Two ways to read the story
- Quick Read
- Deep Read ( 14 Min. )
The National Rifle Association has been embedded in politics to a degree that virtually no other special-interest group can match. While polls may show bipartisan support for some gun restrictions, GOP lawmakers who go soft on gun rights are likely to face primary challenges. “It’s a story about intensity,” says law professor Adam Winkler. “Pro-gun rights voters are much more dedicated to this issue.”
David Dell’aquila, a 6 foot, 6 inch retiree with the girth of a football lineman, is the picture of this dedication. A few years ago he willed several million dollars from his estate to the NRA. But after the 2016 election showed the NRA to be increasingly in the red from questionable expenses, Mr. Dell’aquila organized against the group.
He has filed a lawsuit in federal court alleging fraud and misconduct against the NRA and recruited more than 1,000 others to withhold contributions. Should the NRA fall on its sword, other pro-gun groups are ready to step in, including at statehouses where most gun laws are written. “The gun lobby is not a bunch of overpaid suits in D.C.,” says advocate Jeff Knox. “The gun lobby is you and me.”
In a wooded clearing, David Dell’aquila pulls his dust-caked all-terrain vehicle up to a deer feeder. He climbs atop the ATV and hoists a sack of gray pellets, which he pours into an aluminum hopper, one of three on his ranch.
If the deer don’t eat the feed, the turkeys will. Mr. Dell’aquila would rather shoot deer than turkeys, so he doles out 50 pounds of feed a day, and has cleared land and expanded ponds to attract more of the white-tailed quarry that roam these hills and valleys.
He’s dismissive of local hunters who brag about the young bucks they’ve bagged – and determined to keep them off his ranch, which is studded with private-property notices and heat-and-motion sensors to monitor wildlife and unbidden humans. “These people in a lifetime never shot a 200-point deer,” he says, referring to a particular scoring system for a rare antler size. “I’d like to be the person who shoots one.”
Mr. Dell’aquila stands 6 feet, 6 inches tall and has the girth of a football lineman, which he once was. He has been known to eat two 48-ounce steaks for dinner. He pitches forward with an ursine gait, and when he talks, a low rumble of digressive and didactic points, it’s the voice of Sylvester Stallone playing Rocky.
It’s 90 degrees in the shade as he steers his ATV into a field where he’s installed solar-powered irrigation for his fledgling fruit trees. A skein of wood ducks crosses the cloudless afternoon sky.
A retired millionaire, Mr. Dell’aquila could afford to hire enough workers and equipment to turn his 862-acre ranch into a hunting and fishing redoubt. But that’s not work, and work – sweaty, hazardous, dusty outdoor work – is what makes him tick when he’s out here. “This is where I come up with my best ideas,” he says.
Challenging the NRA
Lately those ideas have been targeted at the National Rifle Association, of which Mr. Dell’aquila is a lifetime member and, until recently, a financial supporter. Today he regrets his past generosity to a group whose stated mission – to defend the right to bear arms – is one he avows as his own. Mr. Dell’aquila wants to see the NRA’s scandal-plagued management gone and is putting his broad shoulder to the wheel, using financial and legal pressure to force reform.
Forget about Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire who bankrolls gun control initiatives all over the country. Forget about Democratic efforts in Congress to expand background checks. Forget the students of Parkland, Florida, and their earnest anti-gun crusade. The real threat to the NRA – for decades, one of the most powerful lobbying groups in the United States – may be from a handful of members who want to blow up the organization from the inside.
In this case, however, they aren’t trying to make the lobbying group impotent. They want to make it stronger – and gun rights even more inviolate. Mr. Dell’aquila is one of the most resolute members of this growing internal revolt by gun lovers against the leaders of a nonprofit that is a synecdoche for U.S. civilian firepower and political clout.
“The organization has political problems, legal problems, and financial problems,” says Robert Spitzer, a political scientist and author of several books on gun rights. “And, ironically, it’s their own fault.”
Wobbly finances and leadership
The NRA has weathered internal and external crises before, from political controversies to boardroom coups. But its latest fracas may prove existential: Its finances are already listing from mounting legal fees and boycotts by wealthy donors like Mr. Dell’aquila, who accuses chief executive Wayne LaPierre and other officials of reckless spending and self-dealing. At the same time, attorneys general in New York and Washington, D.C., are investigating financial irregularities at the NRA and its charitable foundation that could affect its nonprofit status. “They got polluted. They’re enriching themselves,” says Mr. Dell’aquila.
