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Inside the NRA
A Tell-All Account of Corruption, Greed, and Paranoia within the Most Powerful Political Group in America
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Joshua L. Powell is the NRA–a lifelong gun advocate, in 2016, he began his new role as a senior strategist and chief of staff to NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre.
What Powell uncovered was horrifying: “the waste and dysfunction at the NRA was staggering.”
INSIDE THE NRA reveals for the first time the rise and fall of the most powerful political organization in America–how the NRA became feared as the Death Star of Washington lobbies and so militant and extreme as “to create and fuel the toxicity of the gun debate until it became outright explosive.”
INSIDE THE NRA explains this intentional toxic messaging was wholly the product of LaPierre’s leadership and the extremist branding by his longtime PR puppet master Angus McQueen. In damning detail, Powell exposes the NRA’s plan to “pour gasoline” on the fire in the fight against gun control, to sow discord to fill its coffers, and to secure the presidency for Donald J. Trump.
Friday, December 14, 2012, 9:30 a.m.
New York City—Bleecker and Broadway
After a raucous evening of too much drinking too late into the night in SoHo, I was nursing a bad hangover. I was in New York to meet with a team from Cerberus, the giant private equity firm. They had formed a fund called the Freedom Group to “roll up,” or invest in, a number of gun companies, including Remington Arms and Bushmaster, in order to grow their portfolio. As somebody in the private equity retail business, a gun guy, and a fan of Remington, I was brought in in an advisory role. I had met with Bob Nardelli, the former CEO of Chrysler and now CEO of the Freedom Group, and a number of other execs at an off-site meeting in Savannah to hear their vision. I had a couple of calls planned with the guys from Remington to finalize some details from the meeting.
I had first gotten to know the group through my friend Tony Makris, the head of the Mercury Group, a subsidiary of the marketing firm Ackerman McQueen. Through Tony I had met the Cerberus people and Wayne LaPierre, a hero of mine and the longtime executive director of the National Rifle Association. I had always been a gun rights advocate; Tony and I had met at the Safari Club in Reno, and Wayne and others had become aware of me through my efforts to pass Chicago’s concealed weapons law. Since then I had become a part of the close-knit gun rights lobby, one of the gang.
9:34 a.m. Newtown, Connecticut—Sandy Hook Elementary School
“Stay put!” shouted the principal, Dawn Hochsprung, emerging from Room 9 with school psychologist Mary Sherlach. Moments later, 65-grain bullets from .223 cartridges, traveling at 3,200 feet per second, tore through their bodies and killed them both. Two shots, two kills. And with those shots, Adam Lanza had begun his killing spree.
9:34 a.m., New York City
I grabbed another coffee and a blueberry muffin at Dean & DeLuca and walked back to the apartment I was staying in.
9:35 a.m., Newtown
A caller from Sandy Hook Elementary was on the line with 911 dispatch, frantically screaming, “I hear shooting in the school. The police need to come… He’s at the door, please Jesus, please Jesus.” Dispatch, trying to keep the caller calm, told her to “take a deep breath, it will be okay. What’s happening now?” A minute later the dispatcher delivered the message to the Newtown police officers: “Sandy Hook School caller is indicating she thinks there is someone shooting in the building.”
Police were dispatched immediately to the scene. None were prepared for what they encountered that day. Lanza had become a hunter, stalking his prey—but his targets were innocent, defenseless six- and seven-year-old elementary school children.
9:34–9:40 a.m., Sandy Hook Elementary
It is unclear whether Adam Lanza entered Classroom 8 or 10 first. In the span of six minutes he would fire 154 rounds from an AR-15. In Classroom 8, the police would find fourteen children dead, and a fifteenth would be pronounced dead after being taken to Danbury Hospital. One child survived, exiting after the officers arrived. Two other adults—substitute teacher Lauren Rousseau, thirty, and behavioral therapist Rachel D’Avino, twenty-nine—were also killed. The gunshots came from the same .223-caliber ammunition of an AR-15 rifle. At some point Lanza entered the other classroom and began targeting more victims.
