Culture & Society

How the NRA Forgot Its Roots and Joined the Culture War

A new book by Tim Mak, ‘Misfire: Inside the Downfall of the NRA,’ tells a story that’s repeated in organizations on the left and right

The National Rifle Association’s Wayne LaPierre at the group’s 2019 meeting in Indianapolis. Image Credit: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

What causes an organization, founded and devoted for decades to a single cause, to lose its way so completely that it subjugates the very purpose of its existence to a different cause altogether?

In the past decade, we’ve seen several high-profile organizations as well as entire sectors—from the American Civil Liberties Union to the news media—shift their focus dramatically. In fact, they’ve made themselves almost unrecognizable to members and leaders of just a generation ago. Journalist Tim Mak explores one highly publicized instance of this in his thoroughly researched and vividly written “Misfire: Inside the Downfall of the NRA.” It’s a case study of how one powerful organization allowed itself to be pulled away from its principles and dragged into the culture war.

Mak highlights a fundamental mismatch between what the NRA was as recently as a decade ago and what it is today. “The National Rifle Association has a ‘Field & Stream’ membership with a ‘Fox & Friends’ leadership,” as he puts it. This is key to understanding how America’s premier defender of Second Amendment rights and an indispensable source of firearms safety instruction became a “freedom organization” (in the words of one executive) fighting in the trenches of the culture war. Drawing on more than 100 interviews and thousands of pages of documents, Mak crafts a compelling story about the personalities, decisions and failures of governance that transformed the organization.

That the NRA changed significantly was obvious to anyone paying attention. What Mak, a reporter for National Public Radio, helps readers understand is why it changed. His story suggests two main and intertwined reasons: poor leadership and loss of mission. The former grabs the headlines, but the latter is more interesting.

First is the matter of leadership. Mak describes an organization riven with fiefdoms, rivalries and internecine squabbles—“a country full of warlords [where] it’s every man for himself,” in the words of one insider. At the top of this sits Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s longtime executive vice president, who nominally reports to a sprawling dozens-strong board of directors that provides little oversight of the organization’s leadership and its activities.

Mak places this failure at the feet of LaPierre. In Mak’s telling, he has “no core” and makes decisions based on who was yelling at him the most loudly (usually figuratively, sometimes literally). Mak’s depiction of LaPierre can come across as over the top; an incomplete list of the adjectives Mak uses to describe the executive includes clumsy, meek, spastic, absent-minded, awkward, gangly, anxious, weak-willed and insecure.

This focus on one executive—as powerful as LaPierre certainly is—distracts from an examination of the organization’s culture—the part of the story where Mak’s journalism is at its most incisive. The relationship between the NRA and its Oklahoma-based advertising firm, Ackerman McQueen (known colloquially as Ack-Mac), is representative of this culture. Among the many irregularities that Mak documents is the apparently regular practice of NRA executives billing questionable expenses to Ack-Mac, which were in turn billed back to the NRA. This was how the NRA came to spend $275,000 on LaPierre’s clothes and almost bought him a mansion in Texas. The NRA and the advertising firm are now locked in a grueling legal fight.

More interesting than the tawdry tales of flagrantly wasted donor resources, however, is how the NRA lost its mission in the fog of the culture war of the 2010s. And here is where “Misfire” really shines—and provides an instructive case study of how a worldview devoid of nuance and shades of gray has entrapped so much of our society.

Sandy Hook Marks a Change

He points to the Sandy Hook shootings in 2013 as the inflection point for the NRA. Previously, after significant gun-related tragedies, the organization had usually adopted a quiet approach (at least in word, if not in deed). For instance, after the 1999 Columbine shootings, LaPierre delivered a speech calling for “absolutely gun-free, zero-tolerance, totally safe schools. That means no guns in America’s schools. Period.”

To be sure, the NRA had long been a highly political organization, especially since its famous 1977 membership meeting. It is aggressive in its defense of the Second Amendment and has never been nearly as conciliatory as it often tried to portray itself. But being strategically aggressive is different from being constantly on the attack. From 1977 to 2013, it was aggressive. Afterward it was something else entirely.

