Dana Milbank
Opinion writer January 30, 2013

Wayne LaPierre, the National Rifle Association’s chief executive, arrived for his hearing on Capitol Hill in the organization’s trademark fashion: violently.

When he and his colleagues stepped off the elevator in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Wednesday morning and found TV cameras waiting in the hallway, LaPierre’s bodyguards swung into action. One of them, in blatant violation of congressional rules, bumped and body-checked journalists out of the way so they couldn’t film LaPierre or question him as he walked.

Dana Milbank writes about political theater in the nation’s capital. He joined the Post as a political reporter in 2000. View Archive

“You don’t have jurisdiction here!” a cameraman protested as an NRA goon pushed him against a wall. After the melee, congressional officials informed the NRA officials that, in the halls of Congress, they had to follow congressional procedures — which prohibit manhandling.

This must have come as a surprise to the gun lobbyists, whose swagger seems to suggest that they are, in fact, in control of Congress. In their world, nothing trumps the Second Amendment — not even the First Amendment.

From beginning to end, LaPierre’s appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee was a study in vainglory. The written testimony he submitted to Congress came with a biography describing him as a “Renaissance man,” a “skilled hunter,” and an “acclaimed speaker and political force of nature” as he preserved freedom. “There has been no better leader of this great cause than Wayne LaPierre!” the bio boasted.

After his decades with the group, LaPierre is the public face of the NRA, and the man gun-control advocates most love to hate. His unsmiling manner, his snarling statements and even his memorable name are from villainy central casting. “Mr. LaPierre, it’s good to see you again,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said from the dais, recalling bygone fights with her nemesis. “We tangled — what was it? — 18 years ago. You look pretty good, actually.”

Usually, LaPierre comes out the victor in these tangles, and on Wednesday he was so confident of another win that he boldly declared that the NRA would oppose the most innocuous of proposals to reduce gun violence: criminal background checks.

Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) reminded LaPierre that the NRA once supported checks with “no loopholes anywhere, for anyone.” So does the NRA favor closing the “gun-show loophole” that allows people to avoid background checks?

“We do not,” LaPierre replied.

His reasoning, as always, is that existing gun laws aren’t being enforced — but he seems to have pulled the evidence out of his gun barrel. “Out of more than 76,000 firearms purchases supposedly denied by the federal instant check system, only 62 were referred for prosecution,” LaPierre declared in his opening statement.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) looked up the actual statistic. “In 2012 more than 11,700 defendants were charged with federal gun crimes,” Whitehouse said, “a lot more than 62.”

LaPierre had been caught. “So those — the 62, senator, statistic, was for Chicago alone,” he clarified, a salient fact omitted from his original testimony.

His logic failed him as badly as his facts. “My problem with background checks is you’re never going to get criminals to go through universal background checks,” he argued, unwilling to admit that deterring criminals from buying guns is a good thing, even if some eventually get theirs on the black market.

Surely LaPierre understands that, but much of his performance was about concealing inconvenient realities. When former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords made a brief and emotional plea for gun control at the hearing, LaPierre was hidden away a few rows back, in the last seat of the row. This minimized the chance that he’d be in the camera shot with the popular Giffords, who lost much of her ability to speak and walk when a gunman with a history of psychiatric disorders shot her in the head.

The NRA chief made all the well-known arguments against gun laws; he reminded senators that the founders didn’t want Americans to “live under tyranny,” and he agreed with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) that the proposed ban on assault weapons merely targets “cosmetic features” of guns. LaPierre also added the novel idea that people may need guns if they are “abandoned by their government if a tornado hits, if a hurricane hits.”

Most people don’t have such apocalyptic paranoia. But LaPierre’s job is to stir up the active minority who are frightened and resentful. “If you’re in the elite, you get bodyguards,” he told the senators. “You get high-cap mags with semiautomatics protecting this whole Capitol. The titans of industry get the bodyguards.” He said it’s only “the hardworking, law-abiding, taxpaying American that we’re going to make the least capable of defending themselves.”

Minutes after that denunciation of the well-protected elites, LaPierre rejoined his bodyguards, who were waiting in a back room.