So I imagine you know something about this.
Speaker 2 [00:22:52] You can’t talk about the financial and legal trouble that the NRA is in, without first starting with this guy named Wayne LaPierre.
Speaker 1 [00:22:59] OK. I’ve heard of this guy.
Speaker 2 [00:23:00] Wayne LaPierre, he’s the head of the NRA and has been so since 1991, so decades. Thirty years. The book starts with this scene at Wayne LaPierre’s wedding. He doesn’t want to get married, and he’s been telling people all week that he doesn’t think he should get married. He’s outside –
Speaker 1 [00:23:23] Wait is your book a rom com?
Speaker 2 [00:23:25] My book is like
Speaker 1 [00:23:29] ‘Runaway Bride’ starring Wayne LaPierre?
Speaker 2 [00:23:31] So he’s outside with his best man, and the best man is like, ‘I don’t think you should get married.’ And the best man slaps a $100 bill on the dashboard of the Jeep that they’re in and says, ‘Hey, we can just drive out of here right now.’ But against his better instincts, Wayne goes into the the church gets basically harangued into the wedding by the bride and the priest and then just follows this terribly awkward, weird ceremony where Wayne LaPierre can’t make eye contact with his bride at any point. He’s surrounded by NRA luminaries in the audience.
Speaker 1 [00:24:12] Oh my God.
Speaker 2 [00:24:13] But they ultimately do get married. There’s a reason I tell that story. That the deeper you get into this organization, the more you realize that Wayne LaPierre has been berated and bullied into all the major decisions of the NRA over the last 30 years. He’s got this public image of this staunch Second Amendment Bulldog. But if you talk to his close friends and people who have known him for a really long time, they describe him as this deeply anxious, fearful, self-pitying, almost cowardly figure. Wow. Who, by the way, is not good at shooting firearms.
Speaker 1 [00:24:53] Really?
Speaker 2 [00:24:56] There’s this story about how he was at a video shoot holding a firearm. Someone called out to him and he swivels around and points the gun at the person who called out to him. Then there came a joke at NRA headquarters that if you didn’t do well on your quarterly review (or whatever), that your punishment might have to be to go ‘Shooting with Wayne.’ Wayne LaPierre is someone who, when there’s a mass shooting in America, he doesn’t get down to business and try to deal with the issues that, certainly, his organization needs to deal with. He just gets filled with this anxiety and self-pity, ‘What is this going to mean for me? It’s going to be so terrible for me.’ After one mass shooting, a bunch of NRA officials were going to meet together in a boardroom, and they find him hiding behind the curtain with the tips of his shoes showing because it was the only way that he could find to soothe his anxiety, is hiding behind the curtain. He was so overwhelmed by the moment.
Speaker 1 [00:26:04] He wasn’t just like, ‘Oh hey, guys, yeah, I just – I’ll feel better back here?’ He was just like silently there?
Speaker 2 [00:26:09] He was silently hiding behind the curtain. He’s been the head of the NRA for 30 years, almost even since the beginning of it, he’s been telling his close friends, ‘I really don’t want to be doing this. What I really want to be doing is, I want to sell ice cream in Maine. I want an ice cream shop.’
Speaker 1 [00:26:30] He wants to sell ice cream in Maine?
Speaker 2 [00:26:33] Yeah! But you’re seeing a pattern develop here, he’s doing all sorts of things that he doesn’t want to do. There are these powerful people around him; from his wife, Susan, who no one’s really written about before, but who’s this hidden hand in the NRA and who’s immensely powerful.
Speaker 1 [00:26:51] This is the woman he married, who he didn’t want to marry?
Speaker 2 [00:26:54] Correct. Who is still married to today. Susan LaPierre is this person who heads up this elite world of million dollar plus donors that are women to the NRA. There’s a lot of color in the book about what that world is like: the demands for loyalty, the lavish meals, the insider gossip, the high fashion that’s demanded of women in those circles. It’s a really bizarre world, Adam.
Speaker 1 [00:27:26] Wow. But if Wayne hates doing this and also is bad with guns. So it doesn’t seem like he loves guns that much, why is he doing it? Why has he been doing it for 30 years?
