For four years, the National Rifle Association ran deficits and drained its cash pool. Now, as it faces angry creditors and a woeful credit rating, leaked internal documents make it clear the pro-gun group wasted much of its money on costly, controversial membership drives, which now threaten the group’s existence.

For a long time, top brass were kept in the dark about just where the money was going. On Jan. 20, 1994, then-finance committee chairman Max Goodwin complained in a letter to the board of directors: “[W]e have been set up for failure. We can approve the budget, but then have no control over management when the budget is grossly exceeded.” NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre, wrote Goodwin, “has been put in a position for which he lacks necessary skills.”

Then, in a May 6, 1994 memo to the group’s treasurer, NRA President Thomas Washington wrote: “We really need to have some better figures for the finance committee,” followed by the admission: “Many questions are coming up that I simply am unable to answer.”

In the memo, Washington asked to see “whatever contract we have with PM Consulting,” the public relations firm responsible for the NRA’s direct mail campaign.

Eventually, Washington saw a spreadsheet prepared for the 1994 board of directors’ meeting that shows the campaign carried a $29 million price tag–a 134 percent jump from 1991 to 1993 , and nearly 20 percent of the NRA’s budget.

Insiders claim that PM Consulting’s Brad O’Leary received $50,000 a month and a series of bonuses that would make a major league ballplayer blush. (O’Leary was responsible for the letter that characterized Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents as “jack-booted government thugs,” and prompted George Bush to resign from the NRA.)

But since NRA officials–and most of the public–learned of the organization’s financial straits, the gravy train has, apparently, ended. O’Leary says he’s no longer on such a large retainer, and he’s had to lay off three of 10 people who worked on the NRA account. And while the organization continues its strident direct mail (a recent letter by LaPierre threatened to “clean Bill Clinton’s clock”), board members have confided that they fear the campaign, which ballooned membership to 3.5 million, could alienate members just when their dollars are needed most.


In 2014, before Donald Trump announced his run for president, we knew we had to do something different to address the fundamental challenge facing journalism: how hard-hitting reporting that can hold the powerful accountable can survive as the bottom falls out of the news business.

Being a nonprofit, we started planning The Moment for Mother Jones: A special campaign to raise $25 million for key investments to make Mother Jones the strongest watchdog it can be. Five years later, readers have stepped up and contributed an astonishing $23 million in gifts and future pledges. This is an incredible statement from the Mother Jones community in the face of the huge threats—both economic and political—against the free press.

Read more about The Moment and see what we've been able to accomplish thanks to readers' incredible generosity so far, and please join them today. Your gift will be matched dollar for dollar, up to $500,000 total, during this critical moment for journalism.

We Recommend


Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.


Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.


We have a new comment system! We are now using Coral, from Vox Media, for comments on all new articles. We'd love your feedback.