(T)he N.R.A. is troubled; in recent years, it has run annual deficits of as much as forty million dollars. It is not unusual for nonprofits to ask prospective donors to help forestall disaster. What is unusual is the extent to which such warnings have become the central activity of the N.R.A. Even as the association has reduced spending on its avowed core mission—gun education, safety, and training—to less than ten per cent of its total budget, it has substantially increased its spending on messaging. The N.R.A. is now mainly a media company, promoting a life style built around loving guns and hating anyone who might take them away.
On NRATV, the organization’s programming network, the popular host Grant Stinchfield might appear in a “Socialist Tears” T-shirt, taking a sledgehammer to a television set cycling through liberal news shows. The platform’s Twitter account circulates videos of the spokesperson Dana Loesch, a former Breitbart News editor who has said that mainstream journalists are “the rat bastards of the earth” and deserve to be “curb-stomped.” Over menacing images of masked rioters, she asserts that the only way to stop the left is to “fight its violence of lies with the clenched fist of truth.” A lawyer and activist called Colion Noir, whose real name is Collins Idehen, Jr., also has a large following. After the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, Florida, Noir appeared in a video chiding “all the kids from Parkland getting ready to use your First Amendment to attack everyone else’s Second Amendment.”
Loesch and Noir have become the primary public faces of the N.R.A.; at events, enormous banners feature their images alongside those of LaPierre and Chris Cox, the organization’s top lobbyist. But Loesch and Noir are not technically employed by the N.R.A. Instead, they are paid by Ackerman McQueen, a public-relations firm based in Oklahoma. In at least one year, Loesch earned close to a million dollars, according to a source who has seen her contract.
For more than three decades, Ackerman has shaped the N.R.A.’s public identity, helping to build it from a niche activist organization into a ubiquitous presence in American popular culture. Ackerman produces the N.R.A. magazine America’s 1st Freedom and has devised its most successful ad campaigns, including one called “I’m the N.R.A.,” for which it recruited gun owners, including the actor Tom Selleck and the basketball star Karl Malone, to pose with their weapons. More recently, Ackerman produced a series called “Freedom’s Safest Place,” in which conservative icons inveigh against liberals and terrorists. In a segment from 2016, the country-music star Charlie Daniels warns the “ayatollahs of Iran” that they may be acquainted with “our fresh-faced flower-child President,” but they “haven’t met the heartland—or the people who will defend this nation with their bloody, calloused bare hands.”
The N.R.A. and Ackerman have become so intertwined that it is difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins. Top officials and staff move freely between the two organizations; Oliver North, the former Iran-Contra operative, who now serves as the N.R.A.’s president, is paid roughly a million dollars a year through Ackerman, according to two N.R.A. sources. But this relationship, which in many ways has built the contemporary N.R.A., seems also to be largely responsible for the N.R.A.’s dire financial state. According to interviews and to documents that I obtained—federal tax forms, charity records, contracts, corporate filings, and internal communications—a small group of N.R.A. executives, contractors, and venders has extracted hundreds of millions of dollars from the nonprofit’s budget, through gratuitous payments, sweetheart deals, and opaque financial arrangements. Memos created by a senior N.R.A. employee describe a workplace distinguished by secrecy, self-dealing, and greed, whose leaders have encouraged disastrous business ventures and questionable partnerships, and have marginalized those who object. “Management has subordinated its judgment to the vendors,” the documents allege. “Trust in the top has eroded.”
Ackerman McQueen provides the N.R.A. with public-relations work, marketing, branding, corporate communications, event planning, Web design, social-media engagement, and digital-content production. It wields great influence over the N.R.A.’s initiatives and is involved with nearly all of the group’s divisions, with the exception of its lobbying arm, the Institute for Legislative Action, where, according to former employees, Ackerman’s messaging sometimes undermines the group’s efforts. In 2012, after a gunman murdered twenty children and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School, in Newtown, Connecticut, LaPierre argued that the best way to prevent such atrocities was to install armed police officers in schools. When President Barack Obama criticized this reasoning, Ackerman responded with an ad noting that Obama’s children received Secret Service protection. An ominous voice-over asked, “Are the President’s kids more important than yours?” At the time, N.R.A. lobbyists were negotiating with federal lawmakers over potential regulations. The organization maintained friendly relations with several Democratic legislators, including Mary Landrieu, a senator from Louisiana. According to a former staffer, the ad caused Landrieu and others to “freak out,” nearly ending those relationships. “Ackerman never cleared that ad with us,” the former staffer recalled. “We had no oversight over Ackerman McQueen.” (Landrieu could not be reached for comment.)