Speaker 2 [00:27:43] I think it’s one of those things where he failed upwards. He had to be convinced to take the job of the head of the NRA. You’d imagine that the average ambitious person, if they’re working in an organization like this, would seek the top gig when it’s up, and he really didn’t want it. He was like, ‘This is not my thing.’ I think the answer to it is that for powerful people around the NRA, they really found it super beneficial to them to have him in this position. To have an easily bullied person in this position. Because I mean, we’re talking about tens of millions of dollars at stake here, right? So I mentioned, Susan LaPierre, who found it to be in her interest to have her husband be the head of the NRA because she gets all sorts of ridiculous perks; like thousands of dollars for hairdressers and stylists. Her preferred hairdresser is Taylor Swift’s hairdresser. So she flies her in, gets her suite at an extravagant hotel just to do her hair, and so on and so forth.
Speaker 1 [00:29:00] I’ve always thought she looked like Taylor Swift. It’s true.
Speaker 2 [00:29:05] So Susan LaPierre is this powerful person around him. Another powerful person around Wayne LaPierre is this guy named Angus McQueen. He’s an ad man. He’s the head of this big advertising firm based out of Oklahoma, and he is someone who people would just describe him yelling at Wayne as if he were the client, and Wayne were his employee. His ad firm benefits in the decades in which Wayne LaPierre is the head of the NRA to the tune of tens of millions of dollars a year. Wow. So there are many powerful people who surrounded Wayne, who felt that it was in their interest for him to take the heat and him to do the work and for them to reap the benefits.
Speaker 1 [00:29:53] I was going to say, ‘Why don’t any of these people just want to take control of the organization and run it themselves?’ I guess they don’t have to, if they have Wayne wrapped around their little finger.
Speaker 2 [00:30:05] It’s so much that and I think it is, ‘Why would you do the job if you didn’t have to do the job and you can make a lot more money not doing the job?’ People just learned over time that if you berated Wayne LaPierre long enough, he’s going to sign off on tens of millions of dollars in contracts, insider deals and golden parachutes for former officials who have left the organization and get paid extravagantly to do almost nothing at all.
Speaker 1 [00:30:37] Well, I have to say, screw you for making me feel bad for Wayne LaPierre. I didn’t expect to be the result of this conversation.
Speaker 2 [00:30:45] This is not to say that he bears no responsibility for his actions, right? During his tenure, and we can bring this to present day, the NRA is in serious financial and legal trouble. We started this conversation to talk about their wins and their successes (particularly culturally and politically) but right now, from a financial standpoint, from a legal standpoint, they’re facing the most serious mortal threat that the organization has ever faced.
Speaker 1 [00:31:14] Wait, let’s let’s put a pin in that because we have to take a really quick break. But I want to dig into this right after we get back. We’ll be right back with more Tim Mak. OK. We’re back with Tim Mak. You were just saying before the break, the NRA is now facing ‘the most mortal threat it has ever faced,’ I think were your words? Tell us about that.
Speaker 2 [00:31:45] OK, so the NRA right now is facing – This is all about Wayne LaPierre’s mismanagement and misconduct over the last few years. Allegations of impropriety and the NRA’s serious troubles have bubbled up to the surface over the last few years. Now he’s facing (and the NRA is facing) a revolt from some of its own members, protests from its own board of directors. It’s got investigations ongoing, and most seriously, it’s got this investigation by the New York attorney general and a lawsuit, which has accused the NRA (after they did this 18 month investigation) of being so corrupt it that shouldn’t be able to exist as a nonprofit. So Letitia James, who’s the attorney general of New York, has accused the NRA of tens of millions of dollars in misconduct and Wayne LaPierre in particular, tens of millions of dollars of misconduct over just three years, and is seeking a court’s approval to shut the organization down entirely. Because of all these allegations of corruption, their membership has declined and their revenue, their fundraising has dramatically declined. To the point where in 2018, the NRA almost couldn’t make payroll. It was shutting off free coffee for its employees in the office. That’s how serious the situation got.
Speaker 1 [00:33:12] I want to know more about what the specifics of the corruption allegations are, but how do you square that last part with the fact that, again, this is such a powerful mobilizing organization that is able to a super organized and able to get people to turn out. How are they not able to then say, ‘Hey, everybody chip in 100 bucks this year?’ Or whatever, in order to make their fundraising goals?
Speaker 2 [00:33:36] So for this, we have to go back to the Obama administration. During the Obama administration, after Sandy Hook in particular, the NRA is really riding high. They’re getting fat off of just being able to sell this fear to their members; that Obama is going to come take your guns
Speaker 1 [00:33:50] ‘After Sandy Hook, they are riding high.’ Says something in itself. At this point, they’ve refined this message so well that they’re actually able to benefit from mass shootings, in terms of their mobilization? Is that what you’re telling me?
