NASHVILLE — Even as the National Rifle Association has been consumed by relentless and increasingly public infighting, Wayne LaPierre has maintained a firm grip on its leadership.
Now one of the gun group’s major benefactors says he is preparing to lead an insurgency among wealthy contributors to oust Mr. LaPierre as chief executive, along with his senior leadership team. Such a rebellion would represent a troublesome new threat to Mr. LaPierre, as his organization’s finances and vaunted political machine are being strained amid a host of legal battles, most notably the New York attorney general’s investigation into its tax-exempt status.
David Dell’Aquila, the restive donor, said the N.R.A.’s internal warfare “has become a daily soap opera and it’s decaying and destroying the N.R.A. from within, and it needs to stop.” He added, “Even if these allegations regarding Mr. LaPierre and his leadership are false, he has become radioactive and must step down.”
Until that happens, Mr. Dell’Aquila, a retired technology consultant who has given roughly $100,000 to the N.R.A. in cash and gifts, said he would suspend donations — including his pledge of the bulk of an estate worth several million dollars.
He said he was among a network of wealthy N.R.A. donors who would cumulatively withhold more than $134 million in pledges, much of it earmarked years in advance through estate planning, and would soon give the gun group’s board a list of demands for reform.
That dollar figure could not be verified, however, and Mr. Dell’Aquila declined to provide a list of the other donors, who he said were not ready to go public. But a second prominent donor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is a senior firearms industry executive, said he was also suspending a plan to give more than $2 million from his estate, as well as halting other donations, and was backing Mr. Dell’Aquila’s effort.
“The donors are rebelling,” the executive said, adding that he believed that the leadership turmoil was “helping to destroy, temporarily, the strength of the N.R.A. as one of the strongest lobbying groups.”
The extent of any rebellion is difficult to discern, and the N.R.A. insisted it still had the firm backing of its donor base. Mr. LaPierre has also retained the support of the N.R.A.’s 76-member board, with fewer than a handful of public defections, and it would take a two-thirds vote to oust him. But there have been signs of wavering grass-roots support, including a recent announcement by Greg Kinman, a gun enthusiast with more than four million followers on YouTube, that he was cutting ties with the N.R.A.
The turmoil of recent months has already stoked fear among some Republicans that the N.R.A.’s political potency could be blunted heading into the 2020 elections. In a tweet early Tuesday morning, President Trump assailed the investigation by the New York attorney general, Letitia James, saying the N.R.A. was “a victim of harassment by the A.G.”
Carolyn Meadows, the N.R.A.’s president, said in a statement that “we are disappointed whenever donors choose to suspend their support of the N.R.A., but we hope to win them back.” She added: “People may resist change, but they embrace progress. We’re experiencing that right now at the N.R.A. There’s an energy within the N.R.A. that is hard to describe — and we continue to earn the support of millions of loyal members.”
The group also provided statements from two of its largest donors, who are among those still backing Mr. LaPierre.
“We are sticking by the N.R.A.,” said Dr. John Thodos, an orthodontist who lives in Florida. “They are the No. 1 fighter for freedom.” John and Barbara Rumpel, Florida-based donors who have put their real estate in a trust to benefit the N.R.A., said they “support what Wayne and his team are doing.” They added, “Getting through this New York issue is the top priority for the N.R.A., and they’re working like heck to fight these malicious attacks.”
The support of donors and the enthusiasm among N.R.A. members will be a crucial test for Mr. LaPierre, who has led the organization for more than two decades. Last month, Mr. LaPierre ousted his second-in-command, Christopher W. Cox, who led the gun group’s lobbying arm; in April, the N.R.A.’s president, Oliver North, abruptly stepped down. Both men have been implicated by the N.R.A. in a plot to force Mr. LaPierre out, though Mr. Cox has denied the allegations. Mr. North has said the N.R.A. needs to review its financial practices; N.R.A. officials have said the split with Mr. North was largely a dispute over money.
Both Mr. Dell’Aquila and the second donor want Mr. Cox to return to the N.R.A. and become its chief executive.
“He brings continuity and stability,” Mr. Dell’Aquila said, adding that Mr. Cox had emerged from the recent wave of scandals with cleaner hands than Mr. LaPierre. “We can get consensus with Chris replacing Wayne.”
