INDIANAPOLIS, Indiana—Thirty-three-year-old Allan Scott and his 66-year-old father Jim made the six-hour drive from Pittsburgh to the 148th annual National Rifle Association convention here this week hoping to explore “15 acres of guns and gear.”
Both dedicated supporters of President Donald Trump, who roused more than 15,000 members here with Vice President Mike Pence and a slate of other conservative grandees Friday, the Scotts didn’t come for the political red meat and dystopic messaging tossed from inside Lucas Oil Stadium at the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action Leadership Forum. There was Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin, talking about the fight to uphold “Judeo-Christian values.” There was Pence, who talked about the Green New Deal. There was Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), comparing the Democratic primary to a Saturday Night Live sketch, mocking former Vice President Joe Biden (“Joe will be offering backrubs for anyone that would like it,” he said). And of course there was Trump, whose biggest applause line came when he talked about “building the wall” and the 400 miles that would supposedly be built “by the end of next year.”
“Didn’t really catch too much of what they were saying,” Allan told me Friday. Instead of heading into Lucas Oil, he and his father stayed inside the Indiana Convention Center, where they wandered around 800 exhibits—where Chuck Norris signed a GLOCK Friday—and held different types of guns.
The Scotts, who have been coming together to the NRA convention for three years, were frustrated to learn that one of Trump’s biggest applause lines wasn’t about guns, but the wall—even though they support the president.
“Stay away from other political issues and stick to guns, and I think you’ll get more people in,” Allan told me. “Keep your mouth shut about the wall.”
As allegations of financial mismanagement thrust the NRA leadership into turmoil this weekend, with its president Lt. Col. Oliver North ousted Saturday in the wake of critical stories by outlets such as The New Yorker and The Wall Street Journal, the Scotts are among a number of members here who told me they think the association has lost focus on its original mission and needs a leadership change ahead of a Monday board of directors meeting. “I think one of the reasons people aren’t going to join as much is they either need a leadership change or they need to switch how they’re doing business,” Allan said. Both Allan and Jim complained about the increasing number of expensive-looking fundraising mailings they receive seemingly each week in the mail requesting more money. On Friday, news broke that North tried to force Wayne LaPierre, the association’s chief executive, to resign.
On Saturday morning, LaPierre received a standing ovation at the beginning of the members meeting. He was seated next to Oliver North’s empty chair and placard. First Vice President Richard Childress, the former NASCAR driver, took the dais awkwardly, explaining that he found out at 7 p.m. Friday that he would be presiding over the morning’s meeting. As he read a letter from North explaining that he would not be renominated to serve in his role, the room fell silent.
“There is a clear crisis and it needs to be dealt with immediately and responsibly so the NRA can continue to focus on protecting our Second Amendment,” North wrote in the letter read by Childress. North warned the organization could lose its tax-exempt status. Indeed, on Saturday, The New York Times reported that the New York Attorney General had opened an investigation into the association’s tax-exempt status. Members rebuffed a no-confidence vote against Pierre, voting instead to leave that issue to the board, which meets Monday.
Despite his apparent ouster Saturday morning, North’s presence was all over the event. At the entrance of one exhibit hall, his image towered over gun enthusiasts in a massive “FREEDOM’S SAFEST PLACE” display—alongside headshots of LaPierre and Chris W. Cox, the organization’s chief lobbyist—an ad campaign begun by the advertising firm Ackerman McQueen, which has been closely aligned with the gun advocacy group for three decades, and which the NRA sued for mismanaging $40 million.
The annual meeting came at an unfortuitous time for the association. As news of Russian agent Maria Butina’s sentencing for her role in her country’s 2016 influence campaign broke Friday, John Mellencamp’s “Authority Song” was playing, and the lyrics blared on the floor of Lucas Oil Stadium: “I fight authority but authority always wins.”
The organization was also fresh off the 2018 midterm elections, losing 33 races, as it has increasingly become an organ of the Republican Party. “The relationship was one that was viewed as mutually beneficial, and is one that now feels inseparable,” Kris Brown, the president of Brady, a nonprofit organization that campaigns for gun control, told me. “It is effectively a dystopia communications firm.”
An NRA spokesperson did not return multiple messages seeking comment. NRA board member Julie Golob on Saturday declined an interview with The Daily Beast through a representative.
Meanwhile, rank and file members browsed exhibits Saturday unaware, with several who had missed the morning’s member meeting asking me what the hubbub between LaPierre and North was about. Ruth Wickliff, 50, a lifetime NRA member who drove three hours to Indianapolis on Saturday, had caught wind of the dispute on television earlier that day. She said that LaPierre needed to move on from the organization. “We need to get back to defending the Second Amendment,” she told me, criticizing the fundraising efforts of LaPierre to support a top-heavy organization. “He’s the one that needs to go.”
Late Saturday afternoon, inside the NRA Store, amid aisles of long-sleeve “Don’t Tread On Me” T-shirts and other NRA-branded gear, 33-year-old Cody Becker marveled at one of several signs that read “100% of NRA Store Profits Go Directly to Support Vital NRA Programs.” Becker said he cancelled his membership five years ago because of increasing salaries for NRA figureheads such as LaPierre, but renewed it today only so he could walk the exhibit hall and “fondle some guns.” “I lost on any faith that any dollars they receive go to anything that matters.”
Becker told me he had instead joined Gun Owners of America, the advocacy organization that seemed to him to be more focused on protecting the Second Amendment. He said he sent them $20, and received his membership package in a no-frills white envelope. He had to write his own membership number on his membership card—something he didn’t begrudge. “They’re not wasting money,” he said.
As for the NRA, he said: “They lost their way—period.” He added: “They’re fucked.”