Speaker 2 [00:34:04] I’ll tell you that they they got thousands and thousands of new members after Sandy Hook. Because the suggestion to its members and to the gun owning community, is that because of this mass shooting, new gun restrictions will come about.
Speaker 1 [00:34:20] Yeah. Of course none did.
Speaker 2 [00:34:22] None did, none have. But it’s still a boon for the NRA and its fundraising and its membership. So things are going really great for them, from a money standpoint. It’s during this period that a lot of the corruption begins to expand, during this time of plenty. What they really wanted (and the membership really wanted) was the election of Donald Trump. They really pushed for it. In fact, the NRA spent more money to support Donald Trump’s election in 2016 than even Trump’s own superPAC. So this happens. This ultimately transpires, as everyone knows. But once Trump is elected, fundraising goes off a cliff. They’re selling fear. Trump’s in office. People don’t think that there’s a threat to their firearms and their rights. So there becomes a serious financial contraction in their organization. This is where internal whistleblowers began to speak up. Reporters like me start to get into the organization and report, from an insider’s view, what is happening in the building and inside this organization. This leads to a serious problem: the NRA can’t pay its bills. Wayne LaPierre then taps this guy, who you may know, named Oliver North.
Speaker 1 [00:35:48] Wow. Yeah, I’ve heard of him.
Speaker 2 [00:35:50] Oliver North of the Iran-Contra Scandal fame. But he’s become, in the intervening years, this kind of conservative figure. A celebrity. And so Wayne LaPierre reaches out to his old friend Oliver who was, by the way, present at his wedding and witnessed a lot of the stuff that I described. He taps Oliver North and says, ‘Hey, can you come be the president of the NRA and help us fundraise our way out of this problem?’ Oliver North shows up and he’s fundraising and he’s like, ‘What is happening to all the money that I’m fundraising? Where’s that going, exactly?’ And he’s like, ‘We need an internal audit of the NRA. Just to figure out where this money that I’m fundraising is going.’ This is, of course, not to Wayne’s liking and not to the liking of the powerful people around Wayne. So there’s this climactic scene in my book about Oliver North confronting Wayne LaPierre in a hotel suite in Indianapolis and Wayne LaPierre pushing Oliver North out of the presidency of the NRA.
Speaker 1 [00:36:59] Wow. OK now. You really made strange bedfellows of me, because now I’m on Oliver North’s side.
Speaker 2 [00:37:07] You’ve been on Wayne LaPierre’s side, you’ve been on Oliver North’s side –
Speaker 1 [00:37:10] Well because they’re raising so much money, and now what? A little contraction that happens because the Republicans gain power, causes a financial financial meltdown. How could that be? How could this not be a financially healthy organization, there must be something going wrong. Of course, you’d want to get to the bottom of it. This guy is telling you not to get to the bottom of it? As a member of the organization, you’d want to know what the fuck is happening.
Speaker 2 [00:37:36] We talked about how this book is about factions and backstabbing and greed and cowardice. There’s a twist to all of this, which is that there are so many different groups that were backstabbing each other inside the NRA – I mentioned Angus McQueen. He was the ad man, the messaging guy. He was for decades the head of the NRA’s strategic communications. So his son in law gets involved in all this. He comes in as one of the NRA’s lawyers and begins trying to push his father-in-law out, after his father-in-law had made tens of millions of dollars from the NRA. And it just gets into this bloody Succession-type, internal politics thing.
Speaker 1 [00:38:28] Has anyone optioned this book yet? You don’t have to tell me that, but this would be a great TV show. All right.
Speaker 2 [00:38:35] You know what, Adam? I think so, too.
Speaker 1 [00:38:39] OK, we’ll talk after the show. Maybe you want to do a deal? I’m sure Adam McKay is already all over you. When you talk about this corruption, what is the corruption like? Where is the money going? Do you have a sense of that?
Speaker 2 [00:38:55] We’re talking about like – The book gets into it in great detail and in extravagant color. We’re talking about millions of dollars in private jets and private cars and limos. We’re talking about extravagant meals, lavish trips to the Bahamas and Lake Como in Italy. We’re talking about six figures in Italian menswear for Wayne LaPierre from a place on Rodeo Drive called Xenia. It just goes on and on and on. The New York attorney general identified more than $60 million over just three years, that Wayne LaPierre and other top NRA executives misappropriated or were involved in misconduct of.
Speaker 1 [00:39:37] They’re just spending on shit, just creature comforts for themselves? Just spending it on steaks?
