FAIRFAX, Va. — The National Rifle Association’s largest donor is a magazine magnate, avid hunter and gun collector who died a dozen years ago.
The gun group has long kept the identities of most donors shrouded in secrecy. It is not required to make them public, and has even resisted turning over records of its contributors in various congressional inquiries underway.
But The New York Times was able to compile a list of more than 1,000 benefactors, from some of the largest to some of the smallest, by searching securities filings and foundation records, along with the N.R.A.’s selective disclosures over the years.
At the top of the list was Robert E. Petersen, whose publishing empire included magazines like Tiger Beat, Motor Trend, Guns & Ammo and Sassy. His family foundation, as well as his wife, Margie, who died in 2011, have given $56 million to the N.R.A. and its affiliates over the past decade, the foundation told The Times.
In the past few years, the Petersen donations have even exceeded the money coming in from some of the N.R.A.’s traditionally stalwart contributors — gun manufacturers like Sturm, Ruger & Company and Smith & Wesson’s owner, American Outdoor Brands, both of which have sharply cut their funding, records show.
While hardly complete, The Times’s donor list provides a fuller public accounting of the finances of an organization troubled not just by fiscal strains but by legal battles and relentless infighting that led to the resignation of its second-in-command last month and the abrupt departure of its president in April.
The turmoil has left some of the N.R.A.’s traditional conservative allies anxious about the potency of its vaunted political machine in the 2020 elections. And it has led one of the N.R.A.’s major backers, a retired technology consultant named David Dell’Aquila, to threaten an insurgency to oust the longtime chief executive, Wayne LaPierre. Until he resigns, Mr. Dell’Aquila said recently, he and a group of other wealthy donors will withhold tens of millions of dollars in pledges.
Now the Petersen money is also about to end.
The Margie & Robert E. Petersen Foundation told The Times that it planned to wind down operations by 2021. But there is another wrinkle. Much of the Petersen donations come in the form of rare guns, many of which are displayed in a museum at the N.R.A.’s Northern Virginia headquarters. Many others do not appear in the museum and are sold to raise money.
Recently, such sales have not taken place. They must be approved by a committee that includes Tony Makris, a gravel-voiced hunter and executive at Ackerman McQueen, an advertising firm that was the N.R.A.’s most influential contractor before a bitter legal battle this year.
One person with knowledge of the sales process, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the lack of recent sales was related to the lawsuit, while another said it was not. The N.R.A. and the Petersen Foundation said they were not aware of any impasse. Ackerman McQueen declined to comment.
No small amount of money is at stake. Last year alone, the Petersen Foundation donated $8 million worth of firearms to the N.R.A.’s charitable group, according to figures the foundation provided to The Times. (It has also given the N.R.A.’s charity $10 million in cash since 2015.)
“Mr. Makris and others in the firearms community have helped facilitate the sale and transfer of many firearms in the Petersen collection,” said Andrew Arulanandam, an N.R.A. spokesman, in a statement. “Sales are strategically coordinated by a committee to maximize their value to the N.R.A., similar to the way rare paintings are sold at auction.”
The Petersen Foundation, in a statement, said that after donations were made, it left the handling of them to the N.R.A. But it also said that “a committee that included Tony Makris” determined “which guns were to be put on display and which were to be sold,” adding that it had “no knowledge about any interaction between Tony Makris, the N.R.A. and Ackerman which would prevent or delay any guns from being sold.”
CreditGabriella Demczuk for The New York Times
While a full taxonomy of N.R.A. donors is not possible, a partial picture emerged from The Times’s examination. The biggest donors are rewarded with a mustard-colored jacket and inducted into a group called the Golden Ring of Freedom. Many are firearms executives, including Pete Brownell, a former N.R.A. president who runs Brownells, a retailer of guns and ammunition, and P. James Debney, the chief executive of American Outdoor Brands.
Other donors include estates or foundations set up by deceased gun advocates like Mr. Petersen. A smattering of right-wing groups have also provided support in recent years, including the 45Committee, a shadowy organization that has been backed by the financier and Trump supporter Sheldon Adelson and other such groups with names like Dunn’s Foundation for the Advancement of Right Thinking and The Master’s Table.
