On Friday, Rolling Stone published court documents that revealed the NRA claims it’s being shut out of the financial system in a way that could render it “unable to exist.” The reaction in the days since has been split.
Some have taken the legal filing at face value. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is a defendant in the NRA’s lawsuit and is accused of a conspiracy to “blacklist” the gun group among financial institutions. Cuomo shared Rolling Stone’s story on Facebook and took a victory lap: “The regulations NY put in place are working,” he wrote, “We’re forcing the NRA into financial jeopardy. We won’t stop until we shut them down.” In another post, Cuomo added: “The NRA are political bullies. If they go away, I will remember them in my thoughts and prayers.” (Many others on Twitter offered similar blessings. Others engaged in schadenfreude, tweeting: “womp womp.” With a nod toward the NRA’s Russian entanglements, one replied, “Crimea River.”)
But many in the gun control community have met the NRA’s distress call with skepticism. David Hogg, one of the prominent teen leaders to emerge from the Parkland, Florida, mass shooting, shared Rolling Stone’s report on Twitter, cautioning: “The NRA is trying to fool us into believing this DO NOT believe it.” He added: “The NRA is still one of the greatest threats to American lives today. They simply need donations now that Maria Butina and @torshin_ru have been reviled.” (Butina and Alexander Torshin are the Russian nationals who infiltrated the NRA. Torshin has been hit with U.S. sanctions; Butina is now jailed awaiting trial on charges of acting as an unlawful Russian agent.) Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action, echoed similar caution, tweeting: “The NRA isn’t going out of business any time soon.”
What are we to believe: Is the NRA truly on the financial rocks, or is it crying wolf, seeking to rally its supporters through a trumped-up lawsuit?
In a statement to Rolling Stone, the NRA’s lead attorney, William Brewer III, insisted that the financial difficulties are real: “Our client is suffering setbacks with respect to the availability of insurance and banking services.” He added that these dynamics, “if left unchecked, will further harm the NRA.” Brewer called the state of New York’s regulatory crackdown on the NRA “a blatant attack on the First Amendment rights of our organization.”
Any sober reflection of the NRA’s record reveals it is far from an honest broker. In fact the, NRA has a long history of scaremongering — and amplifying minor threats to appear existential. Check out this brochure from the mid-2000s warning that “SECOND AMENDMENT FREEDOM TODAY STANDS NAKED IN THE PATH OF A MARCHING AXIS OF ADVERSARIES FAR DARKER AND MORE DANGEROUS THAN GUN OWNERS HAVE EVER KNOWN”; or watch this anti-Hillary Clinton NRA ad from 2016. It is not unthinkable that the NRA would use a frivolous lawsuit to spark outrage, concern — and contributions from its patrons. (Brewer did not respond to Rolling Stone’s questions to this effect.)
But the manner in which the NRA’s new distress claims surfaced casts doubt on the idea that this legal action is only a cynical PR ploy. The NRA has been suing the state of New York, without much fanfare, since May. And its original complaint warned the group had “suffered tens of millions of dollars in damages.”
The amended complaint — providing the details of extreme financial distress that made news last week — was submitted on July 20th. The new filing was not peddled to a gun-friendly news outlet. The NRA did not cover the suit on NRATV or post a link to the filing on its website, as it had done with the original May complaint. Nor did the NRA leak the news to the New York Times — an outlet the gun group has taught its members to revile — where the cry for help would have created maximum news impact. Instead, the filing went quiet for a week and a half, before getting noticed by a legal reporter in Albany, picked up by The Trace, with the actual documents being published in full on Rolling Stone.
A source close to the litigation downplayed the idea that the NRA was in immediate risk of collapse. But there are other indications that the group is not on sound financial footing. The NRA ended 2016 — the year of its most recent IRS tax filing — with a deficit of nearly $46 million. Compare that to, 2012, which it ended with a $2 million surplus.
There is one figure who could help get to the bottom of this mystery: Cuomo. According to a new legal filing, the governor is seeking “an order dismissing the [NRA] complaint in its entirety with prejudice.” If the governor chose, instead, a riskier tack, he could seek to take the case to trial. The state of New York could compel the NRA to open its books in legal discovery, and make the gun group account for its alleged financial ruin in open court.
If that were to happen, who knows what other (Moscow-related) mysteries might be resolved along the way.