On the eve of a legal battle in New York, Wayne LaPierre told board members on Friday that he would step down as the longtime chief of the National Rifle Association.
Mr. LaPierre, 74, has led the organization for more than three decades. But his resignation came as he faced his gravest challenge yet, a corruption trial in Manhattan amid a legal showdown with New York’s attorney general, Letitia James. Jury selection has already begun, and Mr. LaPierre has been in the courtroom for some of it. Opening arguments were scheduled for early next week.
The announcement, which is effective on Jan. 31, is not part of a deal with the attorney general’s office. Andrew Arulanandam, Mr. LaPierre’s longtime spokesman, will become the interim chief executive. The development was first reported by The Wall Street Journal.
“With pride in all that we have accomplished, I am announcing my resignation from the N.R.A.,” Mr. LaPierre said in a statement. “I’ve been a card-carrying member of this organization for most of my adult life, and I will never stop supporting the N.R.A. and its fight to defend Second Amendment freedom. My passion for our cause burns as deeply as ever.”
The announcement took place during a board meeting in Irving, Texas. The N.R.A. said Mr. LaPierre had “cited health reasons” as being behind his decision.
The development will change the shape of the Manhattan trial, since Ms. James was seeking to oust Mr. LaPierre from his position. She will still be seeking to bar him from holding any position at the group. She is also seeking financial penalties from Mr. LaPierre and three other defendants.
“The end of the Wayne LaPierre era at the N.R.A. is an important victory in our case,” Ms. James said in a social media post on Friday afternoon. “LaPierre’s resignation validates our claims against him, but it will not insulate him from accountability. We look forward to presenting our case in court.”
Mr. LaPierre played a leading role in transforming gun culture in America, but the last half decade of his tenure at the N.R.A. was marred by scandals and internal upheaval.
Ms. James began investigating the organization four years ago amid reports of runaway spending practices. Since then, it has been in a tailspin.
Membership has plummeted from nearly six million five years ago to 4.2 million today. Revenue is down 44 percent since 2016, according to internal audits, and legal costs have soared to tens of millions a year.
Nonetheless, the gun rights movement has become a bulwark of conservative politics during Mr. LaPierre’s years leading the N.R.A. A temporary assault weapons ban was signed into law early in his tenure; today, such measures are a nonstarter for Republicans, despite a proliferation of mass shootings.
Mr. LaPierre’s testimony at the trial is likely to focus heavily on his spending practices. He was a regular for more than a decade at a Zegna boutique in Beverly Hills, where he spent nearly $40,000 in a single May 2004 outing, billing it through an N.R.A. contractor.
He also spent more than $250,000 on travel to, among other places, Palm Beach, Fla., Reno, Nev., the Bahamas and Italy’s Lake Como. He has argued that these were legitimate business expenses.
The N.R.A. has said it is being persecuted by New York regulators. The group recently enlisted the support of the American Civil Liberties Union in a federal lawsuit. That suit accuses former Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and his administration of misusing their authority by dissuading banks and insurers from doing business with the N.R.A.
And Ms. James, the group has pointed out repeatedly, vowed to investigate the N.R.A. even before she was elected.
As the corruption case has dragged on, Mr. LaPierre’s allies have dwindled, with some of his sharpest critics coming from within the N.R.A.
One of the other defendants in the case, Joshua Powell, has been in settlement talks with the attorney general’s office and a deal is seen as imminent. Mr. Powell was the organization’s second-in-command for a time, but he later turned against Mr. LaPierre’s leadership and even called for some gun control measures, including universal background checks for those buying guns.
“This has been a long time coming and is far too late after governing over 30 years of corruption,” Mr. Powell said in an email. “At this point the N.R.A. is little more than a shell of itself after hemorrhaging hundreds of millions in legal fees. The N.R.A. will need a new strong dynamic leader to dig itself out of the deep hole it’s in.”
Gun control groups were happy to see Mr. LaPierre go.
“Thoughts and prayers,” said Nick Suplina, a former senior adviser and special counsel at the attorney general’s office who now works for the gun control advocacy group Everytown.
“I think the attorney general sought the removal of Wayne LaPierre as the head of the N.R.A. and she just got what she wanted,” he added.