At this point, for reasons we will never know, Adam Lanza decided to stop the killing. He dropped his AR-15 rifle, with its Magpul thirty-round high-capacity magazine, to the linoleum floor in Classroom 10. He then pressed his Glock 20SF barrel against his head, just under his chin, and pulled the trigger. The 10mm hollow-point round did what it was designed to do, penetrating his skull and tearing through his cerebral cortex, killing him instantly.
In less than six minutes, Lanza had killed twenty-six children and adults, in an atrocity unparalleled in American history. He had meticulously planned and written about his intentions in the hours, days, and months preceding the day’s horror. Lanza studied Sandy Hook’s website and the school’s security procedures, and had mapped out the massacre with obsessive detail. Investigators would later note that “he had long been on a path headed toward a deteriorating life of dysfunction and isolation.” The report on the shootings went on to say that “his severe and deteriorating internalized mental health problems… combined with an atypical preoccupation with violence… [and] access to deadly weapons… proved a recipe for mass murder.” In other words, this was no random event. He had been preparing and planning this unspeakable tragedy for years.
Lanza was found dressed in a “pale green pocket vest” over a black polo shirt. Everything else he wore that day was black—his T-shirt, sneakers, gloves, socks. All but two of his victims had been shot multiple times, execution style; six- and seven-year-old boys and girls were shot point-blank. The only explanation I would have later is that it was an act of pure evil.
9:57 a.m., New York City
I was with Wally McLallan, the guy who originally set up the Freedom Group with Cerberus CEO Steve Feinberg, and my girlfriend, Coco, at Wally’s flat, about to jump on a call. Wally suddenly signaled to me. “Hey, man, I just saw there was a shooting up in Connecticut.”
I responded, “I hope it’s not a bad one. That’s all we need.” I spent the next few minutes flipping through the media “rundown”: Drudge, CNN, Breitbart, MSNBC.
“This is not good. Turn on CNN. I hope he didn’t use an AR.” That was always the first question on the “checklist” we worked through when one of these shootings happened. Given my job working with Cerberus, it was the first thought on my mind, the first thought on all of our minds, something that would haunt me for years to come.
The next forty-five minutes was a flurry of phone calls. And the calls confirmed just how bad the news was. The Sandy Hook shooting was the one we all dreaded at Cerberus and at the NRA. Wally had spoken with Chris Cox—chief lobbyist at the NRA—and he was already gearing up for battle. “Just got off with Cox. It looks like the gun was possibly an AR. He and David Lehman figure mag bans, background checks, maybe even an assault weapons ban will be on the table. A total shit show.”
The intensity, the rush of going into crisis mode, was oddly intoxicating. The day would be a slurry of death, politics, guns, and money, and like it or not, I had a front-row seat.
I called Tony Makris, who was Wayne LaPierre’s longtime adviser. He told me, “Get ready. This is going to be the mother of all gunfights. It’s really bad. There are still dead kids on the floor. Watch and learn. If we do this right the members will go nuts. Cats and dogs. I know exactly what to do.”
He was completely focused on the reactions of the NRA members. That was a big part of the job. Honestly, the reality of what had taken place at the school hadn’t sunk in yet, certainly for me.
The first responders to Sandy Hook described the scene as a river of red. Many have since quit the profession; human beings can only process so much. A number of the police officers on the scene that day will not discuss what they saw, for a multitude of good reasons. “Some things just shouldn’t be talked or written about,” one said. Seeing twenty dead young children was overload for just about anyone. The death toll would rise to twenty-seven that day, including Lanza’s mother, whom he killed before coming to the school, after he took her guns for the shooting. It was a staggering amount of carnage, almost unimaginable. These were little children, innocent angels, the darlings of their parents. How does someone decide to pick up an AR-15 and shoot defenseless elementary school kids? And not just shoot them randomly, but with laser precision, putting multiple rounds in their small bodies like a terrorist militant?
