Review of Misfire: Inside the Downfall of the NRA by Tim Mak

Before I had a chance to read it myself, I had been hearing good things from reform minded NRA members about Misfire: Inside the Downfall of the NRA by NPR investigative reporter Tim Mak.

I’ve now had a chance to read the book in full. Despite some small quibbles I have with Mak’s language, analysis, and storytelling, this is an interesting and important book for those wanting to understand how the NRA got to be in the position it is in right now.

If you don’t have any idea what I mean by “the position it is in right now,” then you DEFINITELY need to read this book.

I “live Tweeted” my reading, chapter-by-chapter, so you can see my synopses and thoughts unrolled below.

Reading “Misfire” at the Barber Shop. Selfie by David Yamane

Mak begins with a claim he has made before, no better documented here than elsewhere, that the NRA is “America’s most powerful advocacy group.” A well-reported book doesn’t need this kind of unsubstantiated hyperbole. Just say the NRA is powerful. This is undisputed.

Ch. 1: Wayne. Unflattering portrait of a leader as a “clumsy, meek, spastic man with a weak handshake.” I do object to Mak’s characterization of WLP as having a “professorial demeanor.”

Ch. 2. Susan LaPierre. Came from humble roots and enjoyed her upward mobility. Perhaps too much. “She is described as pretentious, manipulative, unpleasant.” Helped corrupt Wayne to the detriment of the NRA.

Ch. 3. In which we meet the two organizational culprits in the NRA’s fall: the Board of Directors and Ackerman McQueen. And, it seems, the root of many evils, the almighty dollar.

Ch. 4. The NRA Before Sandy Hook. Perpetuates a false narrative about the NRA’s gun regulation politics pre-1977 that Matthew Lacombe debunks in his thorough book “Firepower,” though the victory of WLP/AckMac over Neal Knox is an informative piece of the puzzle.

I am interested to see if Mak can support his thesis that the NRA pre- and post-Sandy Hook is significantly different. That would be an important contribution in itself.

Ch. 5. On the NRA-ILA and lobbyist Abra Belke. Only 3 pages long but Mak manages to repeat his unsubstantiated claim that the NRA is the most powerful lobby in America. Why? The AARP, American Petroleum Institute, Facebook, US Chamber of Commerce, and others would beg to differ.

Ch. 6. Sandy Hook. Argues that WLP personal fear + death threats against NRA staff + mobilization of gun owners against gun control “radicalized” the NRA post-Sandy Hook. WLP post-Sandy Hook speech was the initial misfire that would lead the NRA down its current path of self-destruction.

Ch 7. Manchin-Toomey. Two main points. (1) Not WLP or the ILA but pressure from right wing of NRA members doomed M-T. (2) M-T “was a key turning point for the NRA” as it positioned itself ideologically as a culture warrior and “freedom organization.” Was this a turning point or just a continuation of trends already in evidence? Lacombe, at least, would argue that it’s just a continuation.

Ch. 8. The Rise of Everytown (and MAIG). A mom and a billionaire reinvigorate the gun control movement, helping to push the NRA rightward. But are they the “secretive and anonymous group” that hired someone to inspect the NRA’s filings and complain to the NY AG? Cliff hanger!

Ch 9. Wayne’s Posse and NRA HQ. Shady people getting paid too much money and engaging in shady activities with NRA funds.

Ch 10. Maria Butina and the Roots of NRA-Russia. Title says it. Additionally, reveals the longstanding (pre-Sandy Hook) connection between NRA and conservative politics. E.g., NRA President David Keene chaired American Conservative Union for 27 years. John Bolton was Keene’s intern when Keene worked for VP Spiro Agnew. These support Lacombe’s argument in “Firepower” that the roots of the NRA right turn go back to the 1960s and 70s.

Ch 11. The Obama Years. As head of the NRA Women’s Leadership Forum, Susan LaPierre “operated as if the Second Amendment would be protected with the purchase of overpriced hydrangeas.” WLF often spent more than it brought in.

This was thematic at the NRA as it’s telemarketing vendor InfoCision is paid more than it brings in to the organization. All the while Wayne and Susan LaPierre and family enjoyed a luxury lifestyle funded by the nonprofit.

Ch 12. Operation Second Pozner. In which Butina gets mentored by David and Donna Keene, who are close with Russian ambassador Kislyak. Relationship almost as cozy as themes in Russian troll farm Internet Research Agency tweets and NRA comms, which often mirrored each other.

Ch 13. Ackerman McQueen Power Grows. WLP and Angus McQueen’s symbiotic relationship: Wayne needed direction and Angus cashed in on Wayne’s malleability. Angus was the true believer in gun rights and led the NRA’s strategic messaging and “Wayne meekly conceded to all of it.”

