In a vast and blue-lit palace of a convention center, on a high and silvery dais, a man of the gun nods at his thousands.
At serried rows of war veterans in their breasted ribbons and lawyers and accountants in polos and khakis and broad-backed farmers and factory laborers with black-and-yellow National Rifle Association caps. At rapt grandkids and dozens of women wearing T-shirts emblazoned: “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition.”
The man on the dais raises his hand and calls out: Bring me our oldest. Eighty-eight-year-old Mary Ann Driver rises. A diminutive lady with white curls and eyes like live coals, she hails from Saginaw, Mich. She works her way across the darkened floor and climbs to the stage. She embraces him and he guides her to the lectern. In a voice grown reedy with age, she talks of a lifetime spent in the fellowship of shooters.
The crowd roars and he beckons again.
Deliver our youngest.
Hands rise here and there. Necks crane and there’s a shivery gasp of pleasure as red-haired Charlie, 5 months old, is lifted into the air. The father cradles Charlie in the curl of his arm and carries him forth across the floor and steps to the lectern and promises:
“Little Charlie will be a life member of the N-R-A!”
Everyone roars and claps and roars and smiles. And the man on the dais, Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the NRA, a man with the wavy, sandy brown hair and soft, agreeable face of a Little League coach, adjusts his beige suit jacket and bobs on his heels.
This is LaPierre’s world. Five thousand men and women in the room -- here in Charlotte, N.C., to attend the NRA’s annual conference -- and nary a dozen are the camouflage-wearing, buzz-cut bizarros that the liberals love to fixate on. These are good men and women, whose defense of the right to bear arms is central to their identity as Americans. LaPierre’s eyes fill with a look of grievance no less honest for being practiced.
“I don’t recognize us in so many press accounts,” he tells them. “To my mind, we’re the good guys.”
These are strange days for the brotherhood of gun. The Clinton administration attacks the NRA relentlessly, and Vice President Gore places the NRA in his campaign cross hairs. Some 30 cities and counties and several states -- including Maryland -- sue the gun companies, hoping to drive them into bankruptcy. Somewhat less than a million moms march on Washington. Even some gun magazine writers worry the end could be nigh, that within a generation or two the handgun could become a museum curio, a talisman of a muscular culture gone flaccid.
And yet --
NRA membership grows by the month, to 3.7 million. A green stream of dollars cascades into its coffers (it has a $168 million annual budget), and 50 percent of Americans rate the NRA positively, a higher approval rating than for either the Republican or Demo-cratic Party. The association’s ceaseless internal wars have subsided, its coups and counter-coups yielding to a Pax NRA. The enemy is external: Clinton, Gore and everyone who would homogenize and pasteurize gun culture.
The NRA’s counterattack is a bare-knuckle affair. LaPierre has taken stunning rhetorical swings at President Clinton. The president, he said in March, “is willing to accept a certain level of killing to further his political agenda, and his vice president, too.” LaPierre barely paused before accusing the president again, this time of moral complicity in the shooting death of former Northwestern University basketball coach Ricky Byrdsong in Illinois. The white supremacist who shot Byrdsong had flunked a gun background check but was not arrested. “Has [Clinton] looked into the eyes of Ricky Byrdsong’s family?” LaPierre asks. “Because that blood is on his hands.”
Charlton Heston has lent his sonorous voice to an expensive new round of NRA television commercials. In one, the gray-haired actor peers gravely at the camera and intones: “Mr. Clinton, when what you say is wrong, that’s a mistake. When you know it’s wrong, that’s a lie.”
It’s hard to imagine another establishment Washington lobbying group flinging a gauntlet so directly into the face of a sitting president. But the NRA is no American Automobile Association for the lock-and-load set; it’s the guardian of the Gun, as emotionally charged an icon as exists in American history and culture. And the NRA has an extraordinary hold on its members, many of whom burn with a crusader’s zeal.
In an age when lobbyists gin up “grass-roots” groups and prattle about their single-issue voters, the NRA offers the genuine prairie fire. It graces friendly politicians with money and tens of thousands of votes. And its enemies? Sometimes the NRA snaps them in two.
It’s a peculiarly precarious brand of power politics. Holding a single inflammatory issue to its breast, the NRA is susceptible to any shift in the cultural winds. The savvy of its helmsman must be great. Just four years ago, with its board dominated by gun rights fundamentalists, the NRA appeared headed the way of Big Tobacco, caught on the wrong side of history, lost in a miasma of horrific shooting incidents and right-wing politics.
Two men orchestrated its revival: LaPierre, a 50-year-old former PhD candidate whose protective coloration within the organization is to project the appearance of utter harmlessness as he sustains his decade-long rule. (His public rhetoric is another matter: Federal agents are “jack-booted thugs” and Americans risk “torture” and “dictatorship” if they lose their gun rights. The NRA techies crafted a LaPierre’s Greatest Hits video at the convention that played to wild applause.)
