The Reload Analysis Newsletter

Members’ Newsletter: A Look at the Finances of NRA Publications

We have more details from the internal NRA document we exclusively obtained and published this week.

This time, Contributing Writer Jake Fogleman takes a look at how the NRA’s publications are performing. They were one of the areas the group saw improvement. But there are still concerns.

Plus, Ohio State University Accounting Professor Brian Mittendorf joins the podcast to break down the ins and outs of the expansive NRA financial document.

The internal finances of the NRA matter a great deal to staff and members who often tell me The Reload is where they learn the most about what’s going on inside their own organization. The same is even true for some NRA board members. But they also matter to anyone who cares about gun policy in America.

The NRA has clearly shrunk since 2018, but it remains larger than all the other gun groups on either side–often by several magnitudes. Its current and future state matter tremendously. That’s why we do our best to report on it accurately and fairly.

NRA Publications Website / Screenshot
NRA Publications Website / Screenshot

The State of the NRA’s Publications [Member Exclusive]
By Jake Fogleman

The financial state of the NRA’s publications made a modest improvement from 2020 to 2021. However, the improvement was not enough to change the fact that they continue to operate at a significant loss.

The group’s internal financial report obtained by The Reload showed its overall publications revenue was approximately $13.4 million as of August 2021. That represents an improvement of roughly $753,000 from the same time the previous year. In addition to boosting revenue, the group also managed to slash spending on its publications by nearly a million dollars from the year prior.

Publications offered to members may be considered a service provided by the NRA, but the group at least attempts to offset the cost of providing them. It’s not clear how the group judges a publication’s performance, though. Amy Hunter, an NRA spokesperson, told The Reload the group believes the overall picture presented by the internal financial report was good.

“Naturally, the NRA is not inclined to discuss non-public business strategies with those outside the organization,” she said in a statement this week. “In any event, the NRA report is, as objective observers agree, very positive.”

But while the group’s publication performance improved on net by roughly $1.75 million year-over-year, the overall picture was less positive. As of August 2021, the NRA’s publications operated at a loss of nearly $3.2 million.

The financial struggles of the group’s publications department track with broader financial struggles experienced by the group overall. NRA members are offered a subscription to one of four primary magazines—American RiflemanAmerican HunterAmerica’s 1st Freedom, and Shooting Illustrated—upon joining the organization. But with year-over-year declines in both raw membership numbers and membership revenue overall, the circulation for the magazines has likely suffered. Since much of their revenue is derived from advertising, the financial health of the NRA’s publications was bound to struggle as well.

The internal report shows the losses were highly concentrated in certain magazines. The single largest source of net expense in publications was America’s 1st Freedom, the group’s political magazine. America’s 1st Freedom is “the magazine for NRA members dedicated to preserving our fundamental right to self-defense,” according to the NRA website.

“From breaking news on latest anti-gun schemes to in-depth investigations into explosive topics such as BATFE’s ‘Fast and Furious’ debacle, America’s 1st Freedom reports the news that impacts our gun rights,” it said.

As of August 2021, the magazine cost the group $1.8 million to operate but only brought in $768,000, creating a net expense of over $1 million for just the one magazine alone.

Another prominent source of operating loss came from the group’s shooting gear review and lifestyle magazine, Shooting Illustrated.

“From concealed carry and home defense to 3-gun competition and tactical training, Shooting Illustrated is loaded to full capacity with expert information on the subjects today’s shooters care about most,” the group’s site says. “Each issue offers in-depth analysis of the latest self-defense and tactical firearms and gear, along with valuable, how-to advice on shooting techniques and methods of personal protection.”

Shooting Illustrated cost the NRA $2.4 million to operate but only brought in just under $1.7 million in revenue for the group. American Hunter and Shooting Sports USA also lost money with net expenses of $168,000 and $68,000, respectively. NRA Family, an all-ages offering that “provides ideas for family adventures and tips for hunters and shooters of all skill levels,” reported $0 in revenue despite costing the organization $81,000 in expenses.