After the Sandy Hook murders, the NRA came out punching. That’s when LaPierre delivered his famous line, “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” which, Mak writes, “would shape the NRA’s messaging for years.” The messaging was Ackerman McQueen’s handiwork.

The NRA had long had a dual mandate, in the phraseology of the Federal Reserve—and as with the Fed, the two mandates sometimes conflict. For most of its 150-year history, the NRA concentrated on teaching firearm safety and proficiency. It certified instructors and worked with organizations such as the Boy Scouts of America to normalize the safe use of guns. And it sponsored shooting events while offering courses for hunters. In this way, it fought for a pro-gun culture on the grassroots level by championing the responsible possession and sporting use of firearms. It helped advance the idea that “guns are normal and normal people use guns,” to borrow a phrase from Wake Forest sociologist David Yamane.

Creating a Gun-Owning Ideology

More importantly, “the NRA cultivated a distinct worldview around guns—framing gun ownership as an identity that was tied to a broader, gun-centric political ideology,” political scientist Matthew Lacombe argues. Indeed, Lacombe places the NRA’s creation of an identity based around gun ownership at the core of the organization’s political power.

But the NRA also has long been a strong advocate for Second Amendment rights in Congress, statehouses and the courts. Mak notes that this was the better-known side of the NRA, especially by those with a distaste for gun rights and gun culture, and that it came to define the NRA in the public consciousness. When push came to shove, this is where the NRA doubled down. It converted itself from a Republican-leaning nonpartisan organization (LaPierre and former chief lobbyist Chris Cox both came out of Democratic Party politics) that was focused on forging a pro-Second Amendment legislative consensus into an aggressive partisan in the culture war.

As Lacombe points out, by 2015, aspiring GOP presidential candidates were earning cheers at the NRA’s annual meeting speaking not just about gun rights but also terrorism, immigration and Obamacare. Then 2016 saw the launch of NRATV, an ill-fated online streaming service; much of the content was far afield from firearms and the outdoors and reveled in “owning the libs.”

The NRA certainly isn’t the only organization and movement that has made such a Manichean turn in American public life in the past decade or so. Many have jettisoned the commitment to their original aim in favor of taking absolute stands on positions that sometimes run directly counter to their stated purpose.

The ACLU, for example, has largely abandoned its storied and principled defense of free speech and civil liberties in favor of supporting a panoply of left-wing culture war issues. Indeed, the ACLU’s change is even more noticeable than the NRA’s in that it has in many cases adopted tactics and objectives that directly contravene its long-held beliefs and goals.

Book-Banning Is Fine Now

Today, the head of the ACLU’s free speech work says, “At the ACLU, free speech is one of 12 or 15 different values”—quite a change for an organization long venerated for its unwavering commitment to the First Amendment. In recent months, the organization has Bowdlerized a quote from a progressive icon, the late Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, to remove the word “women” in reference to childbirth, and ignored its commitment to the rights of the accused in statements about the Kyle Rittenhouse verdict. Last year, the ACLU’s deputy director for transgender justice unapologetically advocated banning a book that took a dissenting view on teenage gender dysphoria. Last year, the organization’s executive director referred to the ACLU as a “domestic human rights organization,” presumably with an almost infinitely malleable definition of human rights that allows the organization to take sides on such non-civil liberties issues as paid family leave and student loan forgiveness.

A move away from a robust commitment to principle and gradual reform toward culture war antagonism changed the membership of the ACLU, which in turn drove further change. The ACLU quadrupled its membership after Donald Trump’s election and increased its online donations by roughly thirtyfold. One can assume the new members weren’t interested in the ACLU’s traditional liberal mission; rather, they wanted to wage a progressive fight against the incoming administration. The NRA’s membership numbers have been steadier than the ACLU’s, though it’s likely that the 225,000 members added in the first six months of the Biden administration bought into the organization’s culture war ethos, and the older-style members are dying off or leaving.