Many N.R.A. employees have long suspected Ackerman of inflating the cost of the services it provides, but its relationships with executives remain strong. For instance, the company has worked closely with LaPierre’s wife, Susan, who maintains an Ackerman e-mail address and was briefly employed there, in the mid-nineties. She now volunteers as a co-chair of the N.R.A.’s Women’s Leadership Forum. Every year, she hosts a luxurious retreat for women who make sizable donations, at which they go on shooting expeditions and mingle with conservative celebrities such as Carly Fiorina and Dick and Liz Cheney. At the N.R.A.’s annual convention, she hosts a W.L.F. lunch and auction. In 2017, she interviewed Trump’s senior adviser Kellyanne Conway onstage, embracing her and calling her “my friend.” Ackerman arranges speakers for these events and provides marketing materials, including glossy brochures that feature photographs of Susan on nearly every page. A former N.R.A. staffer told me that Ackerman “made Susan the face of the W.L.F. project. It pulled Wayne even closer to the firm.”
As the relationship between the N.R.A. and Ackerman strengthened, some employees became disgruntled. “Most staffers think that Ackerman is too expensive,” Aaron Davis, who spent a decade working in the N.R.A.’s fund-raising department, told me. “They think they’re just using the N.R.A. to make a massive profit.” Davis, a former special-education teacher from rural South Carolina, started at the N.R.A. in 2005, drawn by the organization’s mission. The staff was underpaid but devoted, with what Davis described as a “rah-rah” attitude. Fund-raising was difficult. Often, Davis told me, potential donors were put off by the N.R.A.’s divisive politics and concerned about what their neighbors would think. He and his colleagues tended to do best with small donors; often, their most successful pitch was persuading people to include donations in their wills.
In 2010, Tyler Schropp, a former executive at the Mercury Group, was brought in to lead the N.R.A.’s advancement team, a fund-raising group that targets wealthy members. As Schropp reshaped the department, he steered more business toward Ackerman McQueen; Davis recalled that the relationship “skyrocketed.”
Schropp oversaw the production of a magazine, Ring of Freedom, which Ackerman had devised to feature wealthy donors. “It was a beautiful magazine,” Davis said. “Rather than do your typical N.R.A. language, which is more hard-hitting, this was meant to tell the stories, the life styles of the donor. So if someone had an airplane, or a collection of Ferraris, we would put that in the magazine.”
N.R.A. employees found the magazines startlingly expensive to produce. “Typically, you’d print around twenty-five hundred copies,” Davis said. “Most of those copies wouldn’t even get used.” At one point, a fund-raising guru came in to give a daylong seminar. “He holds up one of our marketing materials that Ackerman had produced,” Davis said. “He goes, ‘This actually will hurt you. Donors don’t want to see that you’re spending so much money when they give a large gift.’ ”
The N.R.A.’s tax filings suggest that the advancement team generates only a small portion of revenues, with the “vast majority” of contributions coming instead from “millions of small individual donors.” Still, Schropp’s department spends lavishly; his annual compensation has grown to more than six hundred and twenty thousand dollars. “I was doing fund-raising dinners where wine was pouring freely, and going to dinners with other N.R.A. executives where the bill would be a thousand dollars—just to go out to dinner!” Davis said. He estimated that “at least eighty per cent” of his colleagues brought in less money than they were paid. “I just thought, If the typical N.R.A. member knew that this is how the organization really works, then there’s no way they would give money.” But Davis felt that the culture of the organization discouraged complaints. “If you’re in a war and your commanders are doing something you disagree with, you don’t just go up and question them,” he said.
The advancement team—roughly thirty staff members—increasingly relied on Ackerman employees. Davis was impressed by their work. “They were topnotch,” he told me. “They did beautiful graphic design, great writing, and we started to lean on them. Over time, we ended up giving almost all of our P.R. projects to Ackerman McQueen.” As the firm’s employees visited the office more frequently, the staff began noticing Lexuses in the parking lot, alongside their own beat-up cars. “I mean, they had a lot going on for them, but they weren’t your folks who were interested in Second Amendment politics,” Davis said. They were “your typical New York or Austin types that are excited about doing really big projects and creative projects. N.R.A. being kind of propaganda gave them the opportunity to do marketing in a way they couldn’t do for any other organization.” He suggested that Ackerman’s approach was impossible to reconcile with the ideals that had drawn him to the N.R.A. “They’re a for-profit organization, trying to do things that would bring more money to them,” he said. “They have completely different intentions than a nonprofit should have, which is for the common good.”
