Has the NRA become too political? Insiders say group's own members fiercely divided

NRA insiders and longtime observers describe an organization at war with itself over a central question: Has it strayed too far from its original mission of gun safety and outdoor shooting sports and become too political?

Ahead of annual convention, inner turmoil brewing over how gun rights group has strayed from original mission

Firearms on display in an exhibit hall during the NRA's 2018 annual convention in Dallas. (Loren Elliott/AFP/Getty Images)

The National Rifle Association is used to battling forces that criticize its fiery and unbending efforts to protect gun rights. But as the group gathers for its annual convention this week, the NRA may be facing its toughest foe in decades: its own members.

NRA insiders and longtime observers describe an organization at war with itself over a central question: Has it strayed too far from its original mission of gun safety and outdoor shooting sports and become too political?

It is rare for the NRA to betray any hint of internal turmoil. But it erupted very publicly recently when the NRA sued its longtime public relations firm, Ackerman McQueen, accusing it of refusing to hand over financial records to account for its billings. In 2017 alone, the NRA paid the firm $40 million US.

Ackerman McQueen has been by the NRA's side for two decades and has crafted its aggressive messaging, including the "From my cold dead hands" line uttered by actor Charlton Heston in 2000 as he vowed to resist any effort to take away his guns.

The line became a rallying cry for gun owners around the country.

Ackerman McQueen also created and operates NRATV, the online channel whose hosts not only aggressively defend the NRA and its cause but often venture into political debates not directly related to firearms, such as immigration or diversity on children's TV.

In its lawsuit, the NRA said some of its members have questioned NRATV's weighing in on "topics far afield of the Second Amendment."

Trump and Pence to address convention

The long history between the public relations firm and the NRA has made their potential parting of the ways all the more surprising to longtime watchers of the group.

"The battle in the NRA board that must have occurred with this breakup of a decades-long relationship must have been something," said Adam Winkler, a professor at the University of California Los Angeles School of Law and gun rights expert.

U.S. President Donald Trump is scheduled to address the NRA's convention in Indianapolis Friday, as he did last year in Dallas. (Susan Walsh/Associated Press)

The strife is expected to be a dominant topic of conversation at the convention starting Thursday in Indianapolis, where U.S. President Donald Trump and Vice-President Mike Pence will address the crowd on Friday. The NRA spent $30 million US helping Trump get elected in 2016.

But it has been a bumpy ride for the NRA over the past year.

The massacre at a high school in Parkland, Florida, last year created a groundswell of opposition to the NRA, driven by student-led protests over gun violence. Corporate America began pushing back, with some major retailers stopping gun sales and banks dropping discounts or certain services for NRA members and gunmakers.

More recently it was disclosed that Russian operatives tried to use contacts in the NRA to influence American elections. Democrats in Congress vowed to launch investigations into the gun lobby.

The NRA saw its political influence wane during the 2018 elections and got outspent by gun control groups headed by former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. More than a dozen NRA-backed congressional candidates lost in last year's midterms.

The NRA also faces regulatory pressures in New York, where the marketing of its line of insurance for gun owners involved in shootings was scrutinized. That legal action ultimately led the broker and underwriting firm for the insurance to pay millions of dollars in fines and abandon the program.

The NRA's charter was created in New York, and there are concerns that state officials may look for ways to strip it of its nonprofit status.

With the organization struggling financially, even some NRA stalwarts have begun questioning whether the millions spent on public relations and NRATV is worth the money.

One NRATV segment in particular seemed to be the last straw for some members: It took the children's show Thomas & Friends to task for adding some ethnically and gender diverse characters to its lineup of talking locomotives and other vehicles. The segment featured several trains wearing Ku Klux Klan hoods and sitting on flaming tracks.

The National Rifle Association seal at their headquarters in Fairfax, Va. (Paul J. Richards/Getty Images)

It's unclear if the divide is so gaping that it will lead to the ouster of NRA leaders during the convention.

None of the more than two dozen board members contacted by The Associated Press would comment, with several saying they do not publicly discuss internal politics. Andrew Arulanandam, the NRA's managing director of public affairs, said recent reports of turmoil or financial troubles have been exaggerated and fuelled by anti-gun forces.

Ackerman McQueen declined to comment.