Speaker 2 [00:39:43] Well, there’s always an excuse, right? Wayne LaPierre will say, either, ‘I didn’t know about those expenditures’ or ‘I didn’t know I couldn’t do that.’ But here’s an example: after Parkland, Wayne LaPierre gets on a private jet and goes to the Bahamas to hang out on a yacht, and he’s like, ‘This is for my own personal security. This is for my safety. I’m worried about my health.’ He’s not able, by the way, to explain how going to a foreign country with a bunch of unvetted people might make him more safe than, for example, hanging out at his heavily secured house in the D.C. area. But when we talk about the allegations of corruption (and there’s plentiful evidence of it), what we’re really talking about are these private jets, these lavish meals, clothing. Just basically living like a king.
Speaker 1 [00:40:39] Yeah. This reminds me of Scientology stories or televangelists from the 80’s, that kind of thing. Taking this money that’s supposed to go for a nonprofit purpose and using it to just – OK, I don’t feel bad for Wayne LaPierre or anymore, because he’s clearly profited immensely from this.
Speaker 2 [00:41:01] Empathy, as we tell this story, is beginning to slow.
Speaker 1 [00:41:06] Is any money being squirreled away? Are they buying any real estate or are they doing any of that sort of thing? Any of it ending up in a Swiss bank account or what?
Speaker 2 [00:41:14] There was this mansion that the NHRA almost ended up buying that is in Texas. Basically, the deal fell apart when the LaPierre’s wanted a golf course membership associated with the purchase of the home. They were saying, ‘Hey, we need this place in Texas for our own personal safety.’ You hear that again. It cost millions of dollars. ‘We need it for our own personal safety.’ But then people around them were like, ‘Well, if it’s for your safety, why do you need this golf course membership thrown in? What does that have to do with your personal safety?’ The deal fell apart, ultimately, but there are plenty of lavish perks. Pretty much you name it, they they received it over their years as head of this organization. It’s really remarkable.
Speaker 1 [00:42:10] Have NRA members found out about this corruption enough that it has also diminished contributions?
Speaker 2 [00:42:18] Yeah, contributions are down. Membership is down over the last few years. There’s been the trajectory of the gun issue, and then there’s been the trajectory of the organization and the organization right now is in shambles. I was talking about a revolt among some of his own members. There’s this movement of NRA members trying to reform the organization and demand transparency from their executives. That’s kind of a free flowing thing that’s happening right now.
Speaker 1 [00:42:48] It sounds a little bit like it’s the problem of the dog that caught the car. They’ve achieved every single one of their policy goals that they ever set out to achieve. But now the they’re struggling in success, almost.
Speaker 2 [00:43:05] I think the misconduct occurs as the dog is trying to get to the car. It’s not that they were bored, so they decided to get a bunch of private jets. It’s not, ‘Our mission is done. We’ve gotten all the gun rights that we want. So now we’re going to go engage in a bunch of, you know, misconduct.’ But in the process of being so successful (and while they were being successful) they raised a lot of money. They raised a lot of money, and a institutional arrogance about what they could do with that money begins to take hold.
Speaker 1 [00:43:40] Do you see any connection between the morphing of the organization from a sportsperson’s or actual rifle person’s group, something closer to AAA (a traditional advocacy and hobbyist group) to a culture war organization? Do you see any connection between that transition and the growing corruption at the NRA? Is there some relation between those two metamorphosis?
Speaker 2 [00:44:09] Only in the sense that what motivated the NRA to morph that way was the money. It’s that money that they then misused. What really motivated them to turn into a more cultural war oriented organization was that it was what’s sold to its members. It’s what’s sold in, terms of being able to get more people to sign up and to donate money. When that was working, that’s also when the corruption began to emerge and really solidify and expand.
Speaker 1 [00:44:43] It is wild how you can just make a lot of money off of the culture war. I know comedians who have done this. They just have turned into full time. They stopped making jokes and now they just do culture war shit on YouTube. They make a lot of money. It’s hard not to be tempted. Like, ‘If I just said this, some of this stuff, I could get a lot of Patreon subscribers.’ There’s a lot of money in that kind of rage.
Speaker 2 [00:45:09] It’s remarkable. We’re now zooming back to the societal problems. But it’s weird, how society’s incentives have changed, right? In terms of money; away from prestige, towards clicks and subscriptions and whatever else. It’s like some bad mid 20th century science fiction film, where the computer has learned what really drives engagement, and it’s the things that make society the worst off. Things that drive anger and sadness and violence. And that’s what’s motivating people.
