An NRA Insider Tells All

Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president and CEO of the National Rifle Association (NRA) speaks at the NRA annual meeting in Indianapolis, Ind., April 26, 2019. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

A new book paints the organization in a very poor light.




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F
or the past few years, pretty much everyone outside the group has been wondering what the heck is going on with the National Rifle Association. It’s a major presence in American politics with millions of members who vote and a decent amount of money, and it played a big role in electing Donald Trump president. Lately, however, the organization has been in the news mainly for its crazy internal politics and alleged financial mismanagement.

Joshua L. Powell, who from 2016 to 2019 served as a senior strategist for the NRA and chief of staff to its CEO, Wayne LaPierre, has stepped up to tell the tale. The picture he paints in Inside the NRA: A Tell-All Account of Corruption, Greed, and Paranoia within the Most Powerful Political Group in America is pretty much what the title promises. The book provides only a single perspective on a story with many sides, but it is an important document for NRA members and others who want to know what’s going on.

Powell came to the NRA to modernize its operations. As he tells it, the place had simply not kept up with the times. When it spent money trying to attract new members, it didn’t keep the usual metrics about how much each member cost to win and how much they later contributed. Its board had a whopping 76 members. The organization’s structure was a set of fiefdoms run independently from each other; there were even several different marketing and PR operations. Unfortunately, he ended up getting sucked into the dysfunction rather than imposing order on it. He accuses LaPierre of having a terrible management style, avoiding conflict, and getting bullied by other prominent figures in the organization. Most important, Angus McQueen, of the marketing firm Ackerman McQueen, acted as LaPierre’s “puppet master,” despite the fact that Ackerman McQueen was merely a vendor of the organization of which LaPierre was the CEO. LaPierre is not an uncompromising firebrand by nature, but McQueen got him to play one.

Of course, Ackerman McQueen is at the center of a lot of the controversy here. According to Powell, they’d cost the NRA $25 million a year but refuse to provide detailed invoices as to where the money was going, and McQueen would scream at anyone who challenged him. Eventually, of course, the NRA parted ways with Ackerman McQueen and ended NRATV, the costly collection of gun-related video channels that Ackerman had put together, which frequently veered away from Second Amendment issues and into culture-war territory. (Full disclosure, I was occasionally a guest on NRATV to discuss articles I wrote, though I didn’t get paid.)

A legal battle between Ackerman McQueen and the NRA is ongoing. And the Ackerman relationship wasn’t the only problem. Heads within the NRA have rolled left and right lately, including that of Oliver North, who was president (the same largely ceremonial role Charlton Heston once occupied) and had come into the organization through a lucrative NRATV contract. There are allegations of financial shenanigans against LaPierre, including some involving pricey suits, expensive travel, and a $6 million “safe house” that was considered but never purchased. A high-powered lawyer whom Powell helped to bring aboard has raised eyebrows for his costs, too. As for Powell himself, he admits he failed to keep track of some expenses properly and ended up writing a roughly $22,000 check to cover it; he also faced two sexual-harassment claims that he says were baseless. Oh, and don’t forget that whole thing with Maria Butina, the Russian gun activist–slash–spy, which gets a chapter of its own here.

Of course, now the New York attorney general is seeking to dissolve the NRA entirely. The effort is politically motivated, but serious enough to contribute bigly to the aforementioned legal fees. The entire thing is a you-know-what-show, and Inside the NRA offers readers a front-row seat.

To this point I’ve focused on the book’s treatment of internal NRA politics, because that’s where I think Powell’s contribution is most valuable. He also, however, argues for a fundamental shift in strategy for the organization — or another organization in the future — when it comes to gun control, in which the group stops relentlessly saying “no” and focuses more on finding solutions to gun violence.

Powell supports expanding background checks to private sales, for example. I’m a squish on that topic, too, so I’m sympathetic. Oddly, though, he downplays the potential of these laws to prevent crime, and he doesn’t seem to see this as a major concession the organization would make in the event that political reality forced it to. Instead, he thinks background checks would appeal to the millions of gun owners who are not NRA members, and that it would be good to settle the issue so we can “move forward” in the fight against gun violence. (Background checks poll well among the general public — and Powell says that only 50 percent of NRA members oppose them, based on the organization’s own surveys. However, implementing them in a way that doesn’t create a registry and doesn’t interfere with people who, say, borrow family members’ hunting rifles can be tricky, and actual referenda on specific background-check policies tend to produce far closer votes than the polls would predict.)

Yet by Powell’s own description, the NRA’s most successful fundraising efforts come from hyping up a slippery slope to gun bans so that the most fervent Second Amendment supporters send cash. Realistically speaking, is there anywhere near that level of support for an activist organization that preemptively gives ground on its sole issue? And what does he think “moving forward” will mean for the anti-gun crowd once they’ve checked a major item off their list?

This is just one limitation of Powell’s perspective when it comes to matters other than internal NRA politics. At one point he admits that during his time at the NRA, he “spent very little time thinking about the Second Amendment.” And all in all, he just doesn’t give off the sense of someone who’s been immersed in the ground-level gun debate.

He gets stuff wrong in little but telling ways all the time, and because the book repeats itself quite a bit, sometimes he’ll get something wrong in one place but right in another. A few lines that made me want to tear my hair out: He claims a stand-your-ground law justifies lethal force anytime someone “believes he or she is under threat of harm” (see here for a better explanation); he writes that Congress “banned research into gun violence” (see here and here) and “protected gun manufacturers from being sued” (here); he uses the term “assault rifle” when he means “assault weapon” (here); he refers to revolvers as “semiautomatic” (here). Anyone who’s written about firearms, even after a lifetime of owning and shooting them, has slipped up in ways that invited 10,000 comments from gun-terminology pedants — I speak from deep, deep experience on that — but it’s frustrating to see this kind of thing from an NRA insider trying to move the debate.

Not all of Powell’s suggestions are flawed. He has good ideas for protecting schools, ramping up prosecutions against people who try to buy guns illegally, and creating “red-flag laws” that protect due process, for example. But in general, I’d look elsewhere for policy analysis.

This book is billed primarily as a tell-all, however, and as a tell-all it has a lot of value. It provides a window into the NRA’s operations so that members have a better sense of where their money is going. And it makes clear that the organization will have to fix itself if it wants to continue its long record of success in defending gun rights.