INDIANAPOLIS — The National Rifle Association leadership descended into total crisis over the weekend, but you’d never know that walking among the thousands of gun lovers at the organization’s 2019 convention.
On the 15-acre exhibition floor in downtown Indianapolis, attendees — overwhelmingly white, male, and over 50 — gushed over the latest gun models, posed for photos with martial arts icon Chuck Norris, and grumbled about socialism.
NRA board president Oliver North, meanwhile, stepped down from his leadership position Saturday morning after allegedly threatening to expose damning information about the organization’s finances. North, a right-wing darling known for his role in the Reagan-era Iran-Contra scandal, had allegedly been blackmailing NRA Chief Executive Wayne LaPierre with that information, trying to get him to resign. He had held the position for one year.
Rumors of an internal feud among leaders, aggravated by allegations of financial mismanagement, had been simmering for years.
And to top off an already chaotic day for the organization, New York’s attorney general opened an investigation into the NRA’s finances on Saturday.
But at the convention, the majority of attendees were largely unfazed: Some hadn’t even heard about the North vs. LaPierre drama, and others simply weren’t bothered.
“Every business has their backroom arguments,” said Joe Hill, 55, president of the National Muzzle Loading Rifle Association based in Indiana. “The average member just doesn’t care.”
Hill was standing by the NRA-TV’s platform, which was decked out with a giant poster of North’s face. “The media is making it out to be this huge split, and it’s really not,” he added.
Tom Carter, 69, and Gary Sprouse, 71, who were stationed over by the hunting and taxidermy section of the conference, weren’t worried either. They said the bickering was just too inside-baseball for them.
But, added Carter, who runs a hunting expedition company in Idaho: “I can be critical, and I will be if I detect financial mismanagement.” Looming above his booth was a deer head sported a red MAGA cap between its antlers.
Sprouse, from Missouri, said he wasn’t spending his time thinking about the drama. “I hunt, trap, fish, and go to church,” he said.
The intensifying chaos in upper echelons of the NRA comes on the heels of a particularly bad year for the organization.
The newly energized gun-control movement that followed the February 2018 Parkland school shooting has swayed public opinion toward stricter gun regulations. The NRA was accused of canoodling with Russian spies and taking Kremlin-linked money. New York (followed by Washington) banned the NRA’s insurance policy: In court filings, the NRA suggested that the ban could render them "unable to exist as a not-for-profit."
NRA spending also plummeted around the midterm elections, even as Democrats campaigning in red states embraced gun control — and won. The NRA also hiked membership dues for the second year in a row and famously cut free coffee and water coolers for employees in its headquarters in Fairfax, Virginia, which further fueled speculation that the organization was in financial trouble. A third-party audit leaked in September showed the organization was $30 million in debt, partly due to plummeting membership revenue, according to the website Open Secrets.
“There are still a large number of members who think nothing is wrong, despite evidence to the contrary,” said Rob Pincus, an NRA member, self-defense trainer, and executive vice president at the Second Amendment Organization. “Millions are going into [the NRA leadership’s] high salaries, incredibly high bonuses, retirement plans, at a time when the NRA says it desperately needs funds.”
Pincus has been openly critical of the NRA and described LaPierre as the “front man to a dysfunctional, dare I say 'corrupt' (at least in the moral sense if not legally) regime" in an article published on the pro-gun news site Ammoland this weekend.
The fact that the NRA is more money-centric these days wasn’t lost on some longtime members. “I’ve been an NRA member since I was nine years old,” said Roger Redman, 71, from Columbus, Indiana. “It has changed over the years. It’s gotten so big — and is a lot more about money. Do I like it? I prefer the old style.”
And Pincus’ frustration with the NRA isn’t limited to what he sees as financial mismanagement. He also thinks that they’ve alienated large swaths of American gun owners — and potential donors — by getting overly involved in the culture wars and zeroing in on a narrow demographic: namely, white men, and Trump supporters.
For example, Chris Cox, the principal political strategist for the NRA’s legislative arm, took his 10 minutes on the stage during the conference to talk about everything from Jussie Smollett, the “Empire” actor who allegedly faked his own hate crime, to 2020 Democratic hopeful former Vice President Joe Biden’s hair-sniffing habit. "What’s going on with Hollywood these days?” Cox asked. “They hate our trucks, they hate our plastic straws, and they hate our guns.”
"I hunt, trap, fish, and go to church."
NRA spokesperson and NRA-TV personality Dana Loesch has also been accused of taking on issues far beyond the realm of gun rights. Last year, when the children’s TV show “Thomas the Tank Engine” introduced a new Nigerian character, Loesch accused the writers of being too politically correct and broadcast a meme showing the trains wearing KKK hoods on an episode of her show. She’s also been criticized for using her platform as an NRA spokesperson to sound off about issues like abortion.
“I had a conversation today with a group of attendees who specifically said that Dana Loesch’s non-gun rhetoric and opinions keep them from being able to engage more people in his demographic in the gun community,” Pincus said. “And I understand why.”
While some attendees told VICE News they thought the NRA’s political line was “spot-on,” others suggested that they could cool their rhetoric.
“They oughta watch their politics,” said Toby Hullinger, 59, from Fort Wayne, Indiana.
But some were actually concerned that the NRA was going soft and pointed to its initial support for recent federal ban on bump stocks, as well as the organization's lukewarm early support for “red flag laws,” which allow law enforcement to seize guns from people deemed a danger to themselves or others.
“I am worried, yes,” said Stuart Coleman, 63, who owns a gun shop in Vermont. “The NRA has been pretty adamant about standing hard against things. But now they seem to be caving.” Coleman added that there had been chatter at the conference about people leaving the NRA over that perception.
Coleman, an NRA life member, said he’s typically held fundraising events for them in Vermont but lately has been having problems drumming up interest. “People won’t give donations anymore.”
But as far as rumored financial troubles were concerned, attendees said it was just more evidence that gun rights were under attack.
“I think there’s a concern there but also a determination to dig a little deeper,” said Doug Daley, from Mount Vernon, Indiana, who goes to the conference every year. “I’ve heard about fathers and grandfathers talking about buying their kids memberships and boosting NRA numbers.”
On Monday, the NRA board is expected to meet to figure out its next steps.
“There is a clear crisis,” North wrote in his resignation letter, which was read at the convention by NRA Vice President Richard Childress. “It needs to be dealt with immediately and responsibly so the NRA can continue to focus on protecting our Second Amendment.”
Cover: Attendees browse Bushmaster rifles at the company's booth during the National Rifle Association annual meeting in Dallas, Texas, U.S., on Saturday, May 5, 2018. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images