I couldn’t picture the fact that less than seventy miles from the apartment I was staying in, the bodies of two dozen six- and seven-year-olds were still bleeding on the floors of Sandy Hook Elementary School. Cerberus and the NRA quickly moved into fighting mode, working the checklist to figure out how to respond to the tsunami of bad publicity. Was it an AR or a handgun? How many are dead? Did the shooter go through a background check? Did he steal the gun? What’s the media saying? We didn’t miss a beat. The adrenaline and seductive intensity of the fight was palpable. It was all I could focus on. At the time, I believed we were fighting a righteous fight, on behalf of law-abiding gun owners everywhere.
That afternoon, Wally, Coco, and I settled in for a steak lunch at Peter Luger in Brooklyn, where we were joined by the owner of Crye Precision, a Brooklyn-based company that sells equipment and apparel for the U.S. armed forces, the Navy SEALS, and law enforcement officers. Conversation meandered from talk of the “war on terror” to the new film Zero Dark Thirty, all the while checking our phones.
“CNN says the body count will be north of twenty.”
“Drudge saying two shooters but not confirmed.”
“Still no indication of the gun used.”
While we young “Merchants of Death” attacked our steaks and sipped glasses of French Cabernet, intoxicated with our own thoughts of defending gun rights, the country was in a state of utter shock at what had happened. But the reaction from gun owners was very different. They were sure the government would try to take away their guns. This was it. This was the time. Remington Arms, one of the companies owned by Cerberus, as well as Brownell’s, the largest seller of assault rifle parts, and every gun store in America, saw their sales explode in the days that followed, as demand for the AR-15 went through the roof out of fear of a ban. Within days, lines formed at gun stores, and stores put limits on how many magazines customers could buy. It was unlike anything gun retailers and manufacturers had ever seen. On eBay a thirty-round Magpul magazine was trading at many multiples of the normal price.
We didn’t talk much about the dead children over lunch, or the actual shooting. In truth, it just hadn’t registered yet. At the end of lunch, someone said, “Shit. CNN just broke he used a Bushmaster AR, but it hasn’t been confirmed…”
We all fell silent. Wally managed to get out “Jesus, this is not good. This is going to be bad.” Bushmaster was one of the original investments in the Cerberus portfolio.
Wally stepped out to take a call, and when he came back, he said, “Feinberg is freaking out over the shooting and wants to dump Remington,” referring to Steve Feinberg, the CEO of Cerberus.
“We’re all getting on a call tomorrow. I called Pete Brownell [the second generation to own Brownell’s in Iowa] to have him pull us a couple hundred mags, and a bunch of lowers [a gun’s lower assembly]. I told him to grab half Magpul and half pressed metal. The call center in Montezuma is in meltdown mode. It’s insane. He just ordered as many mags as he can get. At least if Congress bans ARs we’ve got the lowers…”
I still wasn’t thinking about the children who died. I was completely caught up in this surreal crisis mode, trying to figure out what we needed to do and how we needed to respond.
Later that afternoon, I broke out of the bubble I was enveloped in and spoke with my ex-wife. She told me our kids—we had two young daughters—were very shaken up by the shooting. The police were going to be at school next week. Some parents were discussing pulling their kids from school. We talked about how tragic and frightening the shootings at Sandy Hook were, as I’m sure parents across the country did.
I talked to my youngest, who was six at the time, and she said, “Daddy, did you see all those kids who were killed?”
And with that, the grim reality of what had happened was beginning to set in. Finally. She was scared, and I could feel it. An awful feeling in my stomach that only a parent can know washed over me. I felt sick.
By late afternoon, images had spilled all over the media as the Newtown massacre led on every network—images of bloodstained white sheets, bodies being pushed out on gurneys, police cars, helicopters circling. Sandy Hook Elementary School looked like a war zone rather than an American school. An entire nation seemed to be asking, How could this happen? How could twenty young children get gunned down in an elementary school?
