With NRA Under Investigation, Former Fundraiser Says Gun Group is Republican “Through and Through”

Aaron Davis, a former NRA fundraiser, spoke to FRONTLINE for our new documentary, "NRA Under Fire."

Aaron Davis, a former NRA fundraiser, spoke to FRONTLINE for our new documentary, "NRA Under Fire."

March 24, 2020

The National Rifle Association has long leaned on its nonprofit status to raise millions of dollars, from small sums given by working-class hunting enthusiasts to windfalls from well-heeled benefactors. Powered by that money, the group says it aims to promote firearms safety, education and training, and advocate for gun owners’ rights regardless of their political affiliation: As a nonprofit organization, the NRA is legally required to remain nonpartisan. 

But according to a FRONTLINE interview with a former NRA fundraiser, for years the group has privately tailored its fundraising messages and wielded its financial power to advance a Republican agenda.

“In our fundraising messaging, things just became more and more Republican. But it wasn’t that way when I first started,” said Aaron Davis, who worked in NRA donor relations for years, speaking in his first on-camera interview for NRA Under Fire. The new FRONTLINE film, by Gabrielle Schonder and Michael Kirk, airs tonight.

In the interview, Davis recounted a speech LaPierre once made at a fundraising dinner, hosted at a Republican governor’s mansion. The room, he said, included wealthy supporters of the Republican National Committee and the Koch brothers-backed advocacy group Americans for Prosperity. LaPierre, who, according to Davis, is a savvy political operator, could read the room.

“He tells the group that the NRA is not the best place to give your money: It’s one of three. And it’s a three-legged stool,” said Davis. “On one leg, you have the work that the Koch brothers are doing. The other leg, you have the Republican National Committee. And the other is the NRA. And with those three, we will win. We will defend freedom.”

It was a tailored message, Davis said, that he never heard LaPierre say before or since. “And it’s not something I think he would ever want to be public, because now it’s showing that NRA is part of a political movement that is, through and through, Republican in every part of the word,” he said. “They used the word ‘bipartisan’ in almost all of their messaging… but everything that we’re actually doing is putting ourselves in the Republican camp.”

Registered as a 501(c)(4) social welfare organization, the NRA is legally allowed to accept unlimited contributions from businesses and individuals without disclosing any identities or political affiliations. Like all non-profits in the U.S., its tax-exempt status — which it has held since 1944 — depends on wielding those funds and its clout in a nonpartisan way.

In 2016, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, the group’s political spending rose to $419 million — as much as the previous 23 years combined. That “spending binge,” it says, included $30 million focused on propelling then-candidate Trump into the White House.

“You could say, ‘Well, half of my activities aren’t political.’ But it’s not the truth,” said Davis. “It’s all leading towards political success and winning. And I think that’s what kind of happens when you have a politician [like LaPierre] leading an organization. They’re going to make the organization political.”

The NRA did not respond to multiple interview requests from FRONTLINE.

Last year, The New Yorker published a major story that detailed allegations of excessive spending and self-dealing by LaPierre, his wife and other NRA executives. Amidst these revelations, the NRA split with its longtime and deeply intertwined advertising agency, Ackerman McQueen and overhauled its legal team. 

“There were a lot of people around the NRA looking to be rich, not just Wayne,” Davis told FRONTLINE. “A lot of people were making a lot of money… And the hypocrisy of it all is that the membership who gives 25 dollars doesn’t — they don’t know where their money is going.”

He added: “You have, I think, a leadership at an organization that is not following a true intent as a nonprofit organization. That—And I felt that when I was there.”

In 2019, New York’s attorney general, Letitia James, issued a series of subpoenas to the group, seeking documents related to campaign finance, taxes and its board of directors. In response, NRA lawyer William A. Brewer III said the group would fully cooperate with any inquiry into its finances. “The NRA is prepared for this, and has full confidence in its accounting practices and commitment to good governance,” he said in a statement.

Meanwhile, Davis said the NRA’s political leanings have been challenging for some members. Once, while fundraising, Davis said he worked with a wealthy Democrat — a tweed-wearing, world-champion shooter. “You could tell there was always a struggle within him on: ‘Where are others like me?’”

He added: “You’re losing the hearts, the minds of half of America, when you only put yourself in the Republican camp.”

Karen Pinchin

Karen Pinchin, Former Tow Journalism Fellow, FRONTLINE/Columbia Journalism Fellowship, FRONTLINE



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