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NRA chief steps down days before a pivotal corruption trial in New York

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Wayne LaPierre, the longtime head and face of the National Rifle Association, is stepping down after leading the group for more than 30 years. The announcement comes as both he and the NRA face a civil trial, set to begin next week in New York, over allegations of corruption. NPR's Joel Rose joins us. Joel, thanks for being with us.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: Wayne LaPierre is a major and often controversial figure in the debate over the Second Amendment. Remind us, please, of his career and his influence.

ROSE: Sure. Wayne LaPierre is one of the chief architects of the modern gun rights movement and, in many ways, as you say, the face of the NRA, which he has led since 1991. He was part of the inner circle that moved the NRA to a far more hard-line stance on gun regulation at a time when mass shootings and other gun violence were rising. For example, consider his response in 2012, after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. Only a week later, LaPierre was out in front of the press, not giving an inch.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WAYNE LAPIERRE: The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.

ROSE: LaPierre rejected attempts to make almost any changes to gun policy in the wake of that mass shooting, and many others. He used the specter of more gun control to raise money for the NRA. LaPierre once warned in a fundraising letter that jackbooted government thugs were coming after the guns of law-abiding Americans under the guise of controlling gun violence. And for a long time, he was a kingmaker in American politics - hugely influential in Republican circles, but also among many rural Democrats. And that, you know, also made him a target of gun control activists.

SIMON: So is he now giving an inch, as you put it?

ROSE: Well, I mean, his current situation, I think - you know, the roots of it go back to 2019, which is when the claims of mismanagement and corruption at the NRA began to surface from dissenters, first, inside the organization. LaPierre survived that. But there is this corruption lawsuit against him and the NRA that is set to go to trial early next week in Manhattan. New York's attorney general, Letitia James, launched an investigation, and in 2020, she filed this lawsuit. She accuses LaPierre and other current and former officials of misappropriating funds from the NRA, which is a nonprofit. Behind the scenes, the suit alleges that they were basically cheating donors, using contributions to pay for private luxuries for things like no-show jobs for friends and allies. LaPierre denies those allegations, and the case has taken several years to get to jury selection, which began earlier this week.

SIMON: And he's leaving for reasons of health right before a trial opens?

ROSE: Well, that's what the statement says. I mean, the NRA says LaPierre cited his - cited health reasons for his decision to leave. LaPierre is 74. But, of course, it is hard to ignore the timing of the corruption trial that is set to start in just a few days. New York Attorney General Letitia James had been seeking to oust LaPierre from his job. James says that the trial is still on. She called LaPierre's imminent departure an important victory, but also said in a statement that, quote, "it will not insulate him or the NRA from accountability." The NRA says it will continue to fight the lawsuit and that LaPierre is still a defendant in his private capacity.

SIMON: And in the half minute we have left, what kind of NRA does he leave behind?

ROSE: You know, it's hard to say. I mean, the NRA did win a legal victory earlier in the case. The New York attorney general had been seeking to dissolve the organization completely. And the New York judge shut that down. But the scandal clearly has been bad for business at the NRA. They've lost members. Contributions are down. You know, this trial will really decide what the future shape of the organization could be. If the NRA loses, it could be subject to major oversight from the New York attorney general, which could really hobble it as an organization.

SIMON: NPR's Joel Rose. Thanks so much for being with us.

ROSE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.