President Barack Obama gave a televised address on the day of the shootings. He was visibly shaken and seemed to fight to hold back his tears. “We’re going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics.” His anger and sadness were palpable. “In the words of scripture, heal the brokenhearted and bind up their wounds.” He would later say it was the hardest day of his presidency.
What I didn’t understand yet, on that day as we leapt into panic mode to respond to the concern from our members, is that Sandy Hook marked a turning point for the NRA, and America, in terms of gun violence. The tragedy was so unimaginable—the brutal slaughtering of young children—that it scarred the nation in ways that would continue to be visible for years. I was part of a message machine that helped to perpetuate the problem and exacerbate the extremism of the gun debate, something I wouldn’t fully appreciate for a long time. I would become lost. And my experience would ultimately convince me that the NRA itself had lost its mission, and lost its way too.
Six years later, in February 2018, Nikolas Cruz, a nineteen-year-old troubled ex-student, broke into Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, thirty miles northwest of Miami, and opened fire indiscriminately on classmates and teachers. Twelve students were killed inside the high school, and three more outside it. Two more died of their injuries in nearby hospitals. This killing spree sparked a national outrage. And for the first time, parents and politicians began to fight back in a bigger, more organized way. Survivors of Parkland, fellow students who had witnessed their friends die, took to the airwaves. Florida lawmakers, three weeks after the shootings in Parkland, passed the first gun control legislation in the state in twenty years, raising the age that people could buy guns from eighteen to twenty-one, and restricting those who were legally deemed mentally challenged from being able to purchase a gun.
And once again, the NRA was in the public’s and the media’s crosshairs. Six years had gone by, and yet Wayne LaPierre’s response, first unveiled in a speech at CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference, was defiant. Instead of working to find solutions, Wayne went on the attack, blaming Democrats, the FBI, and socialism for the tragic shootings. He claimed that the real goal of people who advocated for gun control was to eliminate the Second Amendment and eradicate all individual freedom. And he finished his speech repeating the words he had uttered in the aftermath of Sandy Hook—that the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun was with a good guy with a gun.
Six years after Sandy Hook, it felt like we had done nothing to stop the violence and prevent shootings like Parkland from happening. And now the frustration boiled over, as the survivors of Parkland took to the airwaves to plead for an end to the violence, to plead on behalf of their slain classmates. We needed Wayne LaPierre to step up and offer genuine leadership and a way forward. And instead the NRA offered its standard playbook and the party line. It was a lost opportunity. With Parkland, all the anger over school shootings and mass murders seemed to converge, and the NRA itself was under attack once again. And I could see that the NRA needed to be fixed. I believed deeply in the Second Amendment but saw the increasingly extremist rhetoric from the NRA as a real problem that would have long-term consequences, in spite of recent wins.
A year and half before, in the summer of 2016, I had joined the association as Wayne LaPierre’s chief of staff. My relationship with the NRA had continued in the years after Sandy Hook, and in 2014 I joined its board of directors, serving on the board’s finance committee. Wayne desperately wanted someone to come in and help modernize the organization, and he turned to me. We had remained friends, catching up at NRA board meetings and during duck hunting trips with Tony Makris. Wayne had brought me in to streamline the organization. As he said to me on my first day at “the Building”—the name that was commonly used to refer to the NRA headquarters in the northern Virginia suburbs—“Well, it will be great if we can do this, but I don’t know.” Prophetic, if not exactly inspiring.
But as I quickly came to see, the waste and dysfunction at the NRA was staggering, costing the organization and its members hundreds of millions of dollars over the years. After poring though all of our vendor expenses, consulting agreements, and people on the dole for God knew what, it was apparent just how big the problem was, and how long it had gone on. It was a job doomed from the start. Ackerman McQueen, the organization’s longtime marketing and media company, treated the association as its personal piggy bank, billing the NRA by 2018 almost $50 million, when you included the online streaming service NRATV, which they created and funded. Former Breitbart editor and TheBlaze television host Dana Loesch and Oliver North, who was wooed away from Fox News, received seven-figure salaries. And yet despite millions in production costs, the number of unique viewers per month was under fifty thousand. In other words, no one watched it.
