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Opinion: NRA has a mess on its hands

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Since its founding by two union officers after the Civil War, the National Rifle Association has morphed from its mission to teach marksmanship and gun safety to becoming a political powerhouse, fundraising off fears about gun control and enflaming the culture wars.

In recent years, the NRA has been credited with stopping legislation to close background check loopholes supported by nearly 90% of the American people after Sandy Hook, and spending more than $30 million to support Donald Trump and Republicans in 2016.

At the same time they've been building out a media arm called NRA-TV, featuring conservative personalities like Dana Loesch, pushing odd stunts like portraying Thomas the Tank Engine in a KKK uniform, and uttering memorable lines like: "The only way we save our country and our freedom is to fight this violence of lies with the clenched fist of truth."

But if you really want to find the "clenched fist of truth," follow the money.

Audits of the NRA showed that, while spending more than $400 million in 2016, the group had a nearly $15 million deficit at the end of that year, and more than double that in '17.

This is big money. And a series of investigations and lawsuits is shedding light on where it all went, and why Oliver North warned that they could "threaten our nonprofit status."

The NRA is suing its longtime advertising firm Ackerman McQueen for refusing to justify billings of over $40 million per year, while some senior salaries at the NRA approached or exceeded $1 million, levels not generally associated with nonprofits.

Ackerman McQueen calls the lawsuit "frivolous" and "inaccurate."

At the same time, according to The Wall Street Journal, there are allegations of self-dealing and sweetheart deals among firms with ties to top officials, as well as moving money between different divisions.

The NRA says there is "nothing improper" about any of its business relationships.

All while donations have plummeted, annual dues increased, and NRA staffers had their free coffee taken away to save money.

Now that the New York attorney general has sent out subpoenas, this is a scandal the NRA probably won't be able to spin its way out of.

The Second Amendment is securely nestled in our Constitution, even as we debate the continuing epidemic of gun violence.

But the NRA's problems are a reminder of how people invested in the partisan economy like to talk about principles, while they profit from polarization.

Or, as Eric Hoffer wrote, "Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket."

John Avlon is a CNN senior political analyst and anchor. A version of this article appeared at cnn.com.

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