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Krull: The NRA and the Art of the Lift

One of the biggest con games around comes to Indiana soon

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One of the biggest con games around comes to Indiana soon.

And President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence will be shilling for it.

The scam operation is the National Rifle Association. An NRA convention takes place in Indianapolis from April 26 to 28. Billboards and other promotional efforts promise more than 15 acres of guns on display and plenty of opportunities for firearms fetishists to satisfy their cravings for things that go bang.

That this convention will have a strong commercial aspect to it isn’t surprising.

As a piece in The New Yorker documents in devastating detail, the NRA stopped being an organization dedicated to advancing the interests of hunters and other sportsmen a long time ago. It now exists primarily to pry greenbacks from gullible gun owners and merchants.

Reporter Mike Spies, who did the piece for The New Yorker and The Trace, examined NRA tax filings, charity records, internal memos and correspondence, contracts and other written evidence. He discovered the gun advocacy organization is the kind of financial catastrophe of which Bernie Madoff would be proud.

But that’s not because of harsh government persecution, as the NRA’s leaders like to proclaim.

No, the reason the NRA has been running as much as $40 million annual deficits in recent years is that the organization’s leaders and their cronies have engaged in financial gluttony on a scale that would make the most corpulent pig blush.

Spies tracked down evidence of seven-figure sweetheart deals for supposed volunteer leaders, of $40 million annual deals with public relations agencies, of hidden or under-the-table payments to wives, family members and mistresses of board members and other bits of financial chicanery. He also documented the extraordinary lengths to which the NRA has gone to hide its finances from scrutiny by using shell organizations and other dodges to obscure the money trail.

The conflicts of interest and other bits of self-dealing are so large and so pervasive, Spies reports, that Internal Revenue Service experts say they imperil the NRA’s not-for-profit, tax-deductible status. If the NRA loses its tax-deductible status, it is game over for the organization. It will cease to exist.

None of this is news, of course, to anyone who didn’t drink the Kool-Aid and has looked at the NRA’s tax and other financial records with an objective and discerning eye.

Those records reveal that the organization’s finances are lies stacked upon canards piled upon fibs that are bolstered by falsehoods.

For a long time, the assumption was that this rickety network of deception and disinformation had been erected to keep people from discerning the degree to which gun manufacturers and merchants were funneling cash to the NRA to keep gun owners riled up and the gun sellers’ cash registers ringing. (One inventive hustle is having gun sellers buy NRA memberships in bulk for customers and then claim the funds come from individual gun owners, thus burnishing the organization’s reputation as a champion for the little guy.)

Hiding the cozy, let’s-play-footsie relationship with the firearms industry may have been one reason for the smoke.

But the larger motivation seems to be a desire to keep the rubes from getting wise to the con. It’s harder for pickpockets to work if the marks know when and where the lift is coming.

Most NRA members think they’re spending their money on gun safety, training and education programs.

But those efforts have been cut dramatically in recent years and now account for less than 10 percent of the NRA budget.

The bulk of the spending goes to paying $40 million in 2017 to the public relations agency Ackerman McQueen. Ackerman McQueen pays the NRA’s “volunteer” president Oliver North more than $1 million per year. The NRA’s executive vice president, Wayne LaPierre, has a similar deal, but with a golden parachute that guarantees he will continue to be maintained in the style to which he has become accustomed should he leave the gun organization.

NRA members bought everything these guys have sold.

But that’s not a shock, either.

P.T. Barnum said something about such folks. It went along the lines of there being one born every minute.

Thousands of them will gather soon in Indiana.

Where the president and vice president will help with the hustle.

John Krull is the director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism and publisher of, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.