And Wayne, I discovered, was personally in on the hustle. In 2019, Ackerman leaked documents showing that Wayne had billed over $275,000 in personal expenses—custom suits at a Beverly Hills Zegna—to Ackerman, which the NRA reimbursed him for, as well as hundreds of thousands of dollars for private jets and limousines to the Bahamas, Palm Beach, Reno, and Lake Como in Italy.1 In the wake of the Parkland shootings, concerned about his personal security, Wayne and his wife, Susan, had Ackerman and the NRA explore purchasing a $6 million, eleven-thousand-square-foot mansion in a gated community beside a lake and a golf course in the Dallas area.
As I’ll reveal, there are so many ways that membership money went up in smoke, due to mismanagement or incompetence or even possible corruption. The NRA’s finances were so glaringly out of control that in 2019 the New York attorney general, Letitia James, opened an inquiry into the NRA’s tax-exempt status.
But graft at the NRA was only part of our problem.
In hindsight, this is a sad story of a group of guys who thought they were doing the right thing, and then they weren’t. Those of us at the top all had our moments of clarity, questioning what was going on. It felt like we had coined the phrase “What are we talking about?” as a kind of code to the insanity. “What are we talking about?” was applied to an array of topics during my time at the NRA. At one point or another we all had our personal meltdowns. But we forged on, like soldiers marching into a battle that they knew they couldn’t win. By the fall of 2019, I’d come to believe I’d failed the team. I’d failed in my service to the membership. I’d lost the larger plot and was overtaken with just winning the fight at all costs. I became skilled at the art of giving the benefit of the doubt to NRA expense items, trying to defend what was clearly becoming obvious, years of mismanagement, often without all the facts at hand. I’d become the cover-up, or at least an accomplice.
This is my attempt to set the record straight. To tear back the curtain. People are going to attack me, malign me; they will be upset with the portrait I paint of the NRA. But I feel that the only way to create an organization that can genuinely better serve gun owners, and all Americans, is to show what the association has become, over the years with the current leadership. And to suggest the crucial role it can play in helping unite a country that today is too often divided.
The truth is, so many of the stories that I’ll describe that came out in the media over the summer of 2019 were a sideshow, just as the story of Maria Butina, the Russian spy who supposedly connected oligarchs with the NRA and helped to steer Russian dark money to the Trump campaign in 2016, was a mere sideshow. There was no Russian dark money. Just a sad bunch of naïve old men seduced by a Russian agent’s flattery and attention, who went on a junket to Russia when they should have stayed home.
Fake news circuses aside, I think the biggest transgression of the NRA under Wayne was that he turned the NRA into an organization of “No,” in response to any effort to quell gun violence. He helped to create and fuel the toxicity of the gun debate over the years, until it became outright explosive. In the 1980s and 1990s, Wayne steered the NRA away from its roots as an organization focused on gun safety and education into a lobbying Death Star. His approach and messaging, and the NRA’s, was deeply divisive, the brainchild of the angry and unrepentant Angus McQueen, head of the NRA’s outside marketing firm, and the puppet master who constantly stirred up the most radical element of the association’s five-million-strong membership. Any attempt to pass gun control legislation was seen as a slippery slope to overturning the Second Amendment. So Wayne, catalyzed by the messaging from Ackerman McQueen, fought fiercely against closing gun show sales loopholes and defeating universal background checks—things that the majority of gun owners are in favor of. Personally, I don’t know of a single gun owner who hasn’t bought a gun without having a background check.
