The National Rifle Association’s (NRA) New York state financial disclosure forms for 2014 are now online, and like past years’ tax filings, the documents provide a rare glimpse at the organization’s inner machinery. The group’s total revenues fell from more than $347 million in 2013 to roughly $310 million. Contributing to the decline was a drop in income collected from its members. Revenue from annual dues fell from $175 million to $128 million in 2014, a drop of 27 percent.
The precise size of NRA’s membership — the core of the group’s perceived political muscle — has long been a mystery. In January 2013, Executive Vice President and CEO Wayne LaPierre boasted before Congress that he served 4.5 million members. Speaking at an NRA convention a few months later, he upped that figure to 5 million. On January 5, in a statement responding to President Barack Obama’s executive actions on guns, the group described itself as “more than 5 million members strong.”
But the truth of those numbers is a matter of debate — the NRA has never allowed an outside party to authenticate its membership, and independent estimates predict a much smaller number. Circulation audits of American Rifleman and other NRA-published magazines that are sent to every member come in at around 3 million. One former board member told the Washington Post in 1998 that when the NRA counts its size, it includes many deceased lifetime members.
The NRA’s revenue disclosures neither corroborate nor disprove LaPierre claims. But they do challenge conceptions of the group as a standing army of loyal gun-rights activists and voters ready to be dispatched to swing elections and sway law making, suggesting instead a more prosaic reality: like most other large, well-established nonprofits, the NRA seems to have a membership whose size varies significantly from year to year.
According to a review of the NRA’s New York state tax filings, over a ten-year period dating back to 2005, members have provided the group an average annual revenue of $125 million, spiking after high-profile mass shootings and at times when gun laws are under scrutiny before leveling off again.
An NRA membership costs $35 per year, with discounts for juniors, disabled veterans, and seniors. The group also sells associate memberships with fewer benefits for $10 a year, and a life membership for $1,000. Free memberships are sometimes included with the purchase of a gun, and the group has also offered temporary discounts. Annual memberships are currently $10 off and went for just $20 (with life memberships slashed to $300) during a signup drive held in the aftermath of Sandy Hook. The rates are set to increase on March 1, when a membership will cost $40, and lifetime status $1,500. The NRA does not disclose how much of its dues come from each tier.
NRA members get a slew of benefits, including the aforementioned magazine subscriptions as well as discounts at gun stores, insurance for firearms accidents, and access to local clubs. Some observers think those perks, more so than ideological affinity, are the real draw for many members. Life members and those who’ve been part of the organization for five consecutive years also get to vote for the board of directors, with more than 115,000 casting a ballot in the 2015 election.
The ups and downs of the NRA’s membership dues make sense to Matthew Baggetta, a professor of public affairs at Indiana University and an expert on voluntary associations. The timing of the swings, he says, is telling. “Many of the main drivers of these fluctuations in memberships are responses to threat, or perceived threat, on the part of potential members,” Baggetta tells The Trace.
The most recent spike in NRA membership revenue came in 2013, when President Obama and congressional Democrats sought to enact significant new gun restrictions in the wake of the Newtown massacre. For the first time in years, national political forces were arrayed against the NRA. Prior to that, membership dues shot up from $71.7 million in 2006 to an astonishing $228.6 million in 2007, the year of the Virginia Tech massacre, the worst mass shooting in United States history.
Even before the Virginia Tech shooting that April, the NRA had already started ringing alarm bells, as Democrats had just taken charge of both houses of Congress. In a 27-page pamphlet obtained by the Washington Post, the group warned that the “new [congressional] leadership could be one of the most unfriendly to the National Rifle Association.” (The document opened with an essay bearing the title, “The Coming Confrontation.”) The Post article then quoted a spokesman for the Brady Campaign, a leading reform group, admitting that no new gun regulations were likely to pass that year.
Democrats did successfully push through the NICS Improvement Amendments Act, the first gun violence prevention measure passed since the Clinton era and signed by Republican President George W. Bush to boot, but they did so with the NRA’s acceptance. As the NRA must have known, there was little appetite on either side of the aisle for more restrictive gun laws.
Baggetta compared the NRA’s rollercoaster levels of membership dues to those of environmental groups like the Sierra Club, which he studied in a 2005 paper presented to the American Sociological Association. During the George H.W. Bush administration, the groups enjoyed robust membership levels. “Then when the Clinton administration came in, they all sort of tailed off for a while, because the perceived level of environmental threat went down,” Baggetta says. Only when George W. Bush, a former oilman, took up residence in the White House did the sense of urgency return. “All of a sudden membership rolls start swelling as environmentalists become concerned,” says Baggatta. He added that during that period the Sierra Club had 800,000 to 900,000 consistent supporters, with the total membership roll fluctuating by another 100,000 people every year.
The NRA’s tax disclosures make clear that despite its reputation for a unique ability to muster the faithful, the gun group is not so different from other large national membership organizations. But to the frustration of nonprofit watchdogs, the filings don’t elucidate much more than that.
Reporters and activists who have examined the NRA’s tax documents were struck by their inconsistency and incompleteness. The organization has been under a microscope since last April, when a Yahoo News report detailed how donations to the NRA often end up in the hands of its PAC, the Political Victory Fund, which is required to fundraise separately. A review of the NRA’s federal tax filings by the New York Post found that in 2014 the group disclosed its status as a membership organization to the Internal Revenue Service for the first time in several years. (In 2013, the group told the IRS that it was not a membership organization, despite acknowledging millions in income from dues.) According to the Post, 2014 was also the first time in six years that the NRA answered “yes” to whether it conducted political activity, blaming the omissions in previous years on a “clerical error.” Noah Bookbinder, the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, D.C. categorized the gun group’s response as “difficult to believe.”
The NRA did not respond to a request for comment.
[Photo: AP Photo/Houston Chronicle, Johnny Hanson]