Why the NRA Picked Oliver North

Ladd Everitt
5 min readMay 15, 2018

A gun-trafficker who knows how to conceal ill-gotten gains is just what the gun lobby needed.

On May 7, the National Rifle Association board of directors took an unprecedented and curious step, naming controversial figure and longtime board member Oliver North as the group’s new president a year before incumbent president (and gun manufacturer) Pete Brownell was due to step down.

Brownell could have stayed on and sought a second term, but elected not to. Perhaps he got cold feet. The same day the NRA board made its decision, Brownell was named in a blockbuster Mother Jones article by David Corn. Corn researched a December 2015 trip an NRA delegation took to Moscow and made a startling discovery. The delegation, which included Brownell, had surreptitiously toured the offices of ORSIS, a private arms company closely tied to Russian defense minister Dmitry Rogozin. ORSIS is the manufacturer of the T-5000 sniper rifle, feared by NATO forces worldwide for its ability to penetrate body armor. ORSIS produced a promotional video made up of footage from the NRA delegation’s tour, and Brownell could be seen throughout it.

During the NRA trip’s to Russia, gunmaker Pete Brownell and other NRA delegates were filmed for a promotional video by ORSIS — manufacturer of the T-5000 sniper rifle feared by NATO soldiers.

Whatever reservations Brownell might have had about being the face of an organization under investigation by the FBI for its ties to a foreign adversary, they are not shared by North, who seems to relish controversy. North, of course, is best known for his role in the Iran-Contra affair, the biggest scandal of the Reagan administration. A National Security Council staffer at the time, North helped engineer an illegal covert operation in which profits from weapons sales to hostage-taking Iran were funneled to right-wing rebels waging a revolution in Nicaragua. North was fired by President Reagan and convicted in 1989 of abetting the obstruction of Congress and shredding evidence. The conviction was later thrown out because North had been given immunity for his congressional testimony on the scandal.

None of this history dissuaded the NRA’s leadership and members from electing North to the organization’s board of directors, where he has long served. Up until this point, however, North has been a role player, a pitchman for the group’s membership outreach to veterans and active-duty military service members. According to North, his appeal with this constituency is why the NRA board chose him to be president — to add one million new members to the organization’s ranks “as fast as we can.” Given that North hasn’t been a household name since the 80s (or perhaps the 90s, if you count his ill-fated Senate race against Chuck Robb in Virginia), this “Second Coming of Charlton Heston” explanation seems unlikely.

North was likely tapped because he has two skill sets the NRA needs right now: experience in international gun-running and the ability to raise money illicitly. For an organization looking to tighten ranks, hide its skeletons, and keep gun profits flowing in a hostile political environment, he’s a logical choice.

A little-noticed proposal has made its way through the Trump administration that would remove export controls on “non-military” firearms, including handguns, semiautomatic assault rifles like the AR-15, and .50-caliber sniper rifles. Responsibility for oversight of these exports would be transferred from the State Department to the Commerce Department under Wilbur Ross, who has extensive ties to Russian oligarchs, banks and businesses. Equally disturbing, the shift from State to Commerce would eliminate congressional review required for commercial weapon sales of $1 million or more.

North’s congressional testimony on the Iran-Contra scandal drew huge TV ratings in 1987, but how many Americans under the age of 40 today know who he is?

“It’s a major change,” Colby Goodman of the Center for International Policy told The Hill in January. “It’s opening up a lot more risk and a lot more opportunity for illegal and illicit trafficking.” The Arms Control Association added that a loosening of controls “may also make it harder to identify and prosecute arms smugglers and illegal exporters.”

It’s hard to imagine a more frightening scenario than the NRA, with North at the helm, shepherding global gun exports with the corrupt Ross as their only overseer. Yet that day could be here soon. The Trump administration issued its proposed rule change on gun exports one week after North assumed his new position with the NRA. A 45-day public comment period will follow, but that input is non-binding. The Republican-controlled Congress is unlikely to take any action to overturn a finalized rule.

North is also a logical pick because he’s perfectly comfortable with raising money under false pretenses and then concealing that funding’s true destination, a tactic for which the NRA is infamous.

Since 1990, North has run a 501(c)(3) called the “Freedom Alliance,” which is closely tied to Fox News host Sean Hannity. The “charity” purports “to care for the families of fallen [military service members] with college scholarships for our heroes’ children,” but a remarkable percentage of its funds go to “expenses” and consultants. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission in 2010 that revealed money ostensibly being raised for Freedom Alliance scholarships was instead being diverted to the president of a speakers bureau which represented North and Hannity.

The Freedom Alliance “charity,” North’s fundraising scam with Sean Hannity, is so transparent it’s drawn criticism from right-wing media outlets.

Under siege by the FBI, Federal Election Commission, and Democratic members of Congress, the NRA is doing its utmost to hide critical information about its finances. With North, the gun lobby gains a fundraising-savvy insider who has no compunctions about breaking the law.

As MSBNC host Rachel Maddow likes to say, “watch what they do, not what they say.” Now ensconced at the top of America’s most powerful pro-gun group — with willing enablers in the White House and Republican Congress — North’s most egregious criminal activity might still lie ahead.



Ladd Everitt

Ladd Everitt is a comms pro & gun control expert who’s worked for Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, George Takei's One Pulse for America, and Million Mom March.