“The broader strategy was simple: clear, distinct positions, to draw a line in the sand and force the target audience to pick sides on gun rights. This often took the form of apocalyptic scaremongering.” Ack-Mac had c.100 people on the NRA account in 2016 when it created NRATV.

I wanted more than the 3 pages we get here on NRATV because it had a dual nature: Designed to appeal to a younger, more diverse audience via shows like NOIR and LOVE AT FIRST SHOT, but more notoriously joining the conservative culture war with Dana Loesch and Dan Bongino. For those interested in the former programming, I recommend the work of Noah Schwartz, some of which I have featured on my blog.

Ch 14. Moscow Bound. Butina continues to infiltrate the NRA on behalf of the Russian govt, including an NRA delegation to Moscow in Dec 2015 including the Keene’s, incoming NRA Pete Brownell, Sheriff David Clarke, Jim Liberatore of Outdoor Channel, and other high rollers.

Ch 15. Butina’s Back Channel. I don’t know Mak so I don’t know if I am supposed to snicker at this title. Interested to learn that some NRA folks, like Chris Cox, Susan LaPierre & Josh Powell knew enough to stay away from Buntina sensing she was likely with the FSB.

Ch 16. NRA & the 2016 Campaign. Mak contends the NRA “has a Field & Stream membership w a Fox & Friends leadership” & “its metamorphosis from a gun organization into a conservative culture-war organization” was complete by the 2016 election.

I agree with Mak & others like Matthew Lacombe who highlight the NRA’s alignment with conservative politics, but even w/o this metamorphosis there was good reason for the NRA to go for Trump early & hard. A SCOTUS seat was at stake.

Mak says “the NRA’s most politically motivated members were wild about Trump.” I remember talking to gun owners about Trump in 2016. Few seemed wild about Trump. Many did not care for him personally or politically, but Hilary Clinton was even less acceptable especially on gun issues.

With a SCOTUS seat at stake many held their nose and voted Trump. Mak says “the NRA morphed from a Second Amendment organization into a Trump organization.” As it turned out to be 3 SCOTUS seats, the NRA & those who put the 2A #1 politically proved wise in their transformation.

Setting up the argument to come, Mak concludes Ch 16 highlighting the irony that by electing Trump “the NRA sowed the seeds of its own destruction” because it “had no fear left to monger” to generate revenue to help cover its $46M deficit in 2016 and $18M in 2017. But 1st more Butina

Ch 17. Butina’s Downfall. I couldn’t recall the conclusion to the Butina case but Mak reminds us that “she pleaded guilty to one count of conspiring to act as an unregistered foreign agent of Russia. She was sentenced to 18 months, including time served.

More interesting & consequential is the first appearance of attorney Bill Brewer in this chapter, hired to deal with the Senate Intelligence Comm investigation, though Brewer “doesn’t know his butt from his elbow about the Congress” (said Oliver North). He knew billable hours though.

Ch 18. The Start of the End. NRA continued to pay execs & Bill Brewer excessively while cutting staff and operational budgets in 2018. Education/training programs: 22% cut. Hunter services: 61% cut. Field services: 51% cut. And still ran $2.7M in red, despite $352M revenue.

To internal erosion add external attack. 2018 also brought Letitia James’ election as AG of NY. James who said the NRA is “a terrorist organization,” something LaPierre reminded NRA members of at the 2019 annual meeting as captured in this photo I took.

2019 NRA Annual Meeting of Members, Indianapolis. Photo by David Yamane

At the same time WLP was trying to rally the troops, a loyal opposition turned out at the 2019 annual meeting of members to hold him & the Board of Directors accountable. I’m looking forward to Mak’s account of what preceded and followed from this “Revolt at Indy.”

Ch 19. Whistleblowers & an Angry Mother. Twist: The angry mom isn’t Shannon Watts but NRA President Pete Brownell’s wife, Helen Redmond, an H Clinton supporting progressive. She forced Brownell to choose between family & NRA. He chose family, setting stage for Ollie North’s decisive rise.

Also: Shading dealings by NRA audit committee chair Charles Cotton in general and specifically in response to complaints by 5 whistleblowers. NRA covers it up and gives more power (and $$$) to Bill Brewer’s law firm to try to fix it.

Everything that rises must collide. North vs. Brewer. Which side will Wayne LaPierre choose? If you know the ending of this story, you know the answer. But the chapters getting us there are still intriguing.

Ch. 20. Brewer Replaces Ackerman McQueen. In which one POS replaces another with the additional twist that Bill Brewer was Angus McQueen’s son-in law. Cannot make this up. WLP thought only Brewer could keep him out of jail. $54M in legal fees to Brewer in 2 years as a result.

