By Ben Langlotz | May 14, 2019 | Firearms | 0 Comments
I might actually have been a gun rights nut before I was a true gun nut. Before I became part of this industry in 2002, I had been the lead plaintiff and a legal strategist on a concealed carry civil rights case in Oregon that achieved a partial victory even with hostile judges. I got a lot of mentoring from a “no-compromise” organization that continually criticized the NRA.
I’m an NRA member and recognize the immense value and leadership the organization has provided, even as I may not have agreed with all the strategies on politics, law, and management. But I’ve never been a 100% cheerleader and have always had come concerns. Maybe if I’d been braver, I’d have risked my solid reputation in the industry as an unquestioned gun-rights supporter by speaking out more critically in the past, but I tend to agree with the famous Reagan quote:
“The person who agrees with you 80 percent of the time is a friend and an ally – not a 20 percent traitor.”
I feel the same way about the “purist” gun rights advocates who attack Trump for their occasional disappointments with his policies*. My tiresome reply to these virtue-signaling purists is: “Name a more pro-gun president… (crickets).” The clever ones might say Obama sold more guns, or Teddy Roosevelt was more of a gunner – before gun control even existed. They make my point, especially as our gun rights are recovered in litigation before the federal courts filled with Trump’s judicial nominees.
*Trump followed the NRA’s questionable lead on bump stocks. My view is that the only thing stupider than a bump stock is a ban on bump stocks. I also suspect that the Mandalay Massacre might have had a higher (10%?) death toll if the killer hadn’t been slowed down by the clumsy toys – that would be about 50 lives saved by bump stocks.
I’m a fan of the other pro-gun groups like the Second Amendment Foundation (you’ll see them on my back page as I handle their trademark work pro-bono) who have achieved mighty accomplishments in the courts and political realm. I don’t have the information to know whether the rivalries I hear about among pro-gun organizations are true, or whether to believe that the NRA was against Heller’s court case being brought – the foundational civil rights gun case of our era.
I’m similarly ignorant of which NRA leader (if any) is to be trusted when it comes to management battles, and whether the business deals with outside PR firms that craft the political face of the NRA are a good deal, bad deal, or somewhere in between. Until I see that, I’m not taking sides or pointing fingers, no matter how much I worry that having management unchanged and entrenched for decades is not usually a recipe for success.
Same goes for management compensation. Wikipedia says Wayne LaPierre has a $5,051,249 salary (2015) but I know how that source can be corrupted by political enemies; Fox News says it was $1.4 million in 2017. I’m also realistic to know that an organization can be making a smart decision to compensate an executive based on performance, and I don’t have a telepathic ability to determine whether the compensation is excessive.
What Members Hate
Every time I talk to an NRA member outside of the industry it seems there’s one common complaint. It isn’t compensation, organizational management, or political message. It’s JUNK MAIL. JUNK CALLS. Fundraising.
It irritates the heck out of people who support an organization to see their contributions “wasted” on marketing that has no effect on them (or so they think). And it’s not even the irritation of an unwanted call or letter, it’s the assumption that the organization is squandering resources. I try to explain that the NRA knows precisely what each marketing campaign costs and how much revenue it generates, and we can be assured that any practices that are continued are continued because they make money. I might worry that simply creating a net profit from a fundraising campaign might not be a net win if it alienates supporters, but that’s for leadership with the full information to decide.
What I Hate
Before I reveal my simple reform that will permanently cure all the NRA’s problems, I’ll share my big personal concern. I think it’s a blunder for Wayne and Company to rush to the newsroom every time there’s a mass shooting. They probably have the best of intentions to ensure that “our side” is heard as the gun-haters stand atop the warm bodies of victims to exploit a crime for their political ends. Fine. But when it comes to mass shootings, the debate is too-often framed as “are permissive gun laws to blame?” “Is what the NRA advocates responsible for this tragedy?” “Is there blood on the NRA’s hands?”
The moment an NRA leader gets on TV to try to answer those accusations, they essentially concede that the NRA might actually be the issue. It’s like a guy who cries in his own defense: “I don’t still beat my wife!” when he should ignore the ridiculous accusation and not dignify it a with a response. Or if the Chrysler CEO ran on TV to defend his company every time a minivan squashed a pedestrian.
If I were Wayne, the response to a mass shooting would be: “This crime has nothing to do with the rights of law-abiding citizens that we fight to protect, and out of respect for the victims and the investigation, we will have no comment on the matter because the acts of a criminal should not guide our interpretation of the Constitution.” Then shut the (heck) up. And don’t “help” by giving cover to a ridiculous ban of a ridiculous gun accessory.
It’s the Board, Stupid!
Here’s my simple recipe to fix the NRA:
Reduce the number of Directors on the Board from 76 to nine.
I swiped this idea from the ACLU, and just about every other major successful non-profit corporation.
A Board of 76 is virtually guaranteed to be ineffectual at controlling management and leading an organization on behalf of its members. The ACLU has a board of 10. That’s actually their “Foundation” Board, which controls most of the money, which determines which cases they file, and which issues they pursue*.
(*Q: How does an ACLU Board member count to ten?
A: 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10!)