It’s a comeuppance that has gun control advocates salivating. But the uproar within the NRA doesn’t signal any retreat by gun owners in the fractious fight over firearm laws. Should the NRA fall on its sword, other pro-gun groups that are more militant in asserting their constitutional rights are ready to step in, including at statehouses where most gun laws are written.
“The gun lobby is not a bunch of overpaid suits in D.C.,” says Jeff Knox, Arizona-based director of The Firearms Coalition. “The gun lobby is you and me, gun owners and lovers of liberty around the country who stand up and argue for their rights.”
The NRA, which is headquartered in Fairfax, Virginia, insists it is rooting out waste and that its critics, including ousted former president Oliver North, were blocking reform. It accuses disgruntled donors like Mr. Dell’aquila of abandoning the fight against “anti-gun Democrats” in Congress. And even as Mr. LaPierre has become a pincushion for pro-gun critics, he still has a hotline to President Donald Trump, for whom gun owners represent a totemic constituency.
This is a war of attrition that will shape the future of the world’s largest gun lobby. And David Dell’aquila is all in.
Guns and childhood
Mr. Dell’aquila grew up in a Pittsburgh suburb, one of four children. His father, Louis Dell’aquila, was a lawyer at the Veterans Administration and an accomplished chef who would invite family and friends over on Christmas Eve for an Italian-style feast.
To hear David Dell’aquila tell it, he had an unhappy childhood. He was diagnosed with a speech impediment and didn’t speak until he was 3. At age 5, in 1966, he was sent to The Pathfinder School, a special education facility where he learned little, except that he didn’t want to be there.
To his father, his social exclusion was a mark of failure, and he would refer to his son as “damaged goods,” says Mr. Dell’aquila. In sixth grade he was allowed to transfer to public school and Mr. Dell’aquila began to excel in class, relying on rote memorization to overcome his speech limitations. “There are still words I stay away from,” he says, as he reclines on a sofa beneath a mounted boar’s head at his modest ranch house.
His embrace of guns started early. His father’s VA buddies taught him to use a shotgun to kill rabbits and squirrels, and he got his hunting safety certificate at age 12. His taste for hunting, combined with a competitive streak, has stayed with him. He’s shot bears in Quebec and big game in South Africa. He carries a handgun on his ATV in case he runs into snakes.
Mr. Dell’aquila excelled on the gridiron. He turned down several college scholarships, though, and went instead to Princeton University because it was ranked first that year academically, and he liked to be first. He weighed 320 pounds and played football until he injured his back in his sophomore year, but he was never a jock. “I always hung out with the weedy 99-pounders,” he says. “I would always go for the underdog.”
He graduated in 1984 and pursued a career in technology and financial services, changing jobs frequently, earning high salaries, and investing wisely. At age 46, he figured he had made enough to retire. By then he had married Marita, his second wife, whom he met at Citibank.
“We could’ve retired pretty much anywhere,” he says. Maryland, where they lived at the time on a 13-acre suburban lot, was out. Taxes were too high – and gun laws too tight. When they shot targets on their property, as they liked to do, the cops often showed up.
“How about that one time when they asked you, ‘Where’s your wife?’ ” interjects Marita Dell’aquila. “I had to come out and prove to them that I was all right.”
“That was a couple of times,” he notes. They considered moving abroad, but Mr. Dell’aquila didn’t want to be told what guns he could and couldn’t own. “We looked at New Zealand. Even in New Zealand, they don’t have great gun rights,” he says.
In 2011 they moved to Nashville, Tennessee, and acquired the ranch in southern Kentucky, a two-hour drive. A few years later, in 2015, Mr. Dell’aquila decided to boost his support for the NRA. He and Ms. Dell’aquila donated $100,000 and agreed to change their will to leave several million dollars from their estate to the organization, making them Charlton Heston Society Ambassador Members, part of an inner circle of elite donors.
“Had I known the corruption and graft and everything going on I would never have had anything to do with them,” he says.
Big budget and agenda
In 2018, the NRA reported $360 million in revenue, of which $110 million was contributions from individuals and companies. Another $170 million came from millions of regular members – the exact number is unknown – who pay annual dues starting at $45. The organization also raises money separately for its charitable foundation and political action committee.
Some NRA donor dollars are used for firearms training and education. But by far the biggest expenses are political lobbying and public relations, which is how most nonmembers encounter the NRA and its agenda: Since the 1980s, the organization has embedded itself in politics and policy to a degree that virtually no other special-interest group can match.
The lore surrounding the NRA’s political clout took root after the 1994 midterm elections, in which Democrats lost control of the House for the first time in a generation. Incumbent lawmakers were defeated in large numbers, including many who had supported a ban on assault weapons. Gun policy wasn’t the only factor favoring the Republicans, but the takeaway was clear: Cross the NRA at your peril.