Speaker 1 [00:45:53] It’s also a feedback loop, right? That organizations like the NRA push their audiences in this direction, which then results in more fervent belief and more money comes as a result of it. It both sates the appetite, but it creates an appetite for more of it.
Speaker 2 [00:46:13] Right. I think that if you’re that if you’re in this loop, you never really want to quite catch the car. If you’re the dog chasing the car, you just want to be an inch short every time. That drives more extreme demands, not outcomes, but – Well, I guess outcomes over time. But it drives more and more extreme demands.
Speaker 1 [00:46:36] Which is how they end up portraying something – Like a new a new mass shooting comes along, they portray it as, ‘Aha, they’re going to come take your guns away,’ even though it’s politically impossible to take people’s guns away. But portraying it that way allows them to –
Speaker 2 [00:46:50] It’s not even remotely in the realm of of possibility, that Congress will pass a law confiscating firearms. Not remotely in the realm of possibility.
Speaker 1 [00:47:11] You hear gun people talk about, ‘Well, to prevent mass shootings, we should turn schools into hard targets. We should arm schools so that people don’t want to show up there with a gun because they know they’ll be shot and killed.’ I understand the logic to an extent because that is what the NRA has done to the gun issue. The gun issue is a hard target. If you’re a smart progressive trying to figure out what issues to go after, you look at guns and you’re like, ‘Well, let’s see for the amount of deaths caused versus the amount of fucking blowback I’m going to have to get to deal with this. It’s not number one on my list.’ It’s the highest hanging fruit, not the lowest hanging fruit, because there’s all these motherfuckers with rhetorical guns hanging around. It seems like it’s been a very effective strategy.
Speaker 2 [00:48:03] Yeah, this leads us back to where we started this conversation, which is the power of the NRA and where they get it, and it’s from their membership. It’s from the millions of people who will show up if the NRA calls on them. The NRA, organizationally, is in deep financial and legal trouble, but it can still get its membership (its membership is diminished but it’s still quite substantial) to show up.
Speaker 1 [00:48:32] Well, so this leads me to a really good set of final questions here, which is if the New York AG is successful and manages to get a ruling that the NRA can’t exist (which is what you said they’re gunning for) and shut down the organization as a nonprofit, what do you think happens? They’ll still be those millions and millions of Americans who sincerely believe in that way of thinking about guns. What happens next?
Speaker 2 [00:49:05] Yeah. I mean, I think that trajectory continues for for a period of time. Like you said, the same people, these millions of people, even with or without the NRA, they’re going to exist tomorrow and believe the same things they believed yesterday. The organizational structure and the efficiencies may not exist, but something else will come. I mean, there are other gun rights organizations in America. But there will be a lull. There will be a period of time where that’s more difficult, I think.
Speaker 1 [00:49:43] Yeah. It’s hard not to imagine like, ‘OK, we can’t be a nonprofit. Let’s just spin up again as a for profit.’ Wayne and his buddies, finding a way to keep it rolling. If the audience is still there, the appetite is still there. If the culture war still makes you money, you can probably find another way to do it.
Speaker 2 [00:50:04] This is why the court case is so important, and the details of the ruling and what the judge ultimately decides. The judge has a variety of options, from cleaning house and kicking a bunch of executives out, to dissolving the NRA entirely. Even if it does dissolve the NRA, the NRA has all sorts of assets, millions of dollars worth of real estate and other assets that need to be portioned out to other gun organizations in the country. So the nature that that takes is going to be really important for the future of gun politics.
Speaker 1 [00:50:38] Yeah. When is that court case going to be decided?
Speaker 2 [00:50:43] We’ve been looking at the spring of 2022 as the big date where those issues are going to begin to be decided. It could take quite a deal longer. But that’s what I’m going to be watching really, very closely next year.
Speaker 1 [00:50:59] And do you think – Let’s say the bombshell happens and the organization is spun down. You said they’ll at least be a period where that organization is not happening, those efficiencies are gone. Do you think that changes anything about the gun debate in America? Or do you feel that we’ll have new folks wearing the same suits? Does that metaphor make makes sense? I’m not sure it does, but you know what I mean.
Speaker 2 [00:51:30] It’s hard for me to say, but I think that what I was saying earlier about how its membership remains the same still exists regardless of the organization itself, and that its millions of members showing up and being a implicit threat to lawmakers not to cross their views, that still exists. They’ll still exist if the NRA is dissolved. So it’s a more pessimistic view of the future of gun politics.
