The National Rifle Association, the oldest and largest civil rights group in the U.S., has filed for bankruptcy in New York state saying that it wishes to reorganize itself in Texas. In a press release on its website, the NRA makes clear that it is not insolvent but seeks to escape politically motivated and malicious prosecution by New York State Attorney General Letitia James. Attorney General James has previously called the NRA a “terrorist organization” and a criminal enterprise.
The NRA was formed in 1871 by two Union Army officers, Colonel William C. Church and General George Wingate. Both were appalled by the massive casualties of that war and marked the contrast between rural Confederate troops, who were very handy with their rifles, and Union soldiers drawn from large urban centers in the North who had no experience with marksmanship. That lack of experience proved deadly to a great many “bluecoats” on in their first combat action.
The NRA was granted a charter by New York State in November 1871. General Ambrose Burnside was named founder and first president of the organization.
The initial mission of the NRA was education, training, and marksmanship. As the organization grew in numbers and influence it expanded into hunting safety and education, then law enforcement training. Finally, with the rise of opposition to gun ownership, it became a civil rights organization with some five million paying members. Its influence over legislation affecting gun owners and the 2nd Amendment is both legendary and extensive in its successes. And this has earned it many a political adversary on the Left.
One of those adversaries very much appears to be Letitia James. In August 2020, her office filed a lawsuit alleging that NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre and three other officers of the association misappropriated $65 million dollars from the NRA for their own purposes. However, while this lawsuit alleges things that would be criminal under New York law if proven true in a criminal court, AG James’s lawsuit is not a criminal indictment. Instead, the suit seeks that LaPierre and the other officers return the money they allegedly misused and never serve on another non-profit board in that state. Yet, it then goes on to demand that the NRA, as an organization, be disbanded entirely.
Since the NRA is a chartered non-profit in New York State, the state’s government is supposed to protect the interests of the organization’s donors. In principle, it works like this: People donate money to a non-profit asking it to forward and accomplish some agenda on their behalf. When someone steals or misappropriates those donations the state steps in to defend the donors’ interests saying in effect, “You cheated the donors out of the purpose for which those donations were sought, return the money so the organization can continue its work.” But by seeking to dissolve the NRA in its entirety the state of NY is signaling that it’s also hostile to what NRA members and donors are trying to accomplish through their donations.
No doubt this prompted the NRA to seek protection from the Federal Bankruptcy Court and relocate to Texas.
Attorney General James has said that her suit is not politically motivated. But her own statements prior to being elected make her claims highly suspect. During her run for office more than two years ago, James vowed that if elected she’d use her office to go after the NRA claiming it had a “poisonous agenda” and was “directly antithetical” to New York’s harsh gun-control laws. Imagine if New York, which has outrageously high taxes, said it was going to ban a non-profit group that advocated for lower taxes because lowering taxes was “antithetical” to the state’s interests. In such a case you would have the government using its power to punish groups of citizens seeking redress of their grievances — as in this suit against the NRA.
In an interview with Ebony Magazine in 2018, James had stated: “The NRA holds [itself] out as a charitable organization, but in fact, [it] really [is] a terrorist organization.” Rhetoric like hers would seem to warrant criminal charges rather than a lawsuit seeking that the leaders of a “terrorist organization” refund misappropriated funds donated by supposed terrorist sympathizers to that organization.
James, however, disclaimed that calling the NRA a terrorist organization had prompted the investigation. In an interview with Vanity Fair, she stated, “The fact is, New York State has jurisdiction. The supervisory offices of the NRA are incorporated in the state. The alleged illegality came to our attention as a result of public accounts. We initiated a nine-month investigation, and then I decided we had a responsibility to ensure that the mission of the NRA was being carried out according to its own bylaws[…]”
Again, claiming on the one hand that her office has “a responsibility to ensure the mission of the NRA was being carried out” while on the other hand filing a lawsuit that seeks to dissolve the association seems duplicitous.
James’s campaign website offers further evidence of her prior intent to go after the NRA. In her old campaign website under the heading, “Protecting New Yorkers From Gun Violence” (and not Protecting New York From Non-Profits Who Misuse Their Funds) James stated that if elected she would use her office to “Investigate the legitimacy of the NRA as a charitable institution.” Readers are invited to wonder if these allegations against the NRA fell into her lap as she now claims or whether she is making good on her promise to, “investigate the legitimacy of the NRA.”
This is not the first time that the NRA has been leaned on by politicians in New York. In 2018 the organization filed a suit against Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York Department of Financial Services for trying to strong-arm banks and insurers into dropping the NRA as a customer.
The NRA is not seeking bankruptcy because it cannot pay its creditors; its press release states that it can meet its vendor obligations. Rather, its filing of Chapter 11 is a legal strategy. While in the hands of a Receiver (the court) AG James will not be able to cause the Association’s dissolution pending production and approval of a reorganization plan to the federal court. AG James may pursue the suit’s individual claims against LaPierre and other board members but she will not be able to dissolve the entire organization — which very much seems to be the state’s end game. Furthermore, it should be remembered that the Trustee appointed by the Bankruptcy Court will also have full access to the NRA’s financial records which the AG claims will support her lawsuit. And if the Trustee’s findings corroborate AG James’s claims then the Trustee would also have a duty to pursue those same claims. The fact that the NRA leadership does not seem to fear a Trustee’s oversight in this case, also speaks to the weakness of New York’s claims.
In the end, AG James may end up with not much of anything but being able to brag that she ran the NRA out of New York — and that may have been the whole idea all along.