NRA convention gathers in Texas days after Uvalde shooting

National Rifle Association gathering faced with anti-gun protests and cancellations

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A diminished National Rifle Association (NRA) is starting its annual convention on Friday in Houston, confronted with falling revenue, fierce legal challenges and renewed criticism for defending access to weapons used in a spate of deadly shootings.

But it is still a potent enough player in American politics to draw to its convention former president Donald Trump and Texas senator Ted Cruz, both beneficiaries of the organisation’s generous political spending.

The four-day event, billed as the “largest gathering of NRA members and Second Amendment supporters in the country”, comes after at least 19 children and two teachers were killed on Tuesday in a primary school in Uvalde, Texas.

A girl holds a candle in Newtown, Connecticut, during a solidarity vigil for the Uvalde, Texas, community after a mass shooting at Robb Elementary School. Reuters

As millions of Americans grieving and angry following the worst school shooting in a decade, American Pie singer Don McLean led a wave of country music dropouts from the three-day event, while the Republican Governor Greg Abbott said he would no longer appear in person.

McLean said it would be “disrespectful and hurtful” to perform at the “Grand Ole Night of Freedom” concert scheduled during the convention on Saturday. At least five other country music stars, including Lee Greenwood and Larry Gatlin, have also reportedly pulled out.

Mr Abbott — who has brushed aside increasingly emotional calls for tougher gun laws in Texas, where attachment to the right to bear arms runs deep — is expected to make a pre-recorded video address instead. The governor's lieutenant Dan Patrick also cancelled plans to speak at the event.

Facing mounting scrutiny, gun manufacturer Daniel Defense — which made the assault rifle purchased by the Uvalde gunman Salvador Ramos shortly after his 18th birthday — also decided not to attend in light of the “horrifying tragedy”.

The cancellation of the past two annual meetings ate into revenue for the group, which along with mounting legal bills has forced cuts to staff and member programmes, leaving it with a smaller presence than in previous years.

Matt Grossmann, a political science professor at Michigan State University, said the NRA was less powerful politically, but its real strength is its army of members willing to engage in politics.

“The mobilised base of gun owners and the symbolic importance of guns in conservative politics, both of which the NRA helped to build, will continue and are stronger than the organisation itself,” he said.

After peaking in the year Mr Trump was elected, the NRA’s revenue fell 22 per cent over the ensuing four years to $285 million in 2020, the most recent year for which data is available.

Its legal fees hit a record that year of $40m. Based on preliminary numbers, revenue are estimated to have slipped further in 2021 and legal expenses to have hit another peak, tax filings and internal documents show.

Former president Donald Trump will be speaking at this week's NRA-ILA Leadership Forum in Houston, Texas. Reuters

Andrew Arulanandam, managing director of public affairs for the NRA, said in an email that: “The NRA is sound and secure — defeating courtroom adversaries and defending constitutional freedom.”

The legal battles erupted with reports in 2019 of lavish spending by its longtime boss, Wayne LaPierre, and other senior officials, which sparked internal turmoil leading to the removal of its president, Oliver North, and the departure of its top lobbyist, Chris Cox.

The NRA, Mr LaPierre and other executives were sued by New York Attorney General Letitia James in 2020 over allegations that they had misused millions of dollars of the non-profit’s assets.

Facing the prospect that it could be dissolved, the NRA sought to avoid Ms James’s suit by using a bankruptcy filing as part of a bid to move its charter from New York to Texas.

After a federal judge declared that the NRA had filed its bankruptcy claim “not in good faith”, it found itself again facing the prospect of a New York trial.

Although a state judge dismissed the prospect of disbanding it as a result of a victory to Ms James, it could force the group to replace Mr LaPierre and the rest of its leadership.

Trump victory

Mr Trump’s victory in 2016 also dampened the NRA’s ability to raise money off the prospect of imminent threats to gun rights.

Its internal conflicts, competition from state groups, and its increasing partisanship diminished the NRA’s influence, said Richard Feldman, a former lobbyist for the organisation.

“The NRA in the last 20 years has really morphed into the National Republican Association,” Mr Feldman said.

The gun-rights group has remained active in politics, even though its spending has dropped in recent cycles from a peak of $54.4m in 2016 — a sum that included $31m spent to help elect Mr Trump, according to OpenSecrets.

Flags fly at half-staff at NRA headquarters in Fairfax, Virginia, after the second-deadliest school shooting in a decade. Katarina Holtszapple / The National

As the group’s legal problems mounted, its spending dipped to $9.6m in the 2018 midterms, but rebounded to $29.4m in 2020, with most of that money backing losing campaigns.

It spent $16.6m backing Mr Trump, and $5.9m supporting Republicans in the run-offs for two Georgia Senate seats won by Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock.

The group logged more wins in 2020 in races where it spent less. It backed 109 successful House candidates, spending an average of $20,100, according to OpenSecrets, a non-profit group that monitors campaign donations.

The NRA has focused more on achieving or maintaining Republican majorities in the past few cycles than on rewarding the most ardent proponents of gun rights.

It has spent heavily in battleground states such as North Carolina and Florida, and in races with endangered Democratic incumbents, but little in relatively safe Republican states such as Texas.

When challenger Beto O’Rourke raised $34m more than Ted Cruz in 2018, the NRA spent only $91,000 on the incumbent’s behalf.

“You’re going to save most of your fire for the races that are going to decide who controls the gavels in Congress,” said Michael Beckel, research director at the bipartisan political reform group Issue One.

Mr Beckel said such strategic spending enhanced a special interest’s influence with the party.

Gun-control advocates hold a vigil outside of the National Rifle Association headquarters in Fairfax, Virginia. Getty Images / AFP
Updated: May 27, 2022, 8:31 PM
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