Just three days after the massacre in Uvalde, Texas, the National Rifle Association will gather in Houston for its first annual meeting in three years, as the organization remains mired in costly legal battles stemming from a corruption scandal.
Former President Donald Trump is scheduled to address the convention for the sixth time, and Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas is slated to make an appearance.
The convention will put a spotlight on Wayne LaPierre, who has led the organization for more than three decades, but who has been fighting for his job amid an ongoing court battle with Letitia James, the attorney general of New York, where the NRA was chartered. The NRA has also faced a financial squeeze as it spends tens of millions of dollars a year on legal fees, and it has been challenged by rival groups seeking to raise their profiles while the NRA is weakened.
LaPierre is facing a leadership challenge at the convention from Allen West, a former congressman who would likely push the organization even further to the right, but a victory by West would be a major upset, given how many LaPierre allies sit on the NRA’s board.
The tragedy in Uvalde will hang over the proceedings.
“Our deepest sympathies are with the families and victims involved in this horrific and evil crime,” the NRA said on Twitter Wednesday. “On behalf of our members, we salute the courage of school officials, first responders and others who offered their support and services.”
The group called the massacre “the act of a lone, deranged criminal” and said it would “pray for the victims, recognize our patriotic members, and pledge to redouble our commitment to making our schools secure.”
LaPierre, for his part, has had little to say about mass shootings. In a rare in-depth interview with The New York Times in 2019, he said that for years, “Wayne would be the guy going out there in the media” after mass shootings, but after a while “I started to feel like you just didn’t get a fair shot anymore to have your say.” But the topic of Uvalde may be hard for him to ignore when he addresses the convention Friday.
Few expect any significant retreat on policy; in recent years, the NRA has presided over a move among red states to do away with laws requiring permits for gun ownership.
Some legal experts think LaPierre might not have too many more conventions ahead of him, with James seeking to have him removed for violating New York law related to charities in the ongoing court battle — and after the NRA lost a last-ditch bid last year to move the matter to bankruptcy court.
Many of the NRA’s practices were laid out in the bankruptcy case. LaPierre testified that he didn’t know his former chief financial officer had received a $360,000-a-year consulting contract after leaving under a cloud, or that his personal travel agent, hired by the NRA, was charging a 10% booking fee for charter flights on top of a retainer that could reach $26,000 a month for LaPierre’s globe-trotting, NRA-funded travel to places like the Bahamas and Lake Como in Italy. LaPierre’s close aide, Millie Hallow, a felon, was even kept on after being caught diverting $40,000 in NRA funds for her son’s wedding and other personal expenses.
The NRA has said it has undertaken a reform drive and overhauled its operations. But Harlin D. Hale, chief of the federal bankruptcy court in Dallas, who presided over the case, called LaPierre’s move to file for bankruptcy without telling the group’s board of directors, or his own chief counsel or chief financial officer, “nothing less than shocking.”
In recent years, the NRA’s financial struggles have intensified as its legal fees escalated. The organization was far quieter in the 2020 election than it was in 2016, when it played a leading role in getting Trump elected. By 2018, gun control groups were outspending the NRA. Other gun groups have become more assertive, including those that are more strident than the NRA, such as the Gun Owners of America. Following the Uvalde massacre, the group accused the left of politicizing the tragedy and called for arming teachers.
But, in many ways, the battle LaPierre has fought for decades has already been won. Even minuscule gun reforms are typically considered taboo among Republicans, so while many other advanced democracies look on with bewilderment, gun violence continues to escalate in America. Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut summed up the feelings of many Democrats when he expressed a sense of helplessness on the Senate floor Tuesday, asking, “What are we doing?”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.