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The NRA after Columbine

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments recently in a case brought by the National Rifle Association's New York state affiliate, a case that could expand the ability of people to carry concealed weapons in public places. Many observers believe that because of the makeup of the court, the case could go in the NRA's favor.

And that would seem to be good news for the NRA. But it also comes at the same time the organization is in deep legal and financial peril. Its revenues are down dramatically. And the New York attorney general has accused the nonprofit of misconduct to the tune of tens of millions of dollars, all under the tenure of NRA's CEO Wayne LaPierre.

NRA investigative correspondent Tim Mak has been looking behind the scenes at the NRA. He also obtained secret audio of senior NRA strategy sessions after the Columbine shootings in 1999. And he's just out with a new book titled "Misfire: Inside The Downfall Of The NRA." And Tim Mak is with us now to tell us more about his reporting.

Tim Mak, thank you so much for joining us.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Of course. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So in addition to the reporting that you've been doing, this week, news broke that the NRA had been hacked. So along with all the other scandals, the challenges and the cutbacks the group has gone through, what's been happening at NRA headquarters?

MAK: So The Reload, an organization that covers gun news and firearms news, broke this story about documents being leaked from hackers who have been targeting the NRA. And these documents include things like Social Security numbers for staff members and other sensitive information about tax payments and child support and things like that. And it's really kind of put out there for a lot of people in the public - addresses and other information - that I'm sure that a lot of folks at the NRA would rather not have out in the open.

MARTIN: So what is it like working at the NRA right now?

MAK: This is what's so interesting about kind of pulling back the curtain and looking into this organization. There's always been these two tiers of staff at the NRA, the executives who have these, like, lavish lives and use the NRA for exotic vacations and private jets. But a lot of people who work at the NRA understand, hey, they work at a nonprofit. And if you ask any nonprofit employee at a kind of average, run-of-the-mill nonprofit in America, they have to make sacrifices to do the kind of work they want to do, including lower salaries and less perks and that sort of thing. And so for NRA employees, they've always taken kind of a lower salary to work at that organization.

Now, the last few years have been really terrible for NRA employees. They had such serious payroll problems that in 2018, they almost didn't get paid. It was in such a financial state that even coffee was shut off. That's a pretty serious signal for any employee, when your employer stops giving free coffee at work. Their pension plan was frozen. Later on, they had to deal with a 20% pay cut. Hundreds of staff have been laid off over the last year or two. It's been a real crisis for the NRA.

MARTIN: And I want to ask about the membership. How are NRA members feeling about all this?

MAK: Well, you know, over the last couple of years, there's kind of been a revolt from a small but pretty vocal segment of the NRA membership. A lot of people are already pretty angry about the allegations of misconduct by senior folks at the NRA. And that was before this week, when NPR published these tapes, which kind of take us inside the room where NRA officials, lobbyists, executives, advisers, they huddled to strategize in 1999 after the shootings at Columbine.

And so we're given this window into their thinking. And the shocking thing was how they talked about some of their own members in private. Wayne LaPierre, for example, worried that the organization's most radical members would show up to the NRA's annual convention that year in Denver.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WAYNE LAPIERRE: You know, the other problem is holding a member meeting without an exhibit hall.

TONY MAKRIS: You know, yeah.

LAPIERRE: The people you are most likely to get in that member meeting without an exhibit hall are the nuts.

MAK: So you hear these officials calling their own members hillbillies, idiots, fruitcakes, nuts. It's a window into how they view the very people who fund and support the organization. And so there's been a lot of frustration among the grassroots of this organization and probably compounded by the tapes in the news this week.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, it just seems as though the leadership and some portion of the membership - it just seems like they're in a parallel universe from a lot of other people. You understand what I'm saying? I mean, the response to Columbine and then subsequently the response to Sandy Hook, just so many people just look at that and say, how is this possible that people in the same country, looking at the same facts have such a different response to the same events? And I wonder if your reporting sheds some light on that?

MAK: Yeah, this is what's so interesting about these secret Columbine tapes - right? - that they show behind the scenes the wheels in motion of these NRA officials as they're thinking through how to deal with this Columbine tragedy. And you hear them consider a softer approach. You hear them think about, oh, well, maybe we can consider canceling our convention in Denver just a week and a half after. Or maybe we can think about a million-dollar victims fund for people affected by Columbine.

But then you - then they kind of shift. They come to the conclusion that giving any ground, compromising in any way will be almost accepting responsibility or agreeing to this notion that they were complicit in the Columbine shootings. And this is a fact that echoes for the years to come and the NRA's subsequent responses to a lot of school shootings later. You hear them make their playbook for how they're going to deal with school shootings that sadly become more common in the decades after Columbine.

MARTIN: That is NPR investigations correspondent Tim Mak. Tim, thank you so much.

MAK: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF BAEGEL'S "WATCH YOUR BACK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.