Facing new calls for gun controls, National Rifle Association members acknowledged Monday that recent turmoil within the organization isn’t helpful to their cause but said they are hopeful the gun-rights group can ultimately weather the storm.
Financial struggles, a nasty legal feud with its longtime public relations firm, an attempted coup and the resulting departures of top officials have left the NRA reeling. Three more members of the NRA’s board tendered resignations last week, saying their efforts to probe financial irregularities were rebuffed.
J. Kenneth Blackwell, an NRA board member, said someone would have to have “the imagination of Walt Disney” to think that such internal strife isn’t a type of distraction. But he dismissed claims by gun control activists that the NRA is on the run, calling it “fake news.”
“The NRA, like the Marines, never retreats. We just attack from a different direction,” he said. “The NRA has [worked] through these sorts of internal discussions, debates, and changes without losing a step in the public discussions around the Second Amendment.”
Long considered one of the most powerful organizations in Washington’s political circles, the NRA has been buffeted by headwinds, and has been somewhat absent in the public debate following the weekend shooting rampages in Ohio and Texas that claimed the lives of more than 30 people.
It’s an odd position for a group whose $30 million-plus in expenditures were credited with helping elect President Trump in 2016.
Given its troubles, the NRA won’t have resources to repeat that next year, which could sap its power, said Robert Spitzer, a professor at SUNY Cortland who has written extensively on the politics of gun control.
“In the immediate future, they’re not going to be a player in any important way in next year’s elections,” he said. “It does open the door to the gun safety groups, both at the national level and in many of the states.”
Frank Tait, an NRA member who is seeking a seat on the board of directors, said the organization needs to move quickly to fix itself.
“To me, the faster you clear this up, the faster we are going to get healthy,” he said. “I think there’s a distraction issue in terms of all the things that are going on internally, that the organization needs to keep focused on external messaging.”
But Mr. Tait also said the problems at NRA headquarters won’t hinder the grassroots members, instructors and training counselors who do the organization’s heavy lifting.
“That strength doesn’t change with accounting and financial issues on Waples Mill Road,” he said, referring to the address of the group’s Northern Virginia headquarters.
Todd Rathner, another NRA Board member, said the group’s rank-and-file members consistently step up when called upon.
“The membership understands the importance of the 2020 elections as much as the staff does, and my prediction is they’re going to step up,” Mr. Rathner said. “Any legislators who believe that the NRA is not focused on our mission, do so at their own political peril.”
Mr. Tait and others are nevertheless calling for change amid the recent leadership shake-up and accusations of financial improprieties and lavish spending on the part of Executive Vice President and CEO Wayne LaPierre and other top executives.
The three board members who resigned last week said in a letter that the leadership team stonewalled and rebuffed their requests for more information, and that they were stripped of committee assignments for their troubles.
“We hope that our action will serve as a catalyst for much needed reform within the NRA so that it can return its focus to the mission which we remain unwaveringly committed — protecting the Constitution of the United States and especially, the Second Amendment,” wrote the board members — Esther Schneider, Sean Maloney and Timothy Knight.
The NRA appears prepared to move on.
“We look forward to working with our new board members in furthering our noble mission of protecting our Second Amendment rights on behalf of our millions of members,” new NRA president Carolyn Meadows said in response.
Mr. Blackwell said he’d like the NRA to work through what he described as “organizational hiccups.”
“There’s no one in leadership within the NRA that is [an] ostrich with his or her head in the sand,” he said. “We’re problem solvers, and I’m sure these problems will be solved.”
A healthy, well-run NRA “is in the interest of every American gun owner and anyone who cares about Second Amendment rights,” said Dan Zimmerman, an NRA member and managing editor at the website The Truth About Guns.
He said trouble at the organization’s top “reduces their ability to elect people who will support the right to keep and bear arms and to fend off efforts like we’re seeing right now after these kinds of tragedies.”
He called Mr. LaPierre an “albatross” around the neck of the NRA.
“Hopefully at some point, Wayne LaPierre will decide that he should spend the rest of his days playing with the grandchildren,” he said.
But Mr. Rathner said people who want to see Mr. LaPierre removed from his post are misguided, and that he retains strong support from the board. “He’s led the Second Amendment movement in this country for 40 years,” he said.