The group’s donor base, though, goes far beyond the gun industry or conservative interest groups. Those whose contributions or pledges have exceeded $1 million in recent years include Dr. Arnold W. Goldschlager, a California cardiologist and game hunter, and Joseph R. Gregory, a Tennessee businessman who co-chairs the Ring of Freedom. Then there are smaller donors like an Arizona rheumatologist, a New Jersey restaurateur and a Georgia accountant. Such breadth has in the past helped the N.R.A. remain a daunting lobbying force, but now, in addition to resistance from donors like Mr. Dell’Aquila and some signs of wavering grass-roots support, the N.R.A. is facing an increasingly well-financed gun control movement.
Financial support is also weakening from some top gun manufacturers as sales have softened. Sturm, Ruger & Company — which once had a promotional campaign in which it donated $2 of every new gun purchase to the N.R.A. — directed $10 million to the N.R.A. in 2015 and 2016, but only $1.5 million over the following two years, according to securities filings. The gun maker, which did not comment, appears to be trimming costs after its revenue fell to its lowest point in a half-decade last year.
Shares in American Outdoor Brands have fallen nearly 70 percent from its high of three years ago, and the company said in its latest annual report that it cut donations to the N.R.A. by nearly $1 million in its most recent fiscal year, without revealing what it gave. (Two years earlier, the company reported donating $1.6 million to the N.R.A. over nine months.)
Mr. Petersen’s influence over the N.R.A. has not been fully understood. His foundation is run by GiGi Carleton, his longtime secretary. (The Petersens’ two sons died in a plane crash.) The legacy of Mr. Petersen, born to a mechanic, looms largest in automotive circles. He founded the Petersen Automotive Museum, a tourist attraction in Los Angeles that houses one of the most renowned car collections in the world.
He also collected more than 2,000 firearms. Those on display at the N.R.A. museum include 12 Gatling guns, a Civil War flare gun and a revolver with silver bullets for vampire hunting, as well as a shotgun gifted by the British royals to one of the shahs of Iran. Three shotguns known as the Invincibles, made by the defunct gun maker Parker Brothers, are said to together be worth more than $5 million. The Petersens’ two sons are remembered by their two .22-caliber rifles.
“He was truly a man’s man,” Mr. LaPierre once said of Mr. Petersen, adding, “Every time I saw him he’d come up to me, he’d look me dead in the eye and he’d say, ‘So what are you doing to defend my guns?’”
In a statement, the foundation said that Mr. Petersen “always felt it important to make sure guns were used safely and properly,” and that it had donated “many pieces from Mr. Petersen’s gun collection, as well as funds to maintain the collection and to provide quality public education about gun ownership.”
His contributions have flowed through the N.R.A. Foundation, a charity set up by the gun organization. The Times previously reported that more than $200 million donated to the charity since 2010 has been transferred to the N.R.A. itself. That raises potential tax questions, since donations to the charity are tax-deductible, while those to the N.R.A. itself are not. The charity is being scrutinized by the New York attorney general, Letitia James, as part of an inquiry into the N.R.A.’s tax-exempt status, as well as by the attorney general for the District of Columbia, Karl A. Racine. The N.R.A. has said that transactions between it and the charity were appropriate.
The N.R.A. Foundation’s fund-raising has become increasingly ambitious in the past half-decade. In 2014, one of the foundation’s publications listed wealthy donors pledging as much as $25,000 or more. Within a couple of years, three higher funding tiers were added, for donors giving $25,000 to $100,000, $100,000 to $1 million and over $1 million.
Every dollar counts for the N.R.A., whose net assets fell sharply last year as its legal fees soared. The group froze its pension fund, borrowed against insurance policies taken out on its executives and increased to $28 million a bank credit line secured by cash, investments and the deed to its Fairfax headquarters.
Until now, Mr. Petersen and his guns have been a welcome source of relief. Their occasional sale to raise money for the N.R.A., according to the spokesman, Mr. Arulanandam, “speaks to the size and scope of the Petersen collection, and the different ways in which it enriches the N.R.A. and its membership.”