When a whale dies in the middle of the ocean, its corpse slowly drifts to the midnight-dark abyssal zone thousands of feet below the water’s surface. There, as the enormous carcass decomposes over the course of years, it sustains a flourishing array of bottom dwellers that pick apart the remains, in a phenomenon known as a “whale fall.”
A similar event may soon unfold in the gun rights ecosystem as the National Rifle Association implodes. Following decades of self-dealing business practices and financial mismanagement that enriched the leadership, board members, and vendors of one of the country’s most feared political interest groups, the NRA may be forced to shut down for good. A lawsuit filed by New York Attorney General Letitia James in August seeks to impose the rare corporate death penalty on the NRA, after an investigation revealed an organization so corrupt that her office contends it cannot be reformed. The death of the NRA would mark the end of an era, but the lawsuit won’t end the gun rights movement. Over its lifetime, the NRA has built up a massive organizational infrastructure, which will likely live on to sustain even more extreme pro-gun groups.
James’ effort to dissolve the NRA is unprecedented, says Michael West, the senior attorney at the New York Council of Nonprofits, but then again, so is the scale of corruption detailed in the lawsuit. When James’ office began its investigation of the NRA more than a year ago, West doubted the attorney general would actually try to dissolve the group, telling me in May 2019, “The more you go for a homerun, the likelier it’s gonna be a swing and a miss.” But after reading the complaint that New York filed this August, he revised his estimation of the case.
“The level of deception and the endless conflicts of interest at every level—I don’t know what you could do to rehabilitate it from a management perspective,” West told me in a recent interview. “The entire management team and board has to go. But if you take out the entire leadership, who runs it? It’s not the AG’s job to recruit new executives and board members. So dissolution is the only viable option.”
West could not think of a nonprofit of comparable size or scope that New York or any other state has shut down as James seeks to do with the NRA. According to New York state nonprofit law, in the event of dissolution, the courts have to disburse those assets to another nonprofit that shares the same values. The only recent similar case is the dissolution of the Trump Foundation, but that was on a far smaller scale, involving a much simpler nonprofit that just doled out cash without any kind of actual operations. It was easy for courts to release the remaining Trump money to uncontroversial charities like the United Way.
The National Rifle Association, by contrast, has a clearly defined mission, actually does stuff, and has real assets. Aside from any money the group may have left, the NRA also has less tangible but arguably more valuable assets: namely, its branding and membership rolls. The NRA’s uniquely close relationship with its grassroots and thus its political power rests on these two pillars.
If James succeeds, the court will direct her to find other groups who could take control of the NRA’s infrastructure, which could restart a national gun rights advocacy group. She would be bound by law to solely consider whether successor groups share the NRA’s values and are free from any taint of corruption. “The groups would have to be absolutely squeaky clean, but they could have really aggressive Second Amendment politics,” West said.
Though the NRA has defined the national gun rights movement for decades, it is by no means the only player on the scene. Rivals have grown in prominence in recent years. And many of the lesser-known groups are in fact much more extreme in their pro-gun stances, and closer to the far-right fringe.
Take Gun Owners of America, a smaller but still very influential group that bills itself as “the only no-compromise gun lobby in Washington,” in implicit rebuke to the more mainstream NRA. GOA arguably tanked the post–Sandy Hook Manchin-Toomey gun reform bill that the NRA was initially prepared to accept. Its former executive director, Larry Pratt, isn’t shy about cozying up to militias and white power groups. Yet there’s no evidence the group is involved in any financial shenanigans, so GOA could credibly claim to be an inheritor to the NRA.
Or look to the states, where most gun policy is actually made: Though the NRA is the only group with the muscle to regularly shape federal gun policy, independent local groups frequently take a larger role in state policy fights. “Even before the NRA’s recent troubles, it was state groups that filed lawsuits challenging gun laws, even without the support of the NRA,” said Robert Spitzer, a political scientist at SUNY Cortland who studies the gun rights movement. As the NRA has been sidelined by the investigation and other financial crises, Spitzer noted that “many of these state groups have picked up the slack.” State gun groups can turn out huge numbers of supporters. For instance, when Democrats retook Virginia’s Legislature after the most recent elections and promised to vote on a slate of gun control measures, it was the Virginia Citizens Defense League—not the NRA, which stayed away—that organized a massive rally outside the state capitol, which attracted scores of militias and other armed far-right extremists, some from out of state. The effort successfully stopped Democratic majorities from passing an assault weapons ban.
Longtime NRA power brokers untouched by the scandal could also simply start new groups. Chris Cox was the NRA’s former top lobbyist and was seen for years as Wayne LaPierre’s likely successor. He was forced to resign in June 2019 after LaPierre accused him of using the allegations of corruption to push out the elder leader. “Cox is someone who could be well positioned to create a more reputable, reliable gun rights organization,” said West. Cox could incorporate a new nonprofit, presumably in a solidly red state with friendlier oversight. He’d already have the relationships with Republican legislators that a new gun rights group would need.
Cox did not respond to a request for comment sent to the political consultancy he founded after leaving the NRA. GOA emailed a link to a statement, which said that the “rights protected by the Second Amendment will continue regardless of the radical Left’s attempts to destroy the individual right to keep and bear arms,” but specifically declined to comment on the merits of the case. The Virginia Citizens Defense League has not commented on the suit, but a member told the Christian Science Monitor that the demise of a national gun rights group and the rise of local organizations might not be such a bad thing.
The suit’s denouement will likely take years. The NRA is stalling with a federal countersuit alleging James is selectively prosecuting the group out of a political bias, though that doesn’t change the damning facts of the case. Whenever the suit reaches its conclusion, the parties—James, the NRA, and any groups vying to succeed the national gun group—will have to enter into talks that could make them all queasy. The NRA will have to take part in its own dissection. Hard-liners like GOA will have to approach the court to get a piece of the NRA, essentially blessing the efforts of deep-blue state government regulators. And James will ironically be in the position of midwifing the next phase of America’s gun movement.