National Rifle Association

The National Rifle Association is one of the top 15 dark money groups examined by Issue One’s new “Dark Money Illuminated” report that has been spending millions of dollars in our elections since Citizens United without publicly disclosing their donors. Dark money groups frequently operate as attack dogs during campaigns, criticizing candidates from the shadows. Dark money groups also often push the envelope in terms of how much political spending they can engage in without running afoul of rules that prohibit them from existing primarily to influence elections. By masquerading as a trade association or “social welfare” nonprofit, dark money groups avoid the mandatory donor disclosure rules that would come with registering as a political committee whose primary purpose is to influence elections.

Here’s what Issue One’s year-long “Dark Money Illuminated” investigation revealed:

The National Rifle Association raised

$2.1 billion

between January 2010 and December 2016.

Issue One identified


donors to this dark money group.

These donors collectively accounted for


of its funding.

Issue One found 10 donors that gave at least $1 million since January 2010:

NRA Foundation: $110 million

Sturm, Ruger & Co., Inc.: $12 million

Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce: $8.4 million

American Encore (formerly Center to Protect Patient Rights): $3.2 million

American Future Fund: $3 million

American Action Network: $2.7 million

MidwayUSA and its owners Larry and Brenda Potterfield: $2.1 million

Smith & Wesson Corp.: $1.6 million

Judicial Crisis Network: $1 million

Pierce Bullet Seal Target Systems: $1 million

Note: These numbers have been rounded to two significant figures. Click here to see more details about these contributions — and all identified donors to this group — in Issue One’s exclusive database of dark money donors, and click here to learn more about how these contributors were identified. 

Source: Issue One analysis of data from the Center for Responsive Politics and Federal Election Commission.

The National Rifle Association self-reported to the IRS that2 percentof its total spending was related to political campaign activities

It also told the FEC that


of its political spending was negative

About the National Rifle Association

The National Rifle Association LogoThe National Rifle Association (NRA) was founded in 1871 by two former Union Army Civil War officers to promote marksmanship. Since then, the NRA has evolved into one of the most powerful political and lobbying forces in Washington, typically backing Republican candidates, although it occasionally supports gun-friendly Democrats as well. The organization, which is organized as a 501(c)(4) “social welfare” organization, now touts itself as “America’s foremost defender of Second Amendment rights” and claims more than 5 million members across the country.

The NRA’s funding comes from a combination of membership dues and contributions from other sources, including gun manufacturers and executives at gun-manufacturing companies. Donors who give $1 million or more to any of the NRA’s 501(c)(4) or 501(c)(3) arms over their lifetimes are recognized as members of the “Golden Ring of Freedom.”

The NRA itself says that “gifts from companies and executives in the firearms, hunting and shooting sports industries typically comprise less than 5 percent of the NRA’s contribution revenue every year.” The organization has told the Internal Revenue Service that the “vast majority of contributions” it receives are from millions of small-dollar individual donors. Its tax returns show that membership dues, which start at $30 a year, typically comprise 40 percent to 50 percent of the NRA’s annual revenue.

Earlier this year, the NRA acknowledged that it accepts contributions from “foreign individuals and entities” but said these funds have never been used to fund its electoral activities.

The National Rifle Association’s Institute for Legislative Action (NRA-ILA), which was established in 1975, acts as the group’s primary political and legislative vehicle within the NRA’s main 501(c)(4) operation. The executive director of the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action is Chris W. Cox, who served as a senior legislative aide in Congress prior to joining the NRA.

Meanwhile, the NRA’s longtime leader is Wayne LaPierre, whose official title is executive vice president and CEO, and the NRA’s president, as of earlier this year, is retired Marine Corps Lt. Colonel Oliver North, who worked for President Ronald Reagan’s National Security Council and became well-known in the 1980s for his role in the Iran-Contra scandal.

In 2015 and 2016, a liberal watchdog group twice asked the Internal Revenue Service to investigate whether the NRA had violated federal law by failing to disclose millions of dollars in spending on political activities between 2008 and 2014. In 2012 alone, records show that the NRA told the Federal Election Commission that it spent more than $7 million expressly advocating for the election or defeat of federal candidates, while the group told the IRS it spent no money on “direct or indirect political campaign activities on behalf of or in opposition to candidates.” The NRA has asserted that the numbers it reports to the IRS are “not necessarily expected to tie to [FEC] reporting due to different definitions and exclusions in the different regulatory regimes.” Nevertheless, these stark differences have raised eyebrows among watchdog groups and journalists.