The NRA’s approach really came under fire with the rise of school shootings and mass murders. Before Columbine, in 1999, there had been no school shootings. Now there seem to be two or more a year. And parents, educators, and the public understandably would do anything to rein them in and safeguard our kids. People are angry and desperate for solutions, both to school shootings and gun violence. They think that background checks and banning assault rifles—AR-15s—and high-capacity magazines are the solution, even if the data suggest that such measures wouldn’t actually do much to curb gun violence or protect lives.
But the real point is that Wayne, and the ad agency that stood by his side for thirty-five years crafting the NRA’s message, became infamous to the public for their no-holds-barred antagonism. The NRA become the doomful voice of “No.” No to any gun-related suggestion if it would infringe in any way on gun rights.
To me, the NRA has completely shirked its obligations to gun owners, citizens, and the children of our country. The answer to twenty-six dead children and teachers in Sandy Hook Elementary School, thirty-two killed at Virginia Tech, twenty-six killed in Sutherland Springs, fifty-eight killed in Las Vegas, forty-nine killed in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando simply cannot be “No.” No is not a solution.
Was the NRA responsible for Adam Lanza? Of course not. But they ought to help to find a solution. If not the NRA, then who? They are America’s experts when it comes to guns and their use. Gun violence is an epidemic. Instead the NRA fueled a toxic debate by appealing to the paranoia and darkest side of our members, in a way that has torn at the very fabric of America. Rather than offering solutions, Wayne led a media approach that poured gas on the fire and sowed discord. He knew it would set the stage to drive more membership dollars. A tactic I was reminded of regularly. Rather than being part of the solution, working with the government and the public to find answers to gun violence, the NRA bullied and beat back any effort to find answers, or even to allow research on the subject.
This is not to say the NRA didn’t have incredible impact and success on defending gun rights, but I believe it was an approach that divided the nation unnecessarily. The NRA helped craft and pass important pieces of legislation to bolster Second Amendment rights. But it also helped to pass legislation that banned research into gun violence. And it managed to get federal legislation through that protected gun manufacturers from being sued. Yes, the NRA had reasons for its positions—reasons I understand. Because the issue of gun rights is complex and nuanced; you can’t reduce it to a 280-character tweet. But the only message to the public, to the grieving parents and classmates, that the NRA could offer was: more guns.
Egged on constantly by Angus McQueen, the real firebrand behind this rhetoric, Wayne in essence bowed to the most militant and extreme faction of the NRA’s five million members. Whenever the organization fell short in its funding drives, Wayne would “pour gasoline on the fire” to ignite donations. And that strategy worked, time and again.
What Wayne didn’t do was broaden the membership and reach out to the hundred million gun owners in the United States.2 The NRA, I felt strongly, should be speaking for all gun owners, and all law-abiding citizens, not just the militant few. Polls show that most gun owners are in favor of universal background checks, banning bump stocks, and other solutions. Most gun owners are mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, construction workers, librarians, scientists, teachers—part of the fabric of America. They are as eager and determined to solve the issue of school shootings as anyone. But the NRA continues to focus its messaging and advertising toward the extreme fringe, continually stoking a toxic debate, hell-bent on keeping those donation dollars coming.
In my three and half years as the number two figure in the NRA, working side by side with Wayne, I saw incredible incompetence, a culture of political backbiting, and a Game of Thrones atmosphere that people outside our Merchants of Death bubble would never believe. Rather than being a well-oiled, data-driven lobbying machine, we were stuck back in the Dark Ages. There was no war room at the NRA, no coordinated effort between our lobbyists. There was no data machine that kicked out metrics the way a top-notch political lobbying shop would have.
As Wayne said to me on many occasions, “Josh, come on, you know it’s all smoke and mirrors. The Wizard of Oz. Just pull back the green curtain.”
He said it with a smile, and laughed! But I felt like I’d been punched in the gut. Smoke and fucking mirrors.
- On Sale
- Sep 8, 2020
- Page Count
- 320 pages