The ACLU has another Board that doesn’t control much money, and this has scores of members who now get to brag on their resumes of the honor.
And it certainly would be an honor to serve on the NRA Board. It’d be good for business, whether one was a local activist, a manufacturer, a gun trainer, or a patent attorney. But as much as I appreciate all the good people who serve, it’s inconceivable that the Board structure lets them get together and solve the hard problems. I have to imagine that much of the Board’s meetings turn out to be networking and jockeying for who gets to sit next to “Uncle Ted.” I hope I’m wrong.
When I see Board candidates campaigning on Facebook, I know they have their hearts in the right place, but I believe that a major organization doesn’t need Directors who say they support the Second Amendment even more than the incumbents do. This isn’t about issue advocacy; it’s about controlling the employees (management) to pursue the interests of the shareholders (members). I’m pretty doubtful that the NRA support for a bump stock ban followed a vote of the Directors, so it doesn’t really matter what specific political positions a Director holds on the issues.
I’m about to risk insulting some good people who have a lifetime of great service to our rights and our industry. Bear with me. But with 76 Directors (the phrase “herding cats” keeps coming to mind) it’s not just what the Board can’t do, it’s who the board can’t attract to the role.
Ask yourself this. Would hypothetical Directors of the caliber of Rudy Giuliani*, Condoleezza Rice*, Lee Iacocca**, or Donald Trump Jr. willingly accept a position on a Board of 76 Directors?
*I know they’re not necessarily with us on the issues.
**I know he’s dead.
I really don’t think that the high-power leaders who have experience at corporate governance, non-profit management, and national civil rights political advocacy are going to be interested in being part of an ineffectual Board that doesn’t truly control the organization. I’d imagine former Secretaries of State, retired Senators (if we had term limits instead of them staying on until senility) and Fortune 500 CEOs would be the source material for potential Directors. Former White House Press Secretaries? It might not be easy finding the ones that put the Second Amendment first (as opposed to Deep State swamp-dwellers the President tells us he’s trying to clean out).
It’s easy to imagine Ted Cruz, or the right past NSSF President, or a retired CEO of a major gun maker being willing to serve on a meaningful Board (I picked nine Directors because there may be some 2/3rds super majority provisions in the NRA’s governing documents – seven might otherwise be good). The NRA’s directors would likely also be serving on the Boards of other major organizations or companies.
And let’s please resist the urge to pick Directors simply because they are likeable prominent entertainment figures who are pro-gun. They make great spokespeople to communicate messages, but the Board should have very different duties involving critical but non-public control of management. Perhaps there’s a hypothetical popular pundit or author who could serve, but only if he or she had the qualifications and experience in controlling a large civil rights organization. Rush Limbaugh might have the gravitas if he were there on the issues. But sorry Tom Selleck, unless you have corporate experience I don’t know about – we welcome your help on the PR side.
Incidentally, I have to admit that I’m playing fast and loose with terminology. We don’t “pick” directors. They are normally elected by the membership. So, imagine a Board of nine Directors, with annual elections that enabled members to focus on the issues, and especially vote off a Director who wasn’t following the member’s principles. Members could actually pay attention to the candidates and their positions, as opposed to scanning a long list for someone they might have heard of (or who is getting free advertising just for being on the candidate list).
Even as I write this, the news comes in from the Wall Street Journal and Fox News that Wayne LaPierre received a $240,000 reimbursement for travel expenses from the ad/PR agency that is paid tens of millions of dollars by the NRA. I’m even more aghast that Wayne has reportedly received $200,000 in suits and other clothing. This is starting to smell like a televangelist fleecing his flock.
Now, I don’t mind paying my own earnings for a first-class flight, a stay at the Four Seasons, or a fine Italian suit. And I applaud the success of those who can even pay for their own private jet travel (let me know if you’re interested in chipping in for a private flight from Dallas to any of the next trade shows). I do appreciate a well-made suit – but a non-profit executive should buy his own damn suits and not expect small donors to dress him. Anyway, like the Die Hard villain Hans Gruber said: “I could talk about men’s fashion and industrialization all day but I’m afraid work must intrude.”
The Worst of the Worst?
In a recent “open letter”, longtime NRA Training Counselor Program Coordinator Andy Lander makes an allegation of stunning import:
“…Mr. Lapierre treats the people that work for him like his own personal indentured servants, unless you know the secret handshake, then you’re compensated very handsomely as long as you follow along blindly providing no resistance to the people running the organization. Those [Directors] that OBEY, are rewarded with NRATV contracts provided by Ackerman and McQueen or are paid handsomely for speaking arrangements.”
The idea that Directors receive selective rewards for supporting the executives they have a fiduciary duty to oversee is an allegation of corruption that raises legal questions that I’m not qualified to answer, but which I can imagine might lead to personal liability of Directors and the Executives to Members, as well as removal.
If these allegations turn out to be distortions borne of an internal rivalry, a functional Board of Directors could resolve the issues and move on. But as long as the NRA is dominated by the executives and not by Directors accountable to the members, the organization is destined to be sidetracked from its mission, or worse.
More to Come?
While I am not too sure what the answers are…what is clear is that this is a story that will continue to surprise with twists and turns. It will be interesting to see how this unfolds.