The NRA became a potent force in American politics by making a political identity out of gun ownership and stoking gun owners' fears that their political enemies will seize their weapons. They have sold a narrative in which solid, self-reliant gun owners are threatened by corrupt and self-serving elites.
The suit filed Tuesday by one of those supposed enemies, New York Attorney General Letitia James, charges the group’s chief executive, Wayne LaPierre, and other executives with major financial misdeeds, including fraudulently using the nonprofit organization’s funds to pay for private family vacations to tropical islands, hunting safaris and more.
That sounds a lot like the lifestyle of the “Hollywood media elites” that LaPierre has railed against—something that could seriously damage the NRA’s longstanding power in American politics that stems in large part from gun rights supporters’ deep dedication to their shared cause.
Many gun owners are single-issue voters who prize candidates’ gun-related stances above all other considerations. They’re unusually politically active in other ways, too; whenever gun control proposals are floating around in Congress, gun owners respond to the NRA’s calls-to-action by flooding their representatives with letters and phone calls. The political intensity of NRA supporters is a major cause of the comparative weakness of U.S. gun regulations and helps explain why the NRA has become such an important part of the Republican Party’s electoral coalition.
But why are the NRA’s supporters so active in politics? One major reason is that many American gun owners—encouraged by the NRA—view gun ownership as central to their political identities. Guns, for these individuals, are not just tools. Instead they’re symbols of what they stand for and believe in. Guns, in other words, are central to a political identity that is shared by many NRA members and that heavily informs their political behavior. As a result—and especially when they believe that gun rights are threatened—NRA supporters are highly motivated to take political action on behalf of the groups’s pro-gun agenda.
Over the course of decades, the NRA used its popular programs and member publications to gradually cultivate this gun owner identity. It did so by linking gun ownership with a number of positive personal characteristics that its supporters are said to share—characteristics that form the basis of their collective identity. Gun owners, in this view, are average citizens who are honest, self-sufficient, and reputable. It also distinguished gun owners from other members of society by linking its political opponents to a number of negative traits. Whereas gun owners are ordinary, law-abiding Americans, their opponents—in clearly populist terms—are phony elitists and greedy, lying opportunists.
That’s why the accusations against LaPierre and other NRA executives in James’ suit and a second one announced hours later by D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine against the NRA Foundation, the group’s charitable arm, are potent: because they make the organization’s leaders appear awfully similar to how the group portrays its opponents.
Do average, self-sufficient Americans spend millions of other people’s dollars—donations and membership dues paid by loyal gun owners—on private jets and extravagant travel? No, but greedy opportunists do. Do ordinary Americans take tropical vacations on luxury yachts, spend thousands of dollars on designer clothes, or join exclusive golf clubs? No, but elitists do. Do honest, law-abiding individuals fraudulently hide expenses from their employers? No, but liars do. And do Americans who are proud of defending themselves and their families using their Second Amendment rights see a need to spend seven-figures annually on private security firms? No, but phonies do. LaPierre is personally accused of all of these things.
The clash between the alleged actions of the NRA’s leaders and the group’s identity is likely to cause disillusionment among NRA members. The highly publicized accusations are severe and the evidence in support of them appears well-documented. Even if the lawsuit—initiated by a New York Democrat who supports gun control—is seen by gun rights advocates as politically motivated, they may nonetheless be angered by LaPierre’s actions and the vulnerable position in which they’ve placed the NRA. Their commitment to the gun rights cause will no doubt remain, but their loyalty to the NRA itself is likely to waver. If so, the NRA will be weaker and the gun rights movement more fragmented.
Severing ties with LaPierre may enable the NRA to both save face with its supporters and avoid the organizational death penalty sought by New York. The reign of Teflon Wayne—who has survived numerous prior scandals and internal conflicts—may be coming to an end. But LaPierre’s departure would bring its own challenges and uncertainty. He’s been the organization’s top leader and public face for nearly 40 years—the chief architect of the NRA we know today. LaPierre cultivated the organization’s role as a fierce defender of the conservative movement and developed its close relationship with the Republican Party. And—especially following an attempt to oust him at the NRA’s 2019 Annual Meeting—he’s rooted out organizational dissidents and filled their positions with personal loyalists. As a result, replacing LaPierre—and doing so at a time when the organization faces an existential threat to its existence—may be easier said than done.
LaPierre and the NRA will undoubtedly portray the charges as a politically motivated attack on American gun owners and the values they stand for. In fact, they already have, posting a series of tweets calling Attorney General James a “political opportunist,” referring to the New York lawsuit as a “premeditated attack” on “Second Amendment freedoms,” and vowing that NRA members “won’t be intimidated or bullied.” These efforts mirror the approach the group has historically taken following mass shootings and legislative losses. Its organizational playbook calls for using setbacks as evidence that its supporters’ identities are under threat and must be defended. In the past, this post-setback playbook has led to surges in both NRA membership and gun sales along with widespread political mobilization in subsequent elections.
Tuesday’s lawsuits could spur similar action. Gun rights supporters, interpreting these developments as a personal attack, might rally on behalf of the most prominent organizational representative of their cause. But if gun owners believe that the NRA has abandoned the values that, in their view, distinguish them from other Americans, they may instead decide to turn their backs on the group at the time it needs them most.