For a guy whose professional life involves talking to people about firearms, Wayne LaPierre doesn’t seem especially enthusiastic about either people or firearms. “I knew of no gun interest that he had,” says former National Rifle Association (NRA) chief Warren Cassidy, LaPierre’s boss for a decade. If LaPierre were ever to join one of his colleagues’ hunting trips, says John Aquilino, who used to run the group’s media relations, “I would run like hell.”
Not that LaPierre appeared hungry for company. “Is he a guy who exchanges slaps on the back or glasses of beer?” asks Joseph Tartaro, head of the Second Amendment Foundation, who has worked with LaPierre for 35 years. “No, I don’t think he’s that kind of person.” “He is a shy, wonkish person,” says Richard Feldman, a longtime fellow gun lobbyist. In a memoir, Feldman described his first impression of LaPierre: “This guy doesn’t have what the human resources gurus call ‘people skills.’”
A characterological profile like that doesn’t comport at all with the LaPierre we’ve seen on TV screens since the Newtown tragedy—the from-my-cold-dead-hands gun defender who blames movies and video games, rather than weapons that can shoot dozens of rounds a minute, for all the mass murders that have taken place in the last year. Which leads one to wonder why he’d even want to lead the NRA at all, or why the NRA feels he’s the best man for the on-camera job.
A studious kid from Roanoke, Virginia, LaPierre joined the NRA almost immediately after leaving a political science Ph.D. program at Boston University. Even though he’d gone from academic to operative, he couldn’t shake his campus intellectual vibe. Aquilino remembers once seeing a trail of notebooks and folders in the lobby of the NRA’s old headquarters. “Wayne walked by, didn’t he?” he recalls asking. “He literally had a stream of papers and books and notes that led all the way out to where he got into the cab and headed off to Capitol Hill.”
What LaPierre lacked in professional polish he more than made up for in intensity of belief—something that stood out in lobbying, a calling dominated by schmoozers. But the NRA wasn’t just any lobby. Arriving a year after the so-called Revolt at Cincinnati, when young radicals took over what had been a sleepy sporting organization, LaPierre moved up quickly by taking the most hard-line positions in the room. He fought to undo the biggest federal gun law, pioneered the tactic of shifting the focus away from firearms to a dysfunctional criminal justice system, and thrived as NRA moderates lost internal power struggles.
“It takes a certain amount of chutzpah,” Cassidy told me, “to be a lobbyist and walk into an office where Teddy Kennedy’s in there and he’s had two brothers assassinated, and you’re going to talk pro-gun?” But in 1986, LaPierre had done just that, helping to craft a rollback of a 1968 federal gun control law. The Senate had already passed its version of the bill, and the House debate seemed to be going the NRA’s way when Speaker Tip O’Neill called for a two-week Easter recess. When the House reconvened, an amendment banning new automatic weapons had been added.
Furious NRA ultras wanted to kill the entire bill. But LaPierre called his boss, Warren Cassidy, from Capitol Hill, ready to cut a deal. “I believed in giving an apple to gain the orchard, and he agreed,” Cassidy recalls.
Once the bill passed, however, Cassidy found himself vilified by the NRA rank-and-file, and LaPierre let his shyness kick in at the most useful moment. “I was a little unhappy that Wayne didn’t stand up, accept the fact that he had recommended it to me, ... and say that he supported it,” says Cassidy. “There was almost dead silence from him.”
The lesson for LaPierre was that the other side didn’t want apples. They wanted to burn down the orchard. Less than a decade after the deal came the Brady Bill, and now, after Sandy Hook, the NRA again feels besieged. LaPierre’s former colleagues describe a man driven to distraction by what he sees as liberals’ bait-and-switchery in their quest to ban all guns.
At a hunting and conservation gala in Nevada last month, LaPierre talked not about sportsmanship but about Barack Obama’s use of the word “absolutism” in his inaugural address. “Obama wants to turn the idea of ‘absolutism’ into a dirty word, just another word for extremism,” LaPierre said, registering the same note of barely controlled rage he’d hit at his post-Newtown press conference. Over the years, LaPierre has laid out his strident views in half a dozen books, including one treatise about the United Nations’ plot to take away Americans’ guns.
In the meantime, the conservative landscape around the NRA’s circled wagons has been changing. Groups like March for Life and the National Organization for Marriage have hired media-friendly leadership. But if the increasingly powerful political wing of the NRA has no taste for compromise, it has even less for media likability. So LaPierre, his old shyness sublimated into rage, snarls at the cameras on behalf of his organization. “Let me say it this way,” says Feldman. “If it had been me holding the news conference [after Newtown], I’m certain I would’ve used a woman and I would’ve found an educator.” Aquilino puts it differently: “I wanted to bitch slap his advisers,” he says.
But Aquilino and Feldman are moderate dinosaurs compared with LaPierre, and it’s no coincidence that they were forced out with the other moderates decades ago. They may not like his media strategy, but it’s hard to argue with his record. Since 1991, membership has increased by nearly 70 percent. “Usually, his addresses are rather enthusiastically received,” Tartaro says. “Both in substance and defiant style.” In the NRA, he explains, this has helped create “a cult of personality” around LaPierre.
The problem for the organization, though, is that the base can only do so much. Given that half of gun owners don’t think the NRA fully represents their views, that more people dislike the organization’s leadership, and that gun control has become increasingly popular, the NRA might soon need new friends. At which point it might be useful to have a people person at the helm.