In fact, the only magazine listed on the report operating in the black was the group’s flagship offering, and most prominent publication, American Rifleman.

“American Rifleman is the largest firearm magazine in the world, covering everything from the newest products off the manufacturing line to historical firearms, and keeps its audience updated on political events regarding the Second Amendment,” the magazine’s website says.

The magazine overperformed even the group’s own projections, which had it slated to lose over $600,000 in net expenses. Instead, the magazine managed to bring in $292,000 more than it spent as of August 2021.

Podcast: OSU Accounting Professor on NRA Revenues Falling by Half Since 2018, Legal Fees Ballooning in 2021 [Member Early Access]
By Stephen Gutowski

On this week’s episode, we drill down into the details of the internal financial document The Reload obtained from an NRA source.

Ohio State University Accounting Professor Brian Mittendorf joins the show to give insight into what the document says and what the massive drops in revenue and membership reveal about the future of the country’s most influential gun group. He says the NRA has actually improved its financial position, but only by drastically cutting back on its core services. That puts it in danger of entering a kind of “death spiral” with fewer members leading to fewer revenue and services, leading to fewer members, he said.

Allegations of corruption against NRA leadership, including CEO Wayne LaPierre, and the effects of the pandemic have combined for a serious blow to the organization. With membership shrinking, revenues have dwindled. That’s forced the gun-rights behemoth to make difficult choices about cutting its training, community outreach, competitive shooting, and many more programs.

Professor Mittendorf has followed the NRA’s finances for years and said the internal document obtained by The Reload is one of the most in-depth accountings ever made public. He talked about the complex makeup of the group, its bankruptcy, its legal spending, and its fascinating debt payments. Plus, he talks at length about how new planned gifts have cratered despite being a major source of long-term revenue.

Plus, Contributing Writer Jake Fogleman provides a deeper look at the NRA’s membership situation. Dues have fallen by half since 2018. Membership has continually declined since then. The NRA’s internal accounting contradicts its public claim it reached 6 million members in that year. Instead, it was below 5.5 million at its peak and is now closer to 4.75 million.

I also explain why the NRA’s financial situation continues to matter so much. Not just for NRA members and staff, but for everyone who cares about guns. The group continues to loom large over the gun-rights fight in America by dwarfing most other groups combined.

You can listen to the full podcast on your favorite app or by clicking here.

The video podcast is also available on our YouTube channel.

An NRA display at the 2022 SHOT Show in Las Vegas, Nevada
An NRA display at the 2022 SHOT Show in Las Vegas, Nevada / Stephen Gutowski

NRA Estate Giving Cratered in 2021 [Member Exclusive]
By Stephen Gutowski

A cornerstone of the NRA’s long-term funding took a significant hit last year, according to an internal document obtained by The Reload.

The gun-rights group reported just under $5.5 million in new pledged donations through estates and trusts through the first eight months of 2021. That put it on track to bring in about $8.2 million through the full year. That amount would represent a dramatic decline compared to the $22.2 million donors promised to leave the group in their wills the year before. And the 2020 numbers are down substantially from the 2019 total of $36.5 million.

Overall, the NRA’s internal report revealed 2021 saw the lowest level of planned giving for any year dating back to 2006.

The numbers indicate fewer NRA supporters are willing to leave the group money in their wills since allegations executive vice president Wayne LaPierre and other leadership used the non-profit’s funds to pay for personal vacations, private flights, and luxury clothes. Even though the group has already banked more than $335 million in planned gifts, the slowing pace of those promised funds is cause for concern.

“It speaks to the idea that they’re losing their most dedicated supporters,” a former NRA planned giving staffer told The Reload.

The NRA did not directly answer questions about the decline in planned giving. However, Amy Hunter, director of NRA Media Relations, described the report as “outdated” and “unaudited.” She said group “is not inclined to discuss non-public business strategies with those outside the organization,” but said the internal report was “very positive.”

