No matter what side of the gun rights debate you're on, New York Attorney General Letitia James' and D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine's efforts to dissolve the National Rifle Association and its charitable arm are verifiably good things.
For those who oppose the NRA, it's clear that Thursday was a good day. Having the state attorney general sue to yank the charter of the NRA in New York — where it was founded in 1871 — and claw back millions of dollars in misspent funds that were used to enrich senior management and their friends is a win for the organization's many political opponents. And having D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine's office also sue the NRA Foundation for its failure to pursue charitable purposes is just icing on the gun control cake.
If even part of what these suits allege proves to be true, the organization that has led the fight to expand Second Amendment freedoms — well beyond even Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia's views on the matter — will have been shown to be incompetent, corrupt, dishonest and hopelessly partisan.
But if you're concerned about preserving the rights of responsible hunters, target shooters and folks who feel they need guns to protect themselves and their loved ones — as I am — this is still a pretty good day.
For too long, the NRA, because of leaders like Wayne LaPierre, has failed responsible gun owners like me. Rather than fulfill its traditional, stated role of educating Americans about firearms and supporting programs to train us to use them safely, the NRA has spent the last generation focusing on politics — now entirely GOP politics — and the interests of gun manufacturers, not owners.
As a result, our national debate on guns is painfully short on facts and explanations and long on emotions and partisan bickering. And still, rather than educate all Americans about responsible gun ownership, the NRA has continually sought to divide us by focusing on the extremists while helping the manufacturers sell as much as they can for as long as they can, despite the potentially calamitous long-term political prospects for responsible gun owners.
Meanwhile, this country's current relationship with guns has — to say the least — grown increasingly problematic. We've had a rash of shootings in America in recent years, from the mass shootings at schools, shopping centers, concerts, theaters, bars and fairgrounds that we hear about in the news to the smaller tragedies that are hardly noticed. Elections at every level frequently turn, at least in part, on questions about guns — from who has them or where and when they're appropriate to what kinds of guns are available and what law enforcement can do about it.
If you're one of the millions of Americans who own guns and want to keep them, you need a competent, effective organization standing up for you. But Wayne LaPierre's NRA is not, and has not been, it.
Instead, despite solid social science and opinion research, the NRA has had but one answer to every debate about gun ownership: There should be no restrictions of any kind on anyone who wants to buy, sell, own or carry any kind of firearm in any place at any time, and anyone who says otherwise actually supports universal forced disarmament. And there is only one answer to every debate about how to ameliorate gun violence: send thoughts and prayers for the victims, see whether there's a Democrat to blame and hope that the next time more of the potential victims and bystanders will be properly armed. (And oh, by the way, it needs more money.)
The NRA's failures to actually fulfill its role of representing responsible gun owners have been on display for years. After decades of claiming that unfettered gun ownership was needed to counter tyrannical governmental overreach, the NRA has been conspicuously silent about injustices like the death of Breonna Taylor at the hands of police in Louisville, Kentucky, this year (even after failing to take action after the death of Philando Castile at the hands of police in Minneapolis in 2016) and the actions of unidentified federal paramilitary forces on the streets of Portland, Oregon. (Even Ammon Bundy thinks that's wrong.)
Thursday's lawsuits showed that what was going on at the organization was actually worse than all of that.
It wasn't, I suppose, any surprise that Wayne LaPierre and his friends have become very wealthy during his 39-year tenure as the head of the NRA; indeed, the huge increases in membership and their fundraising successes have long been touted as justification for their giant salaries and bonuses. And I guess it wasn't any surprise that the NRA and the NRA Foundation have pushed the edge of the envelope on what a nonprofit organization can do with donated funds; LaPierre and his friends have long held that these excesses are necessary to defend the civil rights of their members.
What's surprising is just how much more money the leadership is alleged to have been taking from its members — and how many internal controls and tax laws they are alleged to have skirted to do it — while doing so very little to advance their stated goals.
If only part of what's alleged in the New York and D.C. suits proves to be true, LaPierre and his friends have paid themselves tens of millions of dollars in unearned compensation — including at least $64 million worth of lavish vacations, private jets, enormous personal expenses, luxury goods and payoffs for sexual harassment funneled through vendors as business expenses in the last three years alone. Their foundation, organized to support charitable purposes, is alleged also to have lent millions to the NRA proper to offset its budget deficits while supposedly paying millions more in management fees and pursuing almost no charitable purposes whatsoever. The attorneys general charge that the organizations lied to the IRS, state agencies and their own board about where the money was going, hired incompetent and unqualified cronies to solidify their positions and inserted multimillion-dollar poison pills in leaders' contracts to make it extremely expensive to fire them if anyone ever amassed the power to do so.
And now, facing the possible loss of their tax-exempt status and the loss of membership dues, sponsorships and alternative income streams, like its ill-conceived insurance plan, the NRA has gone so far as to claim that it might soon be "unable to exist."
As a gun owner, I'm not sure I see what's wrong with that.
Many, including the NRA leadership and the White House, have come out to say these cases are part of a dishonest and hopelessly partisan attempt to silence the nation's longest-standing civil rights organization. But it's clear to me, even if it's not to them: All of this could have been avoided if the leaders of the NRA, at any point in the past few years, had opted to serve their members' needs rather than their own personal interests. Civil rights organizations serve the needs of the many, not the bank accounts of the few.
The NRA will, of course, get its day in court — hopefully with a better lawyer than it has had for the last few years — but it's pretty tough to continue to argue in the court of public opinion that Wayne LaPierre and his friends are doing a good job representing the interests of the average American gun owner, let alone that they should make more money than the various professionals who run other major nonprofits around the country and aren't being sued for malfeasance and mismanagement.
If you're concerned about your right to keep and bear arms and who's fighting to preserve that right, you should want someone else to lead the NRA tomorrow — or you should want another organization to have the money its leaders squandered on themselves to take up the fight they stopped caring about.