Board members, particularly those who had served for a long time, grew uncomfortable. Once, Davis recalled, he took a board member to lunch to request a donation: “He just looks at me, and he goes, ‘You know, I like you, but I hate your department.’ I said, ‘Why?’ He says, ‘Because N.R.A. is not fancy Italian shoes with thousand-dollar suits. N.R.A. is the backbone of this country, wearing bluejeans and boots. And your division is taking us to a whole ’nother place.’ ”
Ackerman had been deeply involved in developing Carry Guard, and it marketed the insurance aggressively, through e-mail campaigns and an NRATV program called “Carry Guard Daily.” The promotional literature included a guide called “Surviving the Aftermath of a Self-Defense Shooting,” which advised prospective buyers that it was important to “establish for police that you were in fear for your life and did what you felt was necessary.”
According to sources familiar with the N.R.A.’s business decisions, Carry Guard was intended to secure the organization’s long-term prosperity. The N.R.A. had spent more than fifty million dollars on the 2016 elections, mostly in support of Donald Trump, and it badly needed revenue. Brian Mittendorf, the chair of the accounting department at Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business, has analyzed eleven years’ worth of the organization’s public financial statements, starting in 2007. In seven of those years, he told me, “the N.R.A. owed more money to others than it had at its discretion to spend.” A financial audit from 2017 revealed that it had nearly reached the limit of a twenty-five-million-dollar line of credit. Additionally, it had been forced to liquidate more than two million dollars from an investment fund, borrow almost four million from its officers’ life-insurance policies, and tap another five million from its affiliated charitable foundation.
Carry Guard inspired controversy from the start. Gun-control activists disparaged it as “murder insurance.” Staff members questioned the value of the program, but, according to the memos I obtained, there was “intimidation of ppl who disagreed.” After the Parkland shooting, in early 2018, the New York State Department of Financial Services advised financial institutions to carefully assess the risks “that may arise from their dealings with the N.R.A. or similar gun promotion organizations.” At the time, the D.F.S. was concluding a long investigation into Carry Guard, which found that the program violated regulations that prevent unlicensed entities from marketing insurance and prohibit insuring a criminal act. In May, 2018, the department said Carry Guard could no longer be sold in the state.
The 2017 tax filings, prepared at Cummins’s direction, gave the first full accounting of how much the N.R.A. was paying Ackerman McQueen and its affiliates: $40.9 million, or about twelve per cent of total expenses that year. Federal regulations require very limited disclosure of how much nonprofit organizations pay their venders, so in previous years the N.R.A.’s filings had not disclosed payments to Ackerman’s affiliates, or any payments that were meant to reimburse expenses. These omissions were probably substantial. The 2017 filing acknowledged a payment of $5.6 million to the Mercury Group, which, despite years of close association with the N.R.A., hadn’t been mentioned in any previous filings.
Cummins explained to the board that Ackerman and other venders were generating enormous expenses and getting paid through multiple entities, in a way that obscured payments. One such arrangement involved a company called Membership Marketing Partners, which provides direct-mail fund-raising. In 2017, the N.R.A. paid M.M.P. nearly twelve million dollars. At the same time, it directed almost eight hundred thousand dollars to a firm called Allegiance Creative Group, for “fundraising counsel.” Allegiance doesn’t have a Web site, but, according to state filings, at least ten of its fifteen employees also work at M.M.P. The president and C.E.O. of both companies is Gurney Sloan, who previously worked as a senior vice-president at Ackerman McQueen. This kind of arrangement is not illegal, but, as the former I.R.S. manager Marc Owens told me, “Multiple names for the same entity suggest an effort to disguise the extent of contact. Most organizations have centralized accounting so they can track how much is owed.”
After Cummins’s presentation ended, Brewer took over to discuss what the agenda from the meeting refers to as “related party transactions”— arrangements that could improperly enrich N.R.A. leaders or their associates. Before he spoke, most of the staff members were asked to leave the room. But the memos suggest some of the concerns. They assert that about a quarter of the organization’s staff is “now managed by former employees” of Ackerman who have been hired by the N.R.A., creating “financial conflicts of interest.” As an example, the documents note $2.6 million paid to a corporate entity called Under Wild Skies, whose annual reports list Tony Makris as president, the same position he holds with the Mercury Group. “Under Wild Skies” is also the name of a TV show, broadcast on the Outdoor Channel, that features Makris and his guests, including Revan McQueen, tracking big game in such far-flung locales as Botswana’s Okavango Delta. (“Under Wild Skies” used to appear on mainstream TV, but NBC Sports ended its run after Makris, on camera, shot an elephant in the face.) According to a recent article in the Times, the N.R.A. has paid Under Wild Skies some eighteen million dollars since 2010. Until recently, Tyler Schropp, who runs the N.R.A.’s advancement team, the large-donor program, also served as the treasurer of Under Wild Skies. Brewer, the lawyer, told the Times that Schropp had “a minuscule interest” in the company, and that he had relinquished his stake. But N.R.A. officials were evidently concerned; in documents filed soon after the audit committee met in July, Schropp’s name was listed among the officers of Under Wild Skies, but had been crossed out by hand.