“The NRA was an unforgiving master,” President Bill Clinton wrote in “My Life,” his 2004 memoir, referring to the midterm defeat. “One strike and you’re out.”
The mythology about the organization remains strong, though doubts have grown over time about the power of the NRA and its members to reward and punish lawmakers on Election Day. “[The NRA’s] reputation exceeds their actual ability to elect people who wouldn’t otherwise have been elected,” says Dr. Spitzer, who chairs the political science department at the State University of New York at Cortland. “Their bark is worse than their bite.”
Democrats who long avoided gun control as a losing issue have more recently become emboldened: They now trumpet the NRA’s low public-approval ratings and openly raise money from gun control groups, which for the first time outspent the NRA and other gun rights organizations in the 2018 midterms. Demographics also tell a story worrisome to the NRA. Fifty-one percent of households reported having a firearm in 1980, according to the University of Chicago. By 2018 that share had fallen to 35%; for 18-to-34-year-olds it was 30%.
For Republicans in safe seats, though, the calculus is different. Even as polls show considerable bipartisan support for universal background checks and other restrictions, GOP lawmakers who go soft on gun rights are likely to face primary challenges. “It’s a story about intensity,” says Adam Winkler, a professor of constitutional law at the University of California, Los Angeles. “There’s a lot of support for gun control in America. But the pro-gun rights voters are much more dedicated to this issue.”
Like many lobbying groups, the NRA often rallies support by stoking fears and invoking dire scenarios. It portrays even the most innocuous gun control measure as a step toward the confiscation of all firearms.
“Our opponents call themselves gun control advocates. They are not. They ought to call themselves what they really are: the vanguard of the disarm America movement,” Mr. North, then-president of the NRA, told a conservative conference in 2018.
Mr. Dell’aquila broadly shares this Manichaean worldview. He believes an armed citizenry serves as a check against foreign and domestic tyrants, protects people from criminals, and is a fundamental part of American liberty. His answer to issues like school shootings is not to restrict gun sales but to arm teachers. “I don’t see compromise,” he says. “It’s brought up by liberals to get rid of guns or ban guns.”
How the curtain came down
The NRA’s annual convention, held in the spring, is a social gathering, arms fair, and political powwow wrapped into one. It’s also a window for members into the group’s governance, as overseen by a 76-member board of directors.
In 2016, the NRA went all in for President Trump and at-risk Republican Senate candidates, spending more than $50 million. In battleground states like Pennsylvania and Ohio, it framed Hillary Clinton and Democratic lawmakers as existential threats to Second Amendment rights. Its record outlay on the election paid political dividends – NRA-opposed legislation was a nonstarter in Washington – but left it increasingly in the red, unable to cover costs.
Internal gripes about these expenditures began to leak out, including details of Mr. LaPierre’s compensation package, more than $40 million in billings by the NRA’s longtime advertising agency in Oklahoma City, and monthly payments to a law firm that Mr. North, in a letter to the NRA’s general counsel, described as “draining NRA cash at mind-boggling speed.”
So when NRA members gathered in Indianapolis in April, a tussle over expenses had become a power struggle between Mr. North and Mr. LaPierre, who accused his rival of plotting a coup. By the third morning of the convention, the battle was over: Mr. North was resigning as president, a board member informed a stunned audience.
Mr. Dell’aquila sat there and thought, that’s it. We’re done here. He wasn’t surprised – he had heard the news at a private donors’ dinner the previous night – but he couldn’t stomach how supine the board was toward Mr. LaPierre amid allegations of fraud and mismanagement.
He walked out of the convention hall and into a hubbub. “People came up to me and my wife and said, ‘Can you do something?’”
A plan to reform
Let’s write a letter to the board calling for a full investigation, one suggested. Mr. Dell’aquila shook his head. He had read up on how the NRA put down previous revolts and concluded that a resistance campaign had to be done right.
It wasn’t just the NRA’s lavish salaries and benefits that riled Mr. Dell’aquila and other members. Executives oversaw payments to related parties, including donations by the NRA Foundation to a charity run by Mr. LaPierre’s wife, and NRA executives received compensation from outside vendors.
At the Indianapolis convention, Mr. Dell’aquila says he asked Carolyn Meadows, who replaced Mr. North as president, about the NRA’s expenditures. How can it be ethical, he asked, for NRA executives to own shares in NRA vendors? “She said, ‘That’s how it’s done in D.C.,’” he says. Ms. Meadows denies she said that.