“We sank an ATF nominee who was adverse to the Second Amendment,” Hunter told The Reload. “We are winning many battles to elect pro-Second Amendment lawmakers. We are driving the passage of constitutional carry – the gold standard of self-defense. And we are confronting a New York Attorney General who openly vowed to destroy our organization.”

Planned giving had long been not only a financial core for the NRA, but it also exemplified the member-driven nature of the organization the former staffer said. They said the act of including the NRA in your will wasn’t an act reserved for the wealthy. Some donors had little to give but decided to leave everything to the gun-rights group once they had passed.

“The most compelling ones were the people who maybe didn’t have a lot to give that gave the NRA everything they had,” the former staffer said. “I mean, a rich guy’s worth $10 million and leaves a million dollars to the NRA that’s 10 percent of his estate. For me, it was really moving when you would have somebody that cared, that believed in the cause so much that they’d be willing to give everything they had.”

The former staffer said the corruption allegations against LaPierre and other members of leadership struck at the heart of this kind of giving.

“It’s really disappointing that there are people who are incredibly dedicated to the success of the organization and that trust has been breached,” they said. “That bothers me more than anything.”

Multiple current and former NRA sources said layoffs in the division responsible for planned giving have also contributed to the slide in new pledges. The NRA laid off a significant portion of its staff at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic and has yet to rehire most of them. The internal report indicates the group spent just $294,000 of a budgeted $1 million on planned giving through August 2021.

Hunter said the effects of the pandemic were largely to blame for the NRA’s recent financial struggles.

“With respect to questions comparing figures from a pre-pandemic 2018 to 2020 (figures during a worldwide pandemic), the NRA, like many others, continues to confront this global pandemic that forced the cancellation of many events and impacted revenue streams,” she said. “The safety and well-being of our staff and members is paramount. Through it all, the NRA has emerged stronger – better positioned to fight for its members and their freedoms. The Association and its patriotic members deserve an enormous amount of credit.”

The former staffer said the cutback in resources made a decline inevitable.

“If you get rid of all the staff who are doing that, well, why should that be a surprise?” they said.

The NRA did not respond to a request for comment.

The decline is indicative of the group’s recent struggles. From 2018 through 2021, the NRA’s revenue fell by half. With a traditionally robust and stable form of income, which accounted for $132 million in funding between 2006 and 2020, declining it could spell further instability for the group as it attempts to fight off multiple lawsuits from former contractors, donors, and the state of New York.

Like many large political groups, the NRA is made up of a collection of different legal entities in order to navigate the complex tax and campaign finance laws governing political activism in the United States. While the drop in planned giving has been felt across all of the NRA’s affiliated groups, it has affected some more than others.

The NRA’s 501(c)(4), which houses the membership organization, saw pledges fall from $11.1 in 2020 to $2.5 million through August of 2021. The NRA Foundation, a 501(c)(3) that mostly funds training and education efforts, went from $6.5 million to $2.4 million. The Civil Rights Defense Fund, a 501(c)(3) that funds legal challenges, fell from $2.1 million to $271,500. The Institute for Legislative Action, which handles NRA lobbying, went from $1.1 million to $185,400.

The NRA’s Freedom Action Fund, a 501(c)(3) that funds get out the vote efforts, signed contracts for just $49,000 in planned giving through August 2021. Only a few years earlier, in 2018, the group had received over $4.2 million in pledges. The Special Contribution Fund, a 501(c)(3) that funds the NRA’s Whittington Center for shooting and hunting, saw only $11,600 in new planned giving. It had seen over $5 million in pledges just two years earlier.

UPDATE 2-3-2022 11:30 AM EST: This story has been updated to include comments from the NRA.

That’s it for now.

I’ll talk to you all again soon.

Stephen Gutowski
The Reload

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