The National Rifle Association faces a long road to match its previous election spending levels as insiders fight over how many members remain.
The NRA’s war chest has a bit more than a fifth of the money it spent in the 2016 election and a bit more than a third of what it did in the 2020 election, according to its most recent FEC filings. Those filings were from the end of 2023, which gives the NRA about nine months to try and fundraise to close those gaps by the election. But the downturn in the group’s membership and, as a result, revenue makes the trip down that road even harder to complete in time.
Last year, internal sources and documents showed the NRA had shrunk by over a million members from a 2018 high of nearly 5.5 million to about 4.3 million. Owen “Buz” Mills, a longtime NRA board member who has clashed with leadership since corruption allegations surfaced in 2019, now says the group’s membership has shrunk by another million.
“From those with whom I have spoken and from the figures I have seen, I could testify to 3 million members +/- a few,” Mills told The Reload after making a similar claim in an interview with Guns Magazine. “This is down 40% from the 5 million+ members we had in the 2016 to 2019 era.”
An NRA spokesperson disputed Mills’ count, calling it “flat out false.” However, the group did not offer an official estimate of its membership.
Willis Lee, former NRA first vice president and current board member, offered another count this week. He tweeted that the NRA now has 3.8 million members, a less-severe decline of about 400,000 since last year’s report. But he did not respond to a request for where that estimate came from.
Whatever the actual size of the NRA, its slow start to political fundraising could have major implications for the 2024 elections. The group is set to host–and probably endorse–former-president Donald Trump at its outdoor show in Pennsylvania on Friday, reconfirming their close ties. The gun-rights group was one of the only major outside groups to spend big on Trump’s successful 2016 bid before being forced to significantly cut back its efforts in his unsuccessful 2020 re-election bid.
The NRA and Trump are both facing significant legal challenges heading into the election that are likely to sap their financial resources.
The gun group has paid at least $100 million to its outside counsel, Brewer Attorneys and Counselors, as it has engaged in more than half a dozen legal actions stemming from accusations top executives, including former CEO Wayne LaPierre, used millions in NRA money for lavish personal expenses. NRA leadership has blamed New York Attorney General Letitia James (D.), who called the group a “terrorist organization” during her campaign, and her civil suit for forcing them to spend so much on legal fees. Although, former NRA president Oliver North and other dissents have accused the law firm of charging exorbitant fees.
Whoever deserves the blame, the NRA’s finances have undeniably suffered during the ordeal. The group has slashed spending on key programs, such as education and gun-safety training. Its political spending has also taken a clear hit, falling from $54,398,558 in 2016 to $29,355,400 in 2020, according to an analysis of government records by OpenSecrets.
It will take significant effort to meet those 2020 spending levels this year. The Political Victory Fund, the group’s PAC, entered the year with $10,825,683.76 cash on hand, according to Federal Election Committee (FEC) filings. The similarly-named but legally distinct Victory Fund, Inc., the group’s Super PAC, had just $169,322.32 cash on hand in its FEC filings. The NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action, a 501(c)(4), isn’t required to disclose donors but hasn’t spent anything in the elections–it’s unlikely to make up a significant portion of election spending under the NRA’s current legal structure given only $895,451 of the nearly $30 million it spent in 2020 came from the entity.
With just about $11 million in the bank at the beginning of the year, the NRA will have to nearly triple its fundraising this year to surpass even its lower 2020 election spending levels.
The NRA may have already made up some of that gap in the month or so since the last filing. But the group’s budget has been running in the red for a long time. In 2022, it borrowed more money than it spent in that year’s midterm elections and still faced a budget shortfall.
The next official update on the gun-rights group’s fundraising will come with its February 20th FEC filings. In the meantime, the group declined to comment on where its fundraising sits today.
“The NRA is not inclined to reveal its playbook before this monumental election,” the spokesman said.
The presidential election, likely to feature a stark contrast on gun policy between President Joe Biden and Trump, should make for fertile ground to raise new funds. And, despite the NRA’s struggles, it remains ahead of its rivals in the gun-control movement. Despite briefly overtaking the NRA in political spending during the 2018 midterm elections, the major gun-control groups have been unable to dethrone the NRA as the top election spender among gun-related groups–losing to them in 2020 and 2022.
The 2024 election is shaping up to be closer, but the NRA remains ahead. The Giffords PAC had $2,834,416.03 on hand at the end of 2023, according to its FEC filings. Everytown for Gun Safety’s Victory Fund had $7,533,042.90. Everytown’s Action Fund, Inc. PAC had another $51,330.85. The Brady PAC had just $20,073.95.
That’s a total of $10,438,863.73, putting the combined groups within striking distance of the NRA but still behind.