A seemingly subtle change in business models can have profound effects on the incentives for companies and organizations. What’s happened with the NRA and the ACLU echoes what’s happened in much of the media, as Andrey Mir has documented:

In the 20th century, advertising revenue made up roughly 75% of the budget for most daily newspapers. Companies charged only a nominal price for subscriptions, sometimes not covering the cost of delivery, in an effort to build a large audience for advertisers. As advertising fell, however, newspapers started charging higher and higher prices for subscriptions and individual copies, and then began charging for online subscriptions in the late ’00s. Newspapers started seeing reader revenue as the last hope for staying in business.

In 2014, the model flipped: For the first time, circulation and subscription revenue exceeded advertising revenue at newspapers worldwide. That came just after the U.S. newspaper industry reached a milestone: In 2013 print ad revenue adjusted for inflation fell below its level in 1950, the year the industry started measuring ad revenue and when the U.S. population was less than half its current size. . . .

With readers now holding most of the cards, the nature of journalism changed. Its dependence on advertising had determined much of how it was conducted. But the more that news organizations depended on reader revenue, the more they needed to cater—some critics say pander—to readers. “The basic assumption of the news business model—the subsidy that advertisers have long provided to news content—is gone,” said Larry Kilman, secretary-general of the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers, in 2015. “This is a seismic shift from a strong business-to-business emphasis—publishers to advertisers—to a growing business-to-consumer emphasis, publishers to audiences.”

This trend extends far beyond the NRA, the ACLU and the news media. Consider this paragraph from The Washington Post last month:

[Climate change group] Sunrise DC took its political positions to a new level last month, wading into the ugliness of bigotry and Jew-hatred when the organization backed out of a voting rights rally organized by Statehood DC because of the participation of three Jewish organizations that support Israel. Calling Israel a “colonial project,” Sunrise DC conveniently called out just the Jewish organizations participating in the rally without commenting on the countless other participating groups that also support Zionism and the state of Israel.

What a climate-change group or Jewish organizations have to do with DC statehood is unclear. What DC statehood has to do with Middle East politics is muddier still—except to the mind attuned to a culture war in which there can be only two sides, compromise is impossible, and all coalition partners must be vetted for complete ideological agreement.

Professional associations are being pulled into this as well. In 2014, the Modern Language Association tore itself asunder over the Israel-Palestine conflict. The American Medical Association and American Association of Medical Colleges this fall have jumped into the culture war too, as have medical and scientific journals.

The Future of the NRA

Despite the title of Mak’s book, it’s not clear that the NRA has suffered a downfall. Those on the left who accuse the NRA of “buying” politicians fail to recognize that the organization’s real power comes from its members and the members of its state affiliates. Four in 10 American households own guns, and gun ownership has increased dramatically in the past two years. As Mak writes, “Some make the mistake of thinking that the NRA’s power comes from political contributions or money from the gun industry.” But when pushed into a corner, its lobbyists flashed “their real power: their mailing lists and ability to mobilize.”

Still, the NRA faces severe headwinds, key among them the litigation with Ackerman McQueen and other contractors, as well as a politically motivated investigation by New York Attorney General Letitia James. (She picked her target and only then sought out wrongdoing; during her campaign, she promised to “investigate the legitimacy of the NRA,” calling it a “terrorist organization.”) Last month, Russian hackers began releasing sensitive information stolen from the NRA’s computer networks; the most recent batch of data included information on dozens of employees.

The organizations and companies that jumped feet-first into the culture war may not retain their dominance for long. Groups focused solely on gun rights and ignoring other culture war issues have come to the fore, challenging the NRA’s primacy. Just this month, gun maker Sig Sauer announced an “unprecedented” gift to the Second Amendment Foundation for its legal work. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and other groups have stepped in to defend free speech where the ACLU has faltered. And people now have far greater access to news and information (as well as rumor and misinformation) than when traditional journalism was the primary way people learned about current events.

“Misfire” is an in-depth dive into how a storied organization that plays a vital and outsize role in American life fundamentally changed its mission in just a few years to become a very different beast. Other journalists and scholars would do well to follow Mak and explore the cultural changes that have caused so many other institutions, associations and even entire industries to wade into a culture war that, with little fanfare, became their entire reason for being.

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