The NRA’s finances are in decline.
That’s what the annual report obtained by The Reload at the group’s conference in Houston, Texas, shows. Total revenue fell by more than $47 million in 2021 to about $282 million. They were down nearly $100 million from 2017, another non-election year, and over $130 million from 2018.
“It just seems like a continuation of the trend,” Professor Brian Mittendorf, who teaches accounting at Ohio State University and has been following the NRA’s finances for years, told The Reload. “Perhaps a slowing, but a slowing had to happen. I mean, the declines have been pretty substantial.”
Mittendorf said the drop in membership dues is particularly concerning for the organization’s long-term prospects. He said the money raised by member dues, one of the organization’s biggest funding mechanisms, is “markedly different” from previous years.
Member dues fell more than $22 million in 2021, landing just north of $97 million. Dues were down over $30 million from 2017 and nearly $73 million from 2018.
Spending declined alongside revenue. Total expenses for 2021 were down $43 million to about $245 million. It’s also down over $133 million since 2017 and over $177 million since 2018. However, spending on administrative legal fees jumped by nearly $6 million to over $48 million, making it the largest single line item in the NRA’s budget.
The 2021 revenue and spending drop is just the latest in a series of yearly declines that have left the organization’s finances in freefall. The NRA, which remains by far the largest gun group in the country, has been shedding members and donors for several years running. Its precarious position may impact how effective it can be in the reinvigorated fight over gun restrictions at the state and federal levels.
Mittendorf said declining revenues coupled with spending slashes and astronomical legal fees might be an unavoidable reality for the group, which has been fighting an expensive corruption suit in New York court since 2019. The 2021 report represents the combined finances of the NRA’s membership organization, lobbying group, political action committees, and a collection of associated charities. However, a leaked accounting of the membership organization’s finances published by The Reload earlier this year shows a similar story of revenue shortfalls combined with program cuts.
“Legal fees continue to take on a big, big importance in their budget,” he said. “Core programs continue to decline, or, at least, stay at this new lower level. It speaks to a new normal for the organization in terms of the scale of its budget.”
The NRA has been besieged on multiple fronts in recent years. Allegations of corruption by Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre and others to the tune of millions of dollars have led to ferocious infighting, which saw the resignation of former president Oliver North and upwards of a dozen board members. They also led to a suit from New York Attorney General Letitia James (D.) that sought the dissolution of the NRA. While a judge denied that request as possible punishment, he allowed the case to proceed. LaPierre could still be removed from NRA leadership and replaced with a court-appointed overseer.
The coronavirus pandemic also dealt a severe blow to the NRA’s finances. It was forced to lay off hundreds of staffers during the initial shutdowns and has not rehired many of them. That’s left many of its programs understaffed and underfunded.
The NRA’s struggles have resulted in broad cuts to programs, big and small. While political groups see their revenue and spending fluctuate depending on the election seasons, the NRA cut its legislative programs by more than half between 2020 and 2021. Safety and training programs saw a much smaller decrease in that time but were down over 62 percent since 2017.
Some individual programs have been hit particularly hard. The NRA spent just $13,900 on its School Shield program, which it offers as one solution to protect kids from mass shootings, through the first eight months of 2021.
The cuts and internal turmoil have kept the NRA from growing its membership in recent years despite record gun sales and millions of Americans choosing to buy a gun for the first time. According to internal documents obtained by The Reload, it has even led to a steady decline in membership since 2018. Still, the group has north of 4.5 million members on its rolls.
Mittendorf said it’s not clear how much longer that can last.
“Through all the controversy, members seemed pretty loyal,” he said. “But there was always this risk. When legal costs become the primary thing they spend on, what’s that going to mean for members? Are they going to lose members?”
For now, though, the cuts are keeping up with the revenue declines. The NRA reported spending about $36 million less than it brought in for 2021, the second year in a row they ended in the black. Mittendorf said that’s a more sustainable budget than the group was operating under back in 2018.
“If members are willing to continue to support this scale, it’s one that’s sustainable,” he said.
He said there is still time for the NRA to turn things around. With the steep spending cuts the organization has already taken, it could even sustain a further revenue decline.
“If you just look at their revenues relative to their core expenses, there’s a kind of $30 million cushion there,” Mittendorf said. “So, they can take additional declines and still be able to sustain themselves.”
He warned the membership might begin leaving at a faster pace if the NRA continues cutting the programs they like.
“I think their biggest risk is: do members start leaving at faster rates than they already are given the amount they’re spending on numbers is much less than it was a few years ago?” he said.
The NRA did not respond to a request for comment.