As a disturbing string of mass shootings focuses the public spotlight on gun violence, the embattled National Rifle Association appears to have suffered another year of diminished membership revenue and cuts to core programs, according to an annual financial report obtained by ABC News.
The 31-page document, distributed to members who attended last week's annual NRA convention in Houston, shows an organization reining in spending as revenue derived from its members fell 19% between 2020 and 2021.
Brian Mittendorf, an accounting professor at Ohio State University who tracks NRA spending, says the numbers suggest the NRA appears to be at a "real risk of entering a downward spiral."
"By cutting back on core programs and legislative spending, the risk that the organization runs is that members will suddenly realize that they are paying the same dues for fewer benefits," Mittendorf said. "If [the NRA] loses some of those members, revenues decline further, they will have to cut even more spending -- and the trend continues."
Mired in a series of lawsuits and scandals, the NRA's standing as one of America's most influential lobbying groups has waned in recent years.
Revenue from membership dues has plummeted nearly 43% from a record high in 2018, according to the 2021 financial assessment, pulling in just over $97 million -- down from nearly $120 million in 2020. Spending on the areas of "safety, education & training" was cut roughly in half over the past three years, the document shows.
NRA spokesperson Andrew Arulanandam cited disruptions from the COVID-19 pandemic for the organization's reduced spending in 2021, and expressed confidence that the group would rebound in the coming year.
"Despite the global pandemic and the many challenges it created over the past two years, the NRA emerged financially strong and secure," Arulanandam told ABC News. "NRA members are eager to return to our grassroots activities, participate in firearms education and training, and engage in events and competitions. All of this bodes well for 2022 and beyond."
Meanwhile, the organization is fighting legal battles on multiple fronts -- most notably in New York, where Attorney General Tish James has sued the organization for allegedly diverting money away from its charitable mission. As a result, the group's legal costs continue to mount.
In 2021, according to its financial records, the organization devoted nearly a quarter of its total expenditures -- $52 million -- to legal fees. Arulanandam said that "naturally, the association expended significant resources to defend itself from the NYAG's lawsuit. However, the NRA is winning that fight." A judge blocked the attorney general's bid to dissolve the organization in March, but the lawsuit remains active.
The organization's legislative expenses, which include lobbying and electioneering activities, plummeted by $28.6 million between 2020 and 2021 -- a 57% drop, according to the records, which were first reported by The Trace.
While it's not uncommon for political organizations to spend substantially less during an off-election year following a presidential election, the NRA's legislative spending cuts last year suggest a gradual downsizing of its legislative and political apparatus over the last few years.
Since the landmark 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court case that allowed corporations and advocacy organizations to spend unlimited funds on elections as long as they're independent from candidates, the NRA and its super PACs have funneled more than $140 million in independent expenditures into federal elections, according to campaign disclosure data compiled by Washington-based nonpartisan research group OpenSecrets. The organization's federal election spending peaked in 2016, when the NRA and its committees spent $54 million in independent expenditures, including more than $30 million to support Donald Trump's defeat of Hillary Clinton, according to campaign disclosure records.
But the NRA's political spending began to drop during the 2018 election cycle, when it reporting just under $10 million in outside spending -- significantly less than the $27 million it spent during the 2014 midterms. Then, during the 2020 presidential election cycle, the NRA's total outside federal election spending was just over $29 million -- nearly half of what it had spent in 2016.
So far in the 2022 election cycle, the NRA's political apparatus has barely reported any independent expenditures -- only $9,600, according to OpenSecrets' analysis of Federal Election Commission data.
Supporters, however, say that the slim prospects for sweeping gun control legislation -- even in the face of the recent mass shootings -- suggest that the NRA's message has become so deeply engrained among gun rights advocates that the organization no longer requires a robust political operation.
The NRA's influence "does not come from some guy sitting on K Street," NRA board member Phillip Journey said in reference to Washington lobbyists -- but instead from its place in the hearts of American gun owners.
Journey, a Kansas judge, has nonetheless waged an aggressive and public campaign to oust Wayne LaPierre, the longtime NRA chief who oversaw the organization's rise over the past three decades. Journey said the organization's financial position reflects years of mismanagement -- and has opened the door for other gun advocacy groups to fill the void.
"There's blood in the water, and it comes from a self-inflicted wound," Journey said. "NRA leadership has nobody to blame but themselves for the decisions they've made."
The National Association of Gun Rights and the Gun Owners of America, two competing longtime gun-rights groups, have beefed up their operations in recent years and are gearing up for the 2022 midterm elections through their super PACs -- while other gun advocacy groups like the National Shooting Sports Foundation and Safari Club International continue their active engagement in federal elections through campaign contributions.
Additional super PACs like the Gun Owners Action Fund and Hunter Nation Action -- funded largely by top GOP donors such as the Ricketts family, Charles Schwab, Ken Griffith and Warren Stephens -- popped up in late 2020 to promote pro-Second Amendment messaging while providing an eleventh-hour boost for Republican incumbent Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue in the Georgia Senate runoffs in January 2021.
More recently, Donald Trump Jr. launched his own gun-rights group called the Second Amendment Task Force, with the aim of fighting Democratic gun control proposals and promoting Republicans in the 2022 midterm elections.
Still, compared to the NRA, all these groups have much smaller budgets and staffs. And some gun-control advocates say that could open the door for more compromise on gun control.
"The fact that in recent years it has been slashing spending on programs like safety and education while pouring tens of millions into legal fees shows exactly how deep this crisis is for the NRA," said John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety. "Smaller groups might try to fill that vacuum, but they're no match for a gun safety movement that is bigger, stronger, and louder than ever."