His alter ego (and his best man), James Jay Baker, 46, is the cool cat chief of the NRA’s political arm, a born-inside-the-Beltway boy with wavy white hair parted in the middle. He has the folksy charm of someone who understands the rictus grin and grip of power politics, as practiced on Capitol Hill and in the NRA’s powder-blue glass offices in Fairfax. These two have passed 20 years at the NRA; they are organizational brothers and pragmatic politicians.
After its most recent round of rehabilitation, the NRA again ranks as one of the most powerful lobbies on Capitol Hill. It has blocked for many months a federal bill mandating background checks for sales by unlicensed owners at gun shows. And Wayne LaPierre is a Republican Party grandee, having agreed to raise $250,000 for the George W. Bush campaign.
But each partisan cannonade and wave of the Republican Party pennant raises a question: Is this new NRA locked in a round of ideological struggle that resembles nothing so much as the unyielding wars of its past? Six years ago, the association knocked off a bushel of prominent Democrats. The NRA spin machine played it, not unreasonably, as a historic political triumph for guns. Baker says it was anything but.
“It was a huge mistake. There was too much emphasis on one vote in a career and ruining people who opposed us,” Baker recalled in an interview. “We need Democratic friends. Our survival depends on the gun issue not becoming a strictly partisan issue.”
Baker’s talking about 1994; but his words of warning apply no less today.
GUNS! Safe! Wholesome! Responsible! -- More Americans shoot than play baseball! More Americans shoot than go hiking!
-- from an NRA video presentation
The roar of 18-wheelers and SUVs below forms faint puddles of white noise inside Wayne LaPierre’s handsome office on the sixth floor of NRA headquarters, overlooking I-66. It’s casual Friday -- LaPierre’s wearing a sports shirt open at the collar. There are photos of a U.S. president, a senator or two, and NBA star Karl Malone, a dedicated gunman.
Save for the politely insistent security staff downstairs -- a photo is taken of every visitor and instantly embossed into a tag -- there’s little that announces this as a lair of the gun. No squint-eyed secretaries fingering submachine guns under the desk. No walls lined with the stuffed and mounted heads of NRA foes. This is NRA Inc., a multimillion-dollar corporate empire.
In 10 years, CEO LaPierre has taken the association from its dusty downtown Washington offices to the high-tech suburban splendor of Northern Virginia. He’s swept the cobwebs, installing new computers and streamlining its direct mail and fundraising operations.
He kneads his forehead, as though to summon the memory of a mustier day. “The NRA was run like an old-time club when I took over in 1991,” LaPierre recalls. “We had huge financial problems, we were in the red and getting cut off from our membership.”
It was LaPierre who took the worldview that the NRA had always delivered to its members, and deepened and broadened it. To join is to receive videos and magazines -- American Rifleman, NRA Insights (”News for Young Shooters”), American Hunter. There are the shooting competitions and gun safety programs for children. There are constitutional primers and decals, NRA mugs and shot glasses. And travel and auto discounts, an NRA Visa card and insurance -- including disability insurance in case you shoot yourself.
And war’s shadow is ever present. Each publication reinforces the message: We are embattled. The cover illustration on the NRA news magazine, America’s 1st Freedom, shows Bill Clinton morphing into Al Gore with the headline: “He’s Clinton to the Gore: The Face of Gun Hatred in America.”
An NRA Web site provides daily gun newscasts and sends its reporter -- Ginny Simone, a former Oklahoma news anchor -- to Canada and Australia in search of the real scoop on the parlous effects of gun control laws. LaPierre spends $30 million to prepare half-hour public affairs programs, many of which run unedited on TNN and the Outdoors Channel, and on some network affiliates.
“We’re turning night into day.” LaPierre has a soft and reasonable, and slightly triumphant smile. “We’re getting around the national news filter and putting the NRA and the Second Amendment right where it belongs: in the American mainstream.”
To traverse the canyon between the NRA and the gun control community is to navigate between opposing worlds. Seen from the Democrat-rich Northern cities and upper-middle-class suburbs, the recent past forms a cautionary narrative about the havoc wreaked by guns: Columbine, the Jewish day care center in Los Angeles, bullets flying at the National Zoo, inner-city mothers tutoring their children to roll to the floor at the crack of gunfire, the 110,000 Americans who were murdered with guns from 1990 to 1997.
How does the NRA react? By fighting mandatory background checks at gun shows. By persuading Congress to hamstring the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the federal agency that polices guns. By talking dreamily of the day that Congress overturns the assault weapons ban. From the cliffs on the liberal side of the cultural chasm, the NRA appears cynical, even evil, a beast bent on destruction.
