The National Rifle Association is no stranger to a courtroom. The pro-gun group’s litigation arm is currently involved in lawsuits in 13 states, according to its tracker, and New York Attorney General Letitia James has for years targeted the organization in a high-profile legal battle, over an alleged record of “self-dealing and illegal conduct.” And since 2019, when a power struggle engulfed the NRA’s leadership, the group has been involved in a nasty — and very public — legal scrap with its longtime public relations firm, Ackerman McQueen. 

As The Trace’s Will Van Sant revealed in April, it looked like the feud between the gun group and Ackerman was approaching some sort of closure last spring, when the parties reached a settlement that ended “with the NRA paying Ackerman $12 million,” according to court filings from James’s suit. But Van Sant uncovered evidence that, at some point in 2022, the NRA initiated a new federal lawsuit against Ackerman and one of its subsidiaries — and this time, the suit is proceeding entirely in secret.

The new, sealed lawsuit comes at a critical moment for the NRA: Membership, and thus member revenue, is collapsing; its legal spending has been ballooning; and rival gun groups are increasingly challenging the organization’s political power. I spoke with Van Sant about what the new litigation suggests about the NRA’s future, how it fits in within the larger context of the group’s recent turmoil, and how he discovered a lawsuit whose very existence was shielded from the public. Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length. 

Sunny Sone: How did you find out about this suit? I know you spend a lot of time digging into legal documents, but as you mention in the story, there wasn’t even an index number for the case in a database of federal court actions.

Will Van Sant: First, a little bit of background: I started doing work on the gun lobby soon after the schism at the NRA and revelations about the organization’s spending had left the group in crisis and entangled in legal disputes. Given the significance of the NRA to the gun lobby and the group’s flailing state, much of my work has touched on these court fights. My inclination is to seek out the story behind these legal disputes, to get below the surface.

I uncovered this lawsuit while I was trying to track down some information on another legal matter that the NRA is involved with. I stumbled on a filing in South Carolina that referred to this sealed case in Texas. From past reporting, I knew that federal court policy ostensibly discourages sealing entire actions, so it certainly caught my attention. 

How does this lawsuit fit in with the NRA’s larger struggles in recent years?

My hunch is that it’s a rehash of claims already contested, that the parties simply grew tired of scrutiny and found an accommodating judge. Of course, it’s impossible to know because the case is sealed. In the gun rights world, there has been plenty of attention paid to the legal strategy of the NRA’s outside counsel, William A. Brewer III. Some assert that he’s protecting CEO Wayne LaPierre, not the group itself, and that he’ll gamble on any legal maneuver, no matter how baseless. Perhaps in the end Brewer will be vindicated, but given his track record, it’s hard not to look at this sealed action in Texas as quixotic, particularly as the NRA paid the same defendants a $12 million settlement last year in another action. 

What does the state of the NRA today indicate about the direction of gun lobbying and advocacy?

There have always been factions in the gun rights movement and NRA critics. But rival groups are capitalizing on the NRA’s struggles and drawing support like never before. However, while these groups are growing in significance, none rival the NRA in terms of size and resources. Whenever the state of the gun lobby or the NRA is considered, I think it’s important to note the degree to which the GOP and the right more broadly have adopted its creed. The extent to which that would change, if at all, were the NRA to continue its slide is an open question. 

Anything else you’d like to add?

If any of you know Judge A. Joe Fish of the Northern District of Texas, tell him I want to see that sealed case.

From Our Team

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What to Know This Week

American firearms manufacturers, enabled by the federal government, are selling record numbers of semiautomatic handguns and rifles to international buyers — and the weapons have increasingly been linked to violent crimes across the globe. No company has benefited more than SIG Sauer. [Bloomberg

The U.S. surpassed 400 mass shootings so far in 2023. This year’s pace averages out to about two mass shootings per day, and puts the country on track for a record-breaking year. Rates of mass shootings vary between states; a new study, analyzing data from 2014 through 2022, found that states with the highest rates are mostly clustered in the South. [CNN/TIME

California is the epicenter of the nation’s gun violence research, thanks largely to its detailed records on gun ownership and firearms data. Now, firearms rights activists are suing over the state’s information-sharing practices, putting the entire field at risk. [Los Angeles Times] Context: Studying gun violence is difficult, and expensive. But intervention programs need research to survive.

The New York Police Department granted fewer gun permits in 2022 than the year prior, despite the Supreme Court’s Bruen decision that loosened the state’s concealed carry licensing law. The department received more than 7,000 applications in 2022; most are still pending. [THE CITY]

A new analysis of Florida’s school threat assessment program, conducted during the 2021-2022 school year, concluded that the practice has been “widely, but not uniformly, successful.” [Education Week/University of Virginia]

Supporters of Malcolm X have long contended that the government was involved in his 1965 assassination. Now, a man who says he witnessed the civil rights leader’s shooting death claims that the New York Police Department played a role in the killing. [Gothamist]

Officials in Harris County, Texas, are piloting an initiative to curb violent crime by creating stronger ties between police and landlords. But housing advocates say these “crime-free housing” programs make it easier to evict people — and put “an unprecedented number of people, many of whom are low-income people of color, at risk.” [Houston Landing/Mother Jones]

In Memoriam

Devin Spady, 25, got started in the family business early on: Even as a kid, Spady, the son of famed Philly hip-hop artist Gillie da King, would challenge just about anyone to a rap battle, and he began seriously pursuing his music career right out of high school, under the moniker YNG Cheese. Spady was killed last week in Philadelphia, in a shooting that injured two others. He was a rising star, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported, and had recently performed at beloved music festival The Roots Picnic. Spady was the father of a 2-year-old — “his pride and joy,” his family said — and engaged to be married. Spady was the “life of the party and center of attention no matter the occasion,” his family wrote in his obituary. “He was comfortable in the spotlight.”

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Pull Quote

“We as a country have been focused on stopping the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. But … it’s hard not to conclude that the true weapons of mass destruction are these small arms that are subject to the fewest controls.”

— Tom Malinowski, the assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor from 2014 to 2017 and a former Democratic congressman, on the surge of American gun exports, to Bloomberg