In a shocking move, Wayne LaPierre announced his resignation as National Rifle Association executive vice president on Friday.
His resignation doesn’t go into effect until the end of the month, by which time the New York corruption case against him and the NRA will be nearly over. And when he does step down, his closest allies will remain in control of the gun-rights group anyway. But the end of LaPierre’s decades-long tenure at the top of the NRA will inevitably transform what the group is and how it works, at least eventually.
So, LaPierre’s resignation probably won’t change much in the near term. But it’s likely to invite a seachange in the long term.
When LaPierre steps aside, Andrew Arulanandam will take over. Arulanandam has been a close LaPierre confidant for a very long time. He was one of the few people besides LaPierre and outside lawyer Bill Brewer to know about the failed bankruptcy filing before it was publicly announced. Most of the NRA’s Board of Directors didn’t even know about the filing before Arulanandam.
He was also the group’s long-serving spokesperson until just last month. In what appears to have been a move to set Arulanandam up to succeed LaPierre, the former head of NRA General Operations (GO) was removed and replaced by Arulanandam. Perhaps not coincidentally, the head of GO is the one who succeeds the executive vice president when they step down.
Additionally, the other person quoted in LaPierre’s resignation notice was long-time ally and NRA president Charles Cotton. His position in that role was also the result of recent internal maneuvering. Cotton’s term as president was set to expire last year, with First Vice President Willis Lee in line to replace him.
Instead, the NRA changed its rules to oust Lee and extend Cotton.
The result of all this is, unless the NRA Board takes emergency action, there probably won’t be many changes to how the group runs until at least the Annual Meeting in May. It will likely pursue the same financial strategy that has prioritized sending a huge percentage of the group’s shrinking budget to Brewer to follow the same legal strategy that’s got them to this point.
LaPierre’s resignation could boost the defense Brewer has formulated. The NRA’s legal strategy has been to admit to a fraction of the wrongdoing it and its leaders have been accused of but counter that reforms have been implemented and the worst offenders have been let go. LaPierre, who is at the center of the corruption allegations, remaining in charge was a major problem with that argument, and his retirement could help.
But the NRA still faces an uphill battle on that front. LaPierre’s resignation wasn’t accompanied by a settlement announcement from New York Attorney General Letitia James (D.). And she’s arguing the move actually bolsters her arguments.
“LaPierre’s resignation validates our claims against him, but it will not insulate him or the NRA from accountability,” she said in a statement. “All charities in New York state must adhere to the rule of law, and my office will not tolerate gross mismanagement or top executives funneling millions into their own pockets. Our case will move ahead, and we look forward to proving the facts in court.”
The trial itself might render LaPierre’s resignation moot. If the NRA loses, he’ll be barred from working at the group or any other that operates in New York. And many of the leaders who approved of his conduct could be gone, too.
But LaPierre’s resignation ensures that the NRA will need a new leader regardless of the outcome of the trial. Even if the NRA prevails in the New York corruption case, the Board will have to decide on a new executive vice president. Without LaPierre as an option, it’s unclear where they will go.
It’s more likely than ever before that LaPierre’s staunchest allies will lose control of the organization. The last five years have been a disaster for the organization. It has lost over a million members, revenue has fallen by more than half, and spending on political efforts as well as member services has been hollowed out.
Several NRA Board Members have been pushed out of the group over the same time period for objecting to going down this path. Those who’ve remained have been willing to do so primarily because of their loyalty to LaPierre, often citing his successful track record as evidence the group is traveling down a road that will eventually lead to something positive.
With LaPierre gone, NRA Board Members may be willing to shake things up. That’s especially true if the next six weeks in court don’t go well. More reform-minded leadership could ultimately emerge from that dynamic.
Refreshing the organization’s leadership, internal controls, and public face could go a long way to reverse its current downward spiral.
The NRA remains a strong brand. No other group in the gun space is as well-known or as influential, even today. The corruption suit has dogged its image and finances. But rebound remains a realistic possibility in the long term.
Those million members who dropped off could be easiest to convince to return. But there are tens, perhaps, hundreds of millions of gun owners beyond that the group could reach too. The truth is the NRA wasn’t keeping up with population growth in the years before the scandal broke, and it hasn’t capitalized on the recent jump in gun ownership.
52% of American voters report having a gun in the home, according to a recent NBC poll. Over 250 million Americans are adults, according to the Census Bureau. But internal documents show the NRA has never had even 5.5 million members.
That’s a huge number that puts the NRA in a league of its own and underlines its influence. But it also reveals a serious problem with the NRA’s outreach operation that stretches back even before its recent struggles. A reformed and refreshed organization has an opportunity to be bigger and more powerful than ever before.
But whether it capitalizes on that change will likely rely on more than just cleaning up its operations. Given how long LaPierre was the head of the group, it’s hard to know how somebody else might manage in his role.
New leadership would bring all kinds of questions about where the NRA goes in the long term. What approach will it take to attract new members? How will it prioritize resources? Will it focus more on services like training or competition shooting? More on lobbying or political ads?
And what will its politics look like? The NRA has long been hit from either end of the spectrum. Those on the left have long accused it of being extreme on gun policy and refusing to make “common sense” compromises. On the right, the most common recruiting method of other gun-rights groups is to claim the NRA compromises too much.
When you’re as big as the NRA, that sort of dynamic may be an inevitability. But the way new leadership at the group comes down on that argument will impact where it goes on political strategy. The outcome of that is unknowable as of now.
What we do know is Wayne LaPierre will no longer be the one with his finger on the trigger, and that’s bound to change the NRA’s aim in some ways. Just not right away.