Those who have been busily predicting the demise of the National Rifle Association must have been shocked earlier this month as more than 77,000 NRA members flocked to Indianapolis for the group’s annual meeting.
It was the largest turnout in years and, according to virtually everyone present, one of the most successful ever. The NRA signed up more new members this year than in previous years, vendors sold more guns, gear and hunting trips than most could remember, and even many of the reporters covering it noted the upbeat feeling that prevailed through the three-day gathering.
Anyone who has followed the reporting on the NRA’s troubles over the last couple of years could be forgiven for believing that the gun rights group is at death’s door. Media reports have focused on New York Attorney General Letitia James’ efforts to deliver on her campaign promise to destroy the NRA. To accomplish this, she has weaponized her office and launched a legal jihad against the group and Wayne LaPierre, its longtime executive vice president. It’s been going on since she took office as anti-Second Amendment activists in Congress and the media have cheered her on.
In the process, critics have tried to label the NRA a “domestic terrorist” organization run by a greedy cabal headed by Mr. LaPierre more interested in living the high life than serving NRA members. The media constantly reports that NRA fundraising has dropped and that members are heading for the door in droves. There is a modicum of truth to these claims. The constant drumbeat of bad publicity and the aftermath of the pandemic has cost hurt NRA fundraising at a time when other advocacy groups are also suffering, but it has recovered and the dip never forced the NRA to abandon its core mission.
It is also true that NRA membership has dipped, but this happens after every election cycle. As a former NRA president, I have seen this in off years for decades. NRA critics are incorrectly attributing most of a natural dip in membership to the effectiveness of their attacks on the organization and its leadership. A decade ago, NRA membership fluctuated between 1.8 million and 2 million; today, between 4.2 million and 5 million.
So Ms. James and her allies haven’t succeeded and aren’t likely to, but she has cost the NRA millions in legal fees and generated tons of bad publicity. When she initially went after the organization the leader of one of former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s anti-gun groups bragged that at the very least, Ms. James would divert NRA spending from lobbying and political advocacy to lawyers. That has happened to some extent, but thus far the group continues as a stalwart defender of the Second Amendment at a time when gun owners are attacked daily as irresponsible or worse by anti-gun activists and progressive politicians.
NRA members in Indianapolis heard from most gun-friendly potential and announced presidential candidates from, long shot Vivek Ramaswamy to former President Donald Trump. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis couldn’t make it in person but spoke to the crowd remotely. They were there both because they support Second Amendment rights and because they know the NRA and its members continue to be politically influential.
They and those in attendance gave Mr. LaPierre standing ovations when he spoke, the NRA board reelected him by acclamation and a resolution introduced at the annual meeting of members drew but a handful of votes. NRA members continue to look to him for leadership and reject the attacks on him not just because they see them as politically motivated, but because he’s been continually targeted because the NRA’s opponents are persuaded that if they can take him down they will have destroyed the group as an effective champion of Second Amendment rights.
Politicians intent on further restricting the right to, as the founders put it, “keep and bear arms” believe that to succeed they have to demonize, discredit or destroy the NRA as an effective champion of Second Amendment rights. Mr. LaPierre has guided the NRA for years, and much of what the group’s opponents have been doing has been part of an effort to drive a wedge between him, the NRA’s board and the group’s members.
That’s what Ms. James and others have been trying to do, but the way NRA members and gun owners rallied to the group’s banner in Indianapolis is a sign that for all of their huffing and puffing, the strategy isn’t working.
• David Keene is editor-at-large at The Washington Times.