NRA 2017 Tax Records Reveal Decline In Income
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
What's happened to the finances of the National Rifle Association? The powerful gun rights group has turned in tax records suggesting a sharp decline in revenues in 2017. Lachlan Markay is a reporter for The Daily Beast, and he's been looking at those tax disclosures. He's in our studios. Good morning.
LACHLAN MARKAY: Good morning.
INSKEEP: So we should remember we're talking here about a nonprofit organization, I guess.
INSKEEP: They have to say something to the IRS about their finances. What have you seen?
MARKAY: So they have to file a Form 990, an annual filing with the Internal Revenue Service required of, basically, every nonprofit organization. Those have to be made publicly available upon request. And we just passed the week in which most of those organizations filed those forms. So we stopped by the NRA offices and were able to get an early copy paper version of that, finally.
INSKEEP: What do they tell you?
MARKAY: Well, they show a pretty steep drop in revenue for the group from 2016 to 2017. Total revenue was down about $55 million. And the really telling number, I thought, was a decline of about 22 percent in membership dues. And, of course, this is where the NRA really draws a lot of their political power is in the grass roots supporters that it can draw from or activate to oppose gun control legislation and things of that sort.
INSKEEP: So let me figure this out. If membership dues are down, does that mean they just have fewer members?
MARKAY: That's one way of interpreting it. And we certainly asked the organization about it. They didn't comment on those numbers specifically. They did point to numbers in 2018 showing a large increase in magazine subscriptions with the implication being that there was an accompanying increase in membership. And they continue to insist that membership is at an all-time high. So whether it's fewer members or existing members paying less, it does indicate a drop in public support among that grassroots base for the NRA's mission.
INSKEEP: Any idea why NRA membership would appear to decline between 2016 and 2017?
MARKAY: I think it's twofold. On the one hand, I think the NRA was sort of a victim of their own success. They really went all-in for President Donald Trump, spending an unprecedented sum for them on his behalf. They now have a very friendly president, a Supreme Court that's trending in the right direction. Congress doesn't really appear to be doing much on the gun control front.
So at the federal level, at least, they're doing very well from a policy outlook perspective. On the other hand, they've also branched off into issues only tangentially related to gun control through things like NRATV, a new standalone news and opinion platform that's really broken from their - what was historically a singular focus on gun control to talk about more political and sort of culture war issues.
INSKEEP: Well, that raises a couple of possibilities here that I'd like to explore. One - I think it's not unfair to the NRA to say that they - like a lot of lobbying groups, they operate on fear. They're going to come take away your guns. That fearful message might have worked in 2016. But if you're a gun owner, you're maybe a little less fearful now.
MARKAY: Well, this membership dues number is actually a five-year low for the organization. And so I do think that during the Obama years, there was - you know, every time there would be a mass shooting or some other gun crime-related event that really caught national headlines, there was a fear among gun owners that President Obama and Democrats in Congress would be enacting new restrictions on firearms in the United States. That would really spur not only the purchases of firearms but additional support for the NRA.
So you did see record numbers both in terms of membership and money for the NRA back in the Obama years. That sort of fear, as you put it, has now subsided, I think, a little bit with friendly people in the halls of power in Washington.
INSKEEP: Well, that leads to my next question. I wonder if those mass shootings that you refer to, which have, of course, continued...
INSKEEP: ...And arguably, gotten worse - there have certainly been some larger ones in the last couple of years - have a different effect because now you have this overwhelming public revulsion about mass shootings and a widespread feeling, among some people, anyway, that the government is doing nothing. Are there people who are simply stepping away from the NRA because they can't stomach its agenda anymore?
MARKAY: Well, I think there are NRA members who are - whether it's because of the gun issue itself or because the NRA has become more of a Republican-aligned organization - you know, traditionally, there would be even Democrats who agreed with - you know, maybe someone who might have voted for Bernie Sanders...
MARKAY: ...Or Sherrod Brown in Ohio...
INSKEEP: Democratic office holders are sometimes NRA members. Sure.
MARKAY: Exactly. And that really was a source of strength for the NRA. And I think they have become a more Republican-aligned organization rather than simply a gun rights organization. And I suspect that has turned off a number of more moderate Democrats who maybe supported them on that one issue, but that was as Republican as they got.
INSKEEP: Mr. Markay, thanks so much for coming by - really appreciate it.
MARKAY: Any time.
INSKEEP: Lachlan Markay reports for The Daily Beast. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.