This post is pure speculation without any special insight or feedback from sources. Take what you want from it, but I have a few opinions and thoughts on possible reasons given that there was no mandate to cancel like there was last year. I’d love to turn comments on for this post to allow for discussion, but I think readers know why we can’t have nice things anymore thanks to trolling.
Was it for the money?
The Reload continues to fall back on the fact that the full convention is NRA’s largest single fundraiser in pretty much every post Stephen has written about the topic. As Jim Shepherd noted in The Outdoor Wire, NRA wasn’t going to give refunds to companies that pulled out of exhibiting. They would get to keep that money if they had a hall and a vendor just didn’t show up. In theory, the money made from exhibitors should have covered the costs of running the exhibit hall and then some.
However, with building news about the number of withdrawn vendors, it’s possible that the costs of the other events would surpass what they would expect to make from a crowd that was already predicted to be less than half of normal. I was seeing 35,000 as a predicted attendance batted around the interwebz, and that assumed full exhibit hall, no restrictions, and a full weekend of activities. If word of mouth about reduced exhibitors managed to knock another 10,000 off of that prediction, I don’t know enough about their financial obligations & forecasting to know if that would drive it into the territory of losing money or not.
Was it for the optics?
As I found in some old documents I forgot I grabbed earlier this year and those that started getting archived as rumblings began, the number of vendors who were suddenly missing from Monday morning’s exhibitor maps & lists (that were deleted as word spread) was more than what Gutowski was able to find or even The Daily Beast mentioned. We’re not talking the kind of outfits who pick up the 10×10 booths only when the meeting is nearby, but names any casual gun owner would expect to see there. (Kudos to Bearing Arms for finding more vendors who were removed from the exhibitor list before the notice that the whole thing was off.)
I snagged a partial image of the last public exhibitor map with the empty booths, and in my opinion, it would have been impossible to conceal the empty space unless you had a massive team working 24/7 to sell it to another vendor, rearrange booths from the edges, and give freebie spaces to people just to make it look less empty. Even then, I don’t know how feasible that would be since presumably exhibit hall guides were likely completed and on their way to being printed if not already printed and vendors likely designed advertisements around their previously assigned booth numbers. (Smith & Wesson was advertising their booth number on social media.) This may not have been possible to get vendors on board with moving around or for them to tolerate excessively cheap discounts given to new vendors in the desperation to fill space. It could creative a narrative that it’s bad to do business with NRA if they screw over those who committed and paid early only for them to practically give away booths to those who wouldn’t commit.
The Board & Wayne LaPierre are desperate to look like NRA members stand by them, so visibly empty halls with far fewer attendees in already wide aisles would make for press photos they may believe they can’t afford.
Add to this that the ILA Leadership Forum, at least anytime I checked the pages, never had more than the big Texas politicians (Abbott, Cruz, Cornyn, and Crenshaw) along with Mark Robinson from North Carolina listed. It appeared that they couldn’t get commitments from big national names to attend which would have, again, signaled a loss of influence and interest that NRA can’t really afford to be a story.
I’m sure that NRA had additional insights into these risks by the number of advance ticket sales to ticketed events. There’s never any report on how those do, so there’s no way to verify if they were anywhere close to hitting any breakeven point. Whatever costs for cancellation are, those are likely private so there’s no way to know how much they’ll have to pay out in broken contracts plus refunded tickets.
They also likely had data from cancelled hotel rooms. I noticed that over the weekend, their official housing partner was still advertising reasonable rates for rooms in the Hilton right across the street from the convention center where several of the events were going to be taking place. Even Jim’s sources who wanted to remain anonymous mentioned they already cancelled hotel rooms. Even as some vendors just weren’t going to tell NRA that they weren’t coming, they would have had data from those partners that exhibitors were backing out. The people seeing those now empty rooms at their hotels are locals who likely know people who were planning to attend, and they’d be able to report about how many vacancies they were seeing now which might convince some people who were interested that it wouldn’t be worthwhile.
Potential Loss of Power
There’s very little that members can actually do at the member meeting since the initial big Board revolt was wise enough to put in safeguards making it nearly impossible to recreate their work. However, NRA knows there would be a huge press interest in their meeting of members due to the drama of their last meeting in 2019. Yes, they technically met in 2020, but there was basically no press coverage of it. The sh*tshow that has become NRA internal politics now would attract press attention no matter what. That means that any challenge at all would be highly covered and scrutinized by people they generally don’t want scrutinizing their business.
However, the biggest issue is that even though there are reports that Wayne uses NRA funds to fly out supporters to stack votes for his preferred candidate, those people may not be enough to outweigh those willing to show up calling for change.
The last time that NRA had to partially cancel a convention – the Denver event slated to take place right after Columbine happened – members turned up in solidarity for the meeting to the issue and not blaming law-abiding gun owners for the criminal actions of sociopaths. The government was trying to issue demands for NRA to cancel their meeting, despite not having any authority to make those calls. The only major event that year was the membership meeting in the mood to stand by their organization.
But 2021 is not 1999.
Wayne has pissed off regulators and many casual members, not to mention the building influence of the people he has always pissed off. The populism he stoked isn’t so forgiving of the report (however meaningless it was then & discredited it may be now) that he used membership dollars rather than his own money to buy fancy suits. Even those generally more forgiving of such reports are getting tired of the fact that the perception is he’s leading NRA into fights it doesn’t need to have.
The current leadership relies on casual members who they can more easily influence to outvote the members they view as “troublemakers” in the meeting to shut down business. But casual members come for the exhibit hall and the other activities and view the member meeting as a sideline event they attend for novelty and some cheerleading speeches. It would be a substantial risk that any of them would turn out for some solidarity with Wayne & the current Board for cancellation of the “fun” events over a virus they are getting tired of hearing about.
Combine that with the news that they were not planning to hold an election for the 76th Board of Directors seat even though there were likely a reasonable number of write-in votes for two candidates that they don’t report numbers on…there’s definitely a door open for what the current leadership may consider “trouble” of members asserting they have certain rights.
It’s likely a combination of all three elements – worry about the optics of support & popularity that could come out of a member meeting that mostly “troublemakers” may attend, the actual optics of a massive convention hall with obviously empty booths, and the reduced membership who would attend and give to an event like that. They wouldn’t want to risk member backlash at a meeting without the promise of member cash to raise desperately needed funds.