One of the memos alleges that “protecting the N.R.A. now means protecting and enriching the officers and Tyler”—a reference to Schropp. His advancement team, despite having dozens of full-time staff members, has paid consultants millions of dollars for “identifying prospective high net worth individuals” and “providing advice and support.”
Last August, the N.R.A., in desperate need of funds, raised its dues for the second time in two years. To cut costs, it has eliminated free coffee and water coolers at its headquarters and has frozen its employees’ pension plan. Carry Guard, which was meant to save the organization, has proved disastrous. According to the memos, in 2017, the year that Carry Guard was introduced, Ackerman McQueen received some six million dollars for its work on the product, which included the creation of a Web site and media productions featuring celebrity firearms trainers. The lawsuit against New York State has created an additional burden. Sources familiar with the N.R.A.’s financial commitments say that it is paying Brewer’s firm an average of a million and a half dollars a month.
An official assessment performed by Cummins last summer dryly describes the N.R.A.’s decision-making during the previous year as “management’s shift in risk appetite.” The document analyzes the organization’s executive-liability exposures and discusses insurance policies that “protect NRA directors and officers from claims by third parties that they have breached their duties, such as by mismanagement of association assets.” From 2018 to 2019, it says, insurance costs increased by three hundred and forty-one per cent. “To say this is a major increase would be an understatement,” Peter Kochenburger, the deputy director of the Insurance Law Center at the University of Connecticut, told me. “This seems to be pretty direct evidence that the N.R.A.’s problems are not due to New York but rather to how the organization conducts itself.”
The memos urged the audit committee to “step up + fulfill its duties!,” but it’s not clear what the board has done to root out malfeasance. James Fishman, a co-author of “New York Nonprofit Law and Practice: With Tax Analysis,” a leading text on nonprofit law, told me, “There is no such thing as a director who doesn’t direct. You’re responsible to make yourself aware of what’s going on. If the board doesn’t know, they’ve breached their duty of care, which is against the law in New York,” where the N.R.A. is chartered. According to Owens, the former I.R.S. official, New York State “could sanction board members, remove board members, disband the board, or close down the organization entirely.”
Since the emergency meeting in July, sources familiar with the board’s decisions say, the audit committee has retroactively signed off on at least some of the N.R.A.’s problematic transactions. “That does legitimize them,” Owens said, “but a regulator would want to know why the process was unfolding this way, especially if it’s part of a larger pattern.” Last fall, the N.R.A. made its 2017 tax filings public, revealing its payments to Ackerman McQueen and its affiliates. I asked the N.R.A., at the time, why it had made these disclosures, and a spokesperson told me that it was “in an effort to offer greater visibility into the dealings of the Association and foundation.” On April 12th, the N.R.A. embarked on another lawsuit—against Ackerman McQueen. The suit alleges that Ackerman has denied the N.R.A. access to basic business records, including the terms of Oliver North’s contract, and blames the firm for throwing it into an existential crisis. Ackerman’s general lack of transparency, the complaint says, “threatens to imminently and irreparably harm” the N.R.A.’s status as a nonprofit organization. (In response, the marketing firm issued a statement saying it “has served the NRA and its members with great pride and dedication for the last 38 years. The NRA’s action is frivolous, inaccurate and intended to cause harm to the reputation of our company and the future of that 38-year relationship.”)
But the N.R.A.’s leaders also remain focussed on threats from outside. On March 2nd, LaPierre delivered his annual speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference. He told the crowd, “In real time right before your very eyes, we, the National Rifle Association, on behalf of all Americans, are fighting perhaps the most important piece of First Amendment constitutional advocacy in the history of our country.” The suit against New York State, he said, “will decide whether or not government can be weaponized against you if your opinion differs from theirs.” The N.R.A. now has a Web page devoted to soliciting donations to support the suit. “Please give as generously as you can,” the text urges, “and help win this life-or-death legal battle for the survival of the N.R.A. and freedom.”