Ch 21. The Colonel. Seeking a new Charlton Heston to raise money for the strapped NRA, WLP looks to Oliver North as NRA Pres, a mistake in Mak’s view because North’s was not disposed to take a hands off approach to the role. North begins to fill the leadership vacuum created by WLP.

The NRA Pres is not compensated, but North is also given a $2M+/yr job w/Ackerman McQueen to host an NRATV show, which Ackerman will then bill back to the NRA as they often did (e.g., for WLP’s suits, vacations, etc.). This was no prob until North questioned Brewer’s role.

With Brewer’s backing and a belief that only Brewer could keep him out of jail, the normally spineless WLP stands up to North and battle lines are drawn. The NRA (via Brewer) sues Ackerman McQueen. NRA lawyer Steve Hart writes: “Let loose the dogs of war.”

Ch 22. Wed, Apr 24, 2019. The week before the NRA annual mtg, Mike Spies dropped a bomb in The New Yorker. Mak’s chapter describes the frantic attempts to deal with the fallout, which North later described as “friendly fire, shooting at each other.”

Ch 23. The Weekend from Hell. At the end of the day, Brewer/WLP won the internal battle to scapegoat North & Ackerman McQueen. North left Indianapolis rather than be humiliated, leaving ally Richard Childress to read a letter from North to the members.

Richard Childress chairing NRA annual meeting of members, Indianapolis, 2019. Photo by David Yamane

My own account, including videos I took, of the failed 2019 Revolt at Indianapolis can be found on my Gun Culture 2.0 blog. In his book, Mak adds to this the way most of the NRA Board of Directors rallied around WLP, sealing the organization’s fate. Also, the same day the revolt was put down at the meeting of members, NY AG Letitia James announced her office was investigating the NRA. Weekend from hell indeed.

Ch 24. Rebellion. You know the situation at the NRA is messed up when board member Ted Nugent shows up briefly as one of the good guys. Other critical board members resign, consolidating WLP’s power. A loyal opposition emerges, including former employee Andy Lander who wrote an open letter to the NRA BoD for their Apr 29 meeting (to no apparent effect).

Others organized a new group, “Save the Second,” with Neal Knox’s son Jeff playing an important role. Mak observes: “The NRA wasn’t under assault from the left” (well, not ONLY under assault from the left) “but from Second Amendment supporters…Those at NRA HQ made the mistake of conflating the NRA with gun rights. They were wrong.”

Ch 25. Lawfare. Fighting a war with the law, a Bill Brewer specialty. Collateral damage: head of NRA-ILA Chris Cox, at one time the heir apparent to WLP. He resigned in June 2019 but with a golden parachute of $2.4M. Of course, NRA spent $7.8M in legal fees to prevent that payment.

Not only that, but Cox’s contract requires NRA to pay HIS legal fees related to employment, so the NRA was not only paying to prevent Cox from collecting his golden parachute but also paying lawyers defending Cox. You cannot make this stuff up!

Ch 26. The AG Strikes. August 6, 2020: Letitia James sues to dissolve the NRA. Massive layoffs at NRA: From 770 employees in 2019 to 490 in 2021, with pay cuts for those who remained. Financial support for Trump scaled back: $30M in 2016 down to $17M in 2020. If NRA played key role in Trump victory in ’16 did its meltdown contribute to his defeat in ’20?

Ch 27. Bankruptcy. Finale, so far. NRA tries to get out of NY AG crosshairs by filing for bankruptcy & seeking to reincorporate in Texas. WLP has to testify in court, not well. (Anyone know where I can find a video?) Judge dismisses the NRA’s bankruptcy petition.

Brewer, Attorneys & Counselors total billings for three years of work for the NRA: $72 million. Makes me want to rewatch “Suits.”

Mak concludes by recognizing that despite its organizational flaws & absence of leadership, the NRA retains its core political strength: “the passion of millions of members.” The NRA has fallen but that doesn’t mean it can’t get up again.

4 thoughts on “Review of Misfire: Inside the Downfall of the NRA by Tim Mak

    • People making this book more about NPR than the NRA seem to me to be missing the point, which is the substance of the book. It’s unfortunate that enemies of the NRA like the NY AG or critical observers like an investigative reporter from NPR had to be the ones to shed light on corruption within the organization. But clearly the NRA leadership wasn’t being transparent to its members, utilizing funds appropriately, or managing the organization well. People circling the wagons around WLP and the BoD are not doing the organization any long-term favors, in my opinion. Then again, groups like the SAF and FPC seem to be filling some of the gaps. But I don’t think either organization is equipped to fill the non-political (education, training, social) gap that would be left by a hollowed out NRA. That’s my concern.

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