Mr. Dell’Aquila said he had not spoken to Mr. Cox about the matter and had not seen him since a fund-raiser last year.
The N.R.A. is moving on from Mr. Cox and is expected to announce Tuesday that Jason Ouimet, a deputy at its lobbying arm, will assume Mr. Cox’s former post, according to a person with knowledge of the appointment.
The N.R.A. has been burdened by high structural costs and escalating legal bills as it copes with the New York investigation and a bitter legal fight with its former advertising firm, Ackerman McQueen. The N.R.A.’s member dues fell in 2017 to their lowest level in a half-decade, as concerns about gun control ebbed after Mr. Trump’s election, but they rebounded last year, increasing by a third, to $170 million, while contributions grew by 24 percent to $165 million.
Even so, the N.R.A.’s net assets fell sharply last year and the organization was forced to freeze its pension fund. It also took more than $30 million out of its charitable foundation in 2017; it recently increased a line of credit, backed by the deed to its headquarters, to $28 million; and it borrowed against life insurance policies taken out on top executives.
An avid hunter, Mr. Dell’Aquila, 58, was interviewed at his house in Nashville, sitting in front of a large stuffed black bear. He played offensive lineman for a year at Princeton before injuries ended his football career, and he once was featured in The Baltimore Sun for eating two 48-ounce steaks in one sitting at a Shula’s Steak House. He’s been a member of the N.R.A. for about two decades, and considers himself a true believer. (“It’s our Second Amendment, it comes after our First Amendment, it’s what allows us to be a free country,” he said.)
Mr. Dell’Aquila was listed in an N.R.A. publication as having pledged more than $1 million, making him one of a small number of contributors at that level; he belongs to the Charlton Heston Ambassadors, a group for those who make large pledges of support, named for the actor and former N.R.A. president.
In a series of interviews and emails, Mr. Dell’Aquila cited numerous concerns. He was troubled that a former N.R.A. president, David Keene, had been caught up in an investigation over his ties to Maria Butina, the Russian who pleaded guilty to conspiring to act as a foreign agent. He was disturbed after The New York Times reported this year that Tyler Schropp, a senior N.R.A. executive, had an interest in an outside company that had received $18 million from the N.R.A. He was also dismayed by a recent New Yorker story tying the N.R.A.’s former longtime chief financial officer to allegations of embezzlement at a previous job.
“I don’t know if these stories are true or not true,” he said. “My No. 1 concern, frankly only concern, is that our Second Amendment rights are preserved and the optics of negativity that are directly harming the N.R.A. institution ceases.”
Mr. Dell’Aquila said he had approached high-ranking N.R.A. officials to express his dissatisfaction as recently as April, when the N.R.A. held its annual convention in Indianapolis, but was not satisfied by their responses. And he said the board had recently been removing critics of Mr. LaPierre from key oversight committees.
“I decided the best way to be effective is to start a grass-roots effort to demand from the N.R.A. leadership accountability as well as transparency,” he said.
His demands include the resignation of Mr. LaPierre and his senior leadership in time to put in a new team for the 2020 elections. In addition to Mr. Cox’s return, he wants Allen West, an N.R.A. board member and former Tea Party congressman opposed to Mr. LaPierre, installed as the group’s president. (Some of Mr. Dell’Aquila’s demands echo those of Mr. West and others.)
He would also shrink the board to 30 members from 76; stop paying consulting fees to board members; dismiss the N.R.A.’s accounting firm, RSM; remove past presidents from the board; and cut costs by holding meetings in central locations. He lamented that an upcoming board meeting was to be held in Alaska: “What are the optics of that?” he said. “It’s negative. It’s self-inflicted.” He adding that the N.R.A. could find board members who “would do this for free, and it keeps us clean in the liberal papers.”
Mr. Dell’Aquila said he had come to his decision reluctantly, and had always been treated graciously by Mr. LaPierre and his wife, Susan.
“I’m not pro-Mr. LaPierre, and I’m not anti-Mr. LaPierre, I’m just simply being objective and trying to save a historic institution from itself,” he said. “Right or wrong, the buck stops with Mr. LaPierre, because this occurred underneath his leadership, and he’s ultimately accountable.”