By July, Mr. Dell’aquila was ready to hit back. He announced that until the NRA replaced its leadership, reformed its board, and audited all its contracts, he and other frustrated donors would stop giving money. It was a calculated blow at the group’s wobbly finances that added to the tumult among grassroots members who had taken to pro-gun media to vent about the NRA.
He also started grading the directors A through F for their oversight of management. Since April, seven directors have resigned from the board. “I have told NRA directors that I can be one of the NRA’s biggest advocates or worse nightmare, and Mr. LaPierre and his leadership team have chosen the latter,” Mr. Dell’aquila wrote to the board in July.
He says he has commitments from NRA supporters to withhold nearly $165 million, including cash donations and estate giving, in order to effect reforms.
“I’m not donating another dime to the NRA until Wayne LaPierre and all of his cronies are out of there,” says Randy Luth, a gun industry veteran and NRA donor whose St. Cloud, Minnesota-based company makes accessories for AR-15s. “Nobody is watching the piggy bank. Everyone is getting fat off the hard-earned dollars of NRA members.”
Mr. Dell’aquila asks members to make their own pledges on his website. At the ranch house, Ms. Dell’aquila pulls up a spreadsheet on her laptop showing the results. More than 1,000 have responded. Each lists a name, membership number, and the amount to be withheld, ranging from $45 to $3 million, along with a comment. “DRAIN THE SWAMP!” wrote one.
On Aug. 6, Mr. Dell’aquila filed a lawsuit in federal court alleging fraud and misconduct against the NRA, the NRA Foundation, and Mr. LaPierre over their solicitations of his gifts and misuse of funds. He is seeking a class action certification, which would allow other donors to collect from any settlement. In a statement, Ms. Meadows called the suit “a misguided and frivolous pursuit.”
“David has a huge amount of passion to get some change,” says Mr. Luth. “A lot of people don’t necessarily agree with his methods ... [but] he’s on a mission.”
Groups to take the giant's place
The firing range behind Mr. Dell’aquila’s house lies over a creek that is dust-dry on a hot September afternoon. He backs up his ATV and loads it with boxes of 9 mm and .45-caliber shells for three handguns. His semi-automatic rifles and collectible guns, including a Colt .45 with a handle made from meteorite – “I’ve never fired it” – are stored at the house in Nashville.
He drives over the creek and pulls up. “Honey,” he calls back to Marita. “There’s a dead deer here.” A fawn lies by the grass. Mr. Dell’aquila checks for signs of a coyote attack. “It might’ve lost its mother,” he speculates. Rain hasn’t fallen in weeks; the deer may have died of thirst or stress.
On the range, Mr. Dell’aquila loads a pistol and fires in quick succession at a pair of metal targets 30 yards away, hitting nearly every time. When it comes to firearm safety, he’s a stickler for rules. But cut him loose on the ranch with heavy equipment, and he’s a daredevil. Two years ago, he was using his bulldozer to clear a path when it slid down a steep hill, tipping upside down and nearly crushing him. “I can always tell when something happens,” says Ms. Dell’aquila. He comes home, quiet and subdued. “Then he’ll say, ‘Don’t get mad at me, but ...’”
He nods. “I don’t have a concept of self-preservation.”
It’s that kind of temerity that could make Mr. Dell’aquila the hunter who delivers a potentially fatal shot to the NRA – and brings down a pro-gun powerhouse ahead of the 2020 election. Both his boycott campaign and civil suit are frontal attacks on a cash-strapped group whose net assets fell last year to $16 million, from $75 million in 2015. The NRA has frozen its pension fund and borrowed against insurance policies and the deed to its Fairfax headquarters.
“They’re not going to have the money to plow into next year’s elections as they did in 2016,” says Dr. Spitzer.
Some activists say a shrunken or shuttered NRA may not be a big loss since other advocacy groups can pick up the baton, shorn of the bloat and bombast. “It’s disingenuous for the NRA to say they’re the only game in town,” says Rob Pincus, a firearms trainer and gun rights advocate. “We’re waking up from the illusion that we could just be NRA members and that’s all we need to do” to defend gun rights.
Michael Hammond, the legislative counsel for Gun Owners of America, says its membership has grown from 1.5 million to 2 million over the past year, which he credits to its uncompromising message on gun rights and the NRA’s reputational hit. “People who used to contribute to the NRA are contributing to us,” he says. He prefers that the NRA stays strong, but believes the gun movement is bigger than a single group.
Mr. Dell’aquila has another trick up his sleeve: He’s working with Mr. Pincus to organize a Second Amendment rally on Nov. 2 in Washington, D.C., an end run around the NRA’s claim to speak for all gun owners. “Ultimately,” he says, “the people will have the final say.”