(April 3, 2017) This May marks the fortieth anniversary of the infamous 1977 NRA Members’ Meeting, also known as the Cincinnati Revolt. At that meeting a dissident group of members introduced a slate of bylaw changes giving the membership a real voice in the organization’s governance, reorganized the management, and turned the organization down a new path.
Depending on who tells the tale, Cincinnati either marked the dawn of a new day when the NRA giant rose from its slumber to fight for the Second Amendment, or the night that a junta of political extremists staged a coup to take over a quiet target shooting and conservation club. Neither of those narratives is entirely accurate, yet each contains its own grain of truth.
NRA bosses rarely talk about the affair. Over the past thirty years, the only mention of Cincinnati from official NRA has been to claim it as a political banner, usually accompanying some proposal to undo another piece of what was accomplished that night. The most recent example was this year when NRA President Allan Cors solemnly invoked the Cincinnati reforms in his plea for members to approve a group of Bylaw amendments designed to erase the last vestiges of those reforms (the amendment package passed resulting in a significantly more difficult process for Director candidates to get on the ballot).
Even though most of the membership control gained in Cincinnati has been lost, the real legacy of the 1977 Annual Meeting stands. The NRA is politically active, and will be for the foreseeable future. That’s the good news. The bad news, is that should the NRA ever again go off the rails, the members will find it very difficult to force a course correction.
In 1977 the NRA was at a crossroads. A decade of bad news for the Second Amendment had members worried about what was to come. Smart money said that more gun control was inevitable. Members looked to the NRA to protect their gun rights, but they saw an organization that was not up to the task. In fact, it was in retreat. The NRA Board had already voted to sell the Washington headquarters building, and the management was more interested in raising funds for a “College of the Outdoors” to be built at Raton, New Mexico than in drumming up money to fight for the Second Amendment.
The Raton project was a grand dream with an estimated price tag of $30 million—ten times the NRA’s entire budget for 1975. Determined to make Raton a reality, NRA leaders contracted with Oram International Group, a New York consulting outfit that advised large not-for-profits on fundraising matters. Oram produced a 100-page report describing how the NRA could fund Raton. The gist of the report was that the NRA could never raise the money from its members, so they needed to seek philanthropic foundation grants. But those who controlled such grants did not like the NRA’s public image. “The current media image of the NRA,” the report states, “destroys its ability to raise money from foundations, especially the large ones such as Rockefeller, Ford and Mellon.” So, they advised NRA to get out of politics, soften their image, and focus more on environmentalism and habitat protection – in short, to become what one wag called a Sierra Club with guns.
Copies of the Oram report leaked out, apparently from several sources, to Neal Knox, John Wooters, Houston activist, Francis Winters, and a dozen others who formed a dissident core. The dissident group burned up phone lines and mailboxes for months prior to the Cincinnati meeting. They finally met in person in San Antonio, just a month before the meeting. There they finalized plans for a member revolution. Critical assistance came from attorneys David and Susan Caplan, who had expertise in New York corporate and not-for-profit law (the NRA is chartered in New York). It was the Caplans who pointed out that the assembled members held significant power in the annual meeting. The plan was to introduce a slate of bylaw changes, and let the members decide whether to adopt them and change NRA’s course, or reject them and continue down the road to New Mexico.
As the Meeting of Members was called to order on Saturday morning, everyone knew something was about to happen, but no one knew what. Neal Knox had run a series of editorials in Handloader and Rifle magazines demanding a politically engaged NRA. Those editorials resulted in his being appointed, despite his own objections, to introduce the slate. No one knew how the assembled members would react, but before the cries of “Second!” died out, it was apparent the members were with them. Over the next eight hours, the membership took control of the meeting, then passed the amendments one by one. They voted to restructure the Board elections, allowing for Board candidates to be nominated by petition, allowing for recall of officers by the members, and provided for direct membership election of the Executive Vice President. They then restructured the organization’s management, fired key officials, and elected Harlon Carter as EVP.
The changes turned the NRA into a gold mine. Membership doubled and contributions soared, and the gun control that had seemed inevitable, stopped in its tracks. The members wanted, and proved they were willing to fund, an NRA that would defend the Second Amendment.
Member control has eroded over the years, even as the NRA’s power and influence has grown. Today, the only real power the members wield over the organization is the ballot of their dollars. But the power of NRA is, as always, in its members.
The Oram report was made public in 2016, forty years after being submitted to the NRA, under the terms of its original contract. A copy is available at this link: Oram-NRA.
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