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May 29, 2022, 3:57 p.m. EDT

As U.S. mourns shootings, NRA is in turmoil — but the gun group’s influence remains

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By Associated Press

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The NRA has a built a well of goodwill by disbursing more than $70 million to further the political ambitions of Republicans who currently serve in Congress, often by running ads attacking Democrats, according to an analysis of data from the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks political spending. They’ve spent a comparatively small $171,000 helping pro-gun Democrats who are currently in the House or Senate, the analysis shows.

The NRA’s gold-standard endorsements are also sought after by Republican candidates, particularly in primary elections, where they serve as a cultural shorthand for what it means to be a conservative. Receiving a poor letter grade from the organization can be a major source of concern.

Still, as the NRA gathered this past week in Houston for its first convention since 2019, current and former board members say the secretive organization must confront a growing crisis.

The New York Attorney General’s office filed a lawsuit seeking to dissolve the organization. Court proceedings have revealed how LaPierre and others diverted tens of millions of dollars for lavish personal trips and no-show contracts for associates, among other questionable expenditures.

That led the organization to file for bankruptcy in 2021. But a judge dismissed the case, which was brought by LaPierre without the consent of the NRA board, ruling it was not filed in good faith.

The financial difficulties have led to mass layoffs, a reduction in programs and a sharp drop in political spending, which had reached an apex in 2016 when the organization spent $54 million, most of it helping Donald Trump win the White House.

NRA contributions have dropped sharply in the past two years, according to campaign finance data compiled by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks money in politics.

“The NRA is becoming really a shell of its former self,” said former NRA board member Rocky Marshall. “It cannot carry out the mission of the NRA because all the money is being spent on attorneys.”

Marshall is backing a push to replace LaPierre with Allen West, the former chairman of the Texas GOP party. Marshall is also hoping to pull back from the culture wars and find common ground with gun-safety advocates. “Instead of being antagonistic or defensive, we need to have a dialogue because we can do a lot more to prevent gun violence like this.”

One area where the NRA remains formidable is its lobbying of the federal government. In 2021, the organization nearly tied its past records set in 2017 and 2018, spending over $4.8 million, records show.

Firearms themselves are part of the culture as well. Gun purchases grew enormously during the pandemic, and a 2021 National Firearms Survey found that 81 million Americans are gun owners. While the NRA only claims a fraction of that, about 5 million, as members, they tend to be vocal.

NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam said that declarations of the group’s demise are “wishful thinking on the part of our detractors.”

“The reality is significantly different and the results speak for themselves,” he said.

Still, an NRA brand that some view as toxic has presented an opportunity for other gun-rights groups, including some that strike a more measured tone.

The National Shooting Sports Foundation, which represents gun sellers, spent over $4.8 million on lobbying last year, reaching parity with the NRA. It’s avoided heated partisan rhetoric and has a growing influence as the NRA star has waned.

“We are not going to approach those who disagree with our viewpoints or our industry in a denigrating manner,” said Mark Oliva, the managing director of public affairs for NSSF.

The gun-rights movement also continues to have success at the state level, where it has focused on repealing laws requiring a permit to carry a concealed handgun.

Roughly half the states in the U.S. have rolled back such laws, with Texas, Indiana and Tennessee all doing so in the past year.

The Supreme Court, meanwhile, is expected to soon issue its biggest gun ruling in more than a decade, one expected to make it easier to carry guns in public in some of the nation’s largest cities.

For gun owners who traveled from around the country for the convention, the NRA remains a lodestar. Barbara Galis, 75, of Racine, Wisconsin, said she is concerned about the allegations of mismanagement but isn’t sure another organization “has the influence to support gun rights.”

“What other avenue do we have? Where do we go?” she said.

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