Speaker 1 [00:52:06] Yeah. I mean, someone’s going to end up with that mailing list that the NRA has, and they’re going to be sending out letters that say the ‘Democrats are going to try to take your guns away.’ No matter whether or not Wayne is on the letterhead.
Speaker 2 [00:52:20] I think that’s right. I think that’s right.
Speaker 1 [00:52:22] Well, my God, this story is so fascinating. It’s so much more interesting than the version of the NRA that we normally get, that’s in the public imagination. Thank you so much for going deep on it. It’s incredible to talk to you about it.
Speaker 2 [00:52:37] Yeah, it crazy. I pulled back the curtain and then I see this absolute chaos happening behind the curtain. It’s just crazy and remarkable to me.
Speaker 1 [00:52:52] Let’s see if we can find a final thought here. Is there something that you feel, when people are thinking about this issue, thinking about the NRA (or when you see it covered in the news) that people fundamentally misunderstand that you want them to take away from the book or from this conversation?
Speaker 2 [00:53:06] Yeah, I think it’s one of the points that’s been an undercurrent in our conversation. I entered the reporting on a book about the NRA, worried. I’ve done a lot of national security reporting, so I took a bunch of precautions to protect my sources and my data and that sort of thing, almost like I was dealing with a nation state adversary. I’m worried that these guys are ruthlessly effective, they’re going to be trying to disrupt me at every opportunity and I start reporting about it and there’s just chaos and mismanagement at every turn. Just comedic, almost, how badly the organization is run. For so many years, the organization managed to be led poorly and still be successful because of how much money they had, that they could lose some efficiencies to mismanagement. But when the spigot got turned off after Trump was elected, it got into immense trouble. That’s where the story leads us to today.
Speaker 1 [00:54:13] Incredible. Thank you so much for coming in to talk to us about it. It’s been fascinating.
Speaker 2 [00:54:18] Well, thanks. Thanks so much for having me, Adam.
Speaker 1 [00:54:20] The book, once again, is called ‘Misfire.’ What’s the subtitle?
Speaker 2 [00:54:24] Inside the Downfall of the NRA.
Speaker 1 [00:54:26] And if you want to, you can pick up a copy at our special Bookshop: factuallypod.com/books or wherever you get your books. At your local bookshop, any other particular booksellers you want to plug?
Speaker 2 [00:54:37] I’m a big fan of independent booksellers, so, your local one.
Speaker 1 [00:54:41] There you go. All right. Thank you so much, Tim, for coming on the show.
Speaker 2 [00:54:44] Of course. Anytime.
Speaker 1 [00:54:51] Well, thank you once again to Tim for coming on the show. If you enjoyed that as much as I did, and you want to check out his book then you can check it out once again at factuallypod.com/books. That’s factuallypod.com/books, and when you buy a book there, you’ll be supporting not just the show, but your local bookstore as well. I want to thank our producers, Chelsea Jacobson and Sam Roudman. Our engineer, Ryan Connor. Andrew W.K. for our theme song. The fine folks at Falcon Northwest, for building me the incredible custom gaming PC that I’m recording this very episode for you on. You can find me at every social media site at @AdamConover or at adamconover.net. Until next week, we’ll see you next time on Factually. Thank you so much for listening.
July 26, 2022
How can we best help animals, when it’s we humans who cause their suffering? Animal Crisis authors Alice Crary and Lori Gruen join Adam to explain how the same systems that hurt and kill animals also harm humans. They discuss the human rights abuses that happen in industrial slaughterhouses and how palm oil monocrops are devastating the world’s rainforests. They also share how we can have solidarity with animals in our daily lives. You can purchase their book at http://factuallypod.com/books
July 19, 2022
In times of turmoil, it can be useful to take a longer view of history. Like, a LOT longer. Paleontologist and author of “The Rise and Reign of the Mammals” Stephen Brusatte joins Adam to explain how mammals took over the Earth hundreds of millions of years ago, and why we survived and achieve sentience when dinosaurs died out. Stephen goes on to discuss why taking a deep look at our history can help prepare us for the crises of the near future. You can purchase Stephen’s book at http://factuallypod.com/books
July 13, 2022
Trans people have existed as long as, you know, people have. But the barriers to legal inclusion and equality are still higher than most people realize. “Sex is as Sex Does” author Paisley Currah joins Adam to discuss why institutions have been slow to give legal recognition to trans identities, why Republicans have shifted their attacks from bathroom policies to trans youth in sports, and why the struggle for trans equality is tied to feminism and women’s liberation. You can purchase Paisley’s book at http://factuallypod.com/books