You’re going to the NRA headquarters? inquires a middle-class woman of liberal and pacific politics. I’d like to blow that place up!
But walk now along the opposing cliff wall: the sprawling exhibit floor of the NRA convention in Charlotte. Past the Bushmaster rifle booth (”The Best. By a Long Shot”) and the Jaeger German Gun
Collector’s Association. Talk to those who make up a nation of 70 million gun owners and 250 million guns. (The number of guns owned in the United States has jumped 300 percent in the past three decades.)
Two security officers at a nuclear plant in Augusta, Ga., heft a handsomely dense XM15-AK Shorty and talk of the serenity of tramping through a damp pine forest in deer season. A husband and wife from Tuscaloosa, Ala., shop for a Baretta pistol to keep her safe while he works nights. A black law professor from New York talks about the strange life of a liberal Second Amendment advocate. These are not the hairy-knuckle-draggers and death cultists of liberal imaginings. They are people for whom guns -- pistols, revolvers, single-lock rifles, shotguns and semiautomatics -- are machines of sport and defense, and of passionate self-definition.
Gun control advocates talk safety locks; don’t they realize, NRA members ask, that most gun companies already include locks in the box with every gun? That accidental gun deaths for children have declined dramatically these past three decades? That the NRA has funded programs that successfully prosecute thousands of gun-toting felons? That in the first draft of the Virginia Constitution, Thomas Jefferson wrote that “no free man shall ever be debarred the use of arms”?
Ed Stevens, a 42-year-old construction foreman from Indianapolis, has the burnished face of a man who works outside and hands that can swallow yours without a trace. He’s also a well-read man. He likes the weight of a rifle butt against his shoulder, the inanimate kick, and can talk type and ballistics with a facility that sounds like Esperanto to a gun-challenged listener. But spare him the pyschosexual analysis of his enthusiasm. This isn’t some Freudian case caressing his .44.
“It aggravates me that we’re painted as a bunch of nuts. We’re not living in caves somewhere. We lock away our guns, we love our kids. We’re your next-door neighbor.”
Like many gun owners, Stevens joined the NRA and came to understand something more. That there’s a world of gun owners and a world of everyone else, and that everyone else doesn’t necessarily wish you well. “What is important,” warns an NRA mass mailing, “is their strategic goal: To eradicate gun culture.”
Us and them. No compromise.
Gun enthusiasts, particularly those most active in the NRA, share no implicit trust in a beneficent government. NRA members make terrific civil libertarians; there’s not a clause in the Bill of Rights that they cannot construe as threatened by the overweening power of government. Explicit faith is reserved for family and community.
Theirs is a dark -- no, realistic, they insist -- vision of history and human nature. And every NRA speech, publication and mailing reflects and amplifies that view. Talk to a dozen NRA members on the convention floor and eight will repeat the catechism: The first thing Hitler did after consolidating power was round up the guns. Stalin did the same. So did Pol Pot. When white supremacists ruled Southern statehouses, they banned gun ownership by blacks. When Iraqi tanks rolled into Kuwait, an NRA article limned the subtext: “Gun Control: Iraq’s Ally.”
“Did you know that Oskar Schindler gave the Jews guns to defend themselves?” an association member asks. “Why do you think Spielberg left that out of his movie, huh?” (He’s the fourth person who has juxtaposed that fact and question this morning.) There’s not a nation in the world that’s enacted gun registration and licensing that hasn’t tried to ban at least some guns.
The most enduring and popular column in American Rifleman is the Armed Citizen. It’s a monthly compendium of reports spotlighting average Americans who used the metal barrel of a gun to hold criminals and rapists, and death itself, at bay.
Tap deeper still, and you come upon the belief, rooted deeply in American culture and mythology, that the gun is freedom’s cudgel, the last line of defense against tyranny. It can get bad. Government can turn on you. Look at Waco, at Ruby Ridge, at Lexington and Concord . . . In this world the yeoman soldier is king. NRA members talk Kosovo, where militias drove the Serb army crazy, and Afghanistan, where the barefoot and turbaned tribesmen -- albeit with surface-to-air Stinger missiles -- beat back the Russian army.
Start down the path, and step by step you arrive at core belief. And the NRA’s role is to guide the believer, turning pride and fear into organizational clout.
“There are a number of atrocities at the hands of our government, if people want to be honest and they don’t put on blinders,” says Marion Hammer, a snow-haired grandmother and former president of the NRA. “If our government were to use mass destruction against our populace, the Army would start to desert. And that’s where your privately owned small arms would come into play.
“You don’t realize these guns preserve our freedom.”
The problem with selling darkness is that it can repel no less than it attracts. While fear now prompts hundreds of thousands to join the NRA every year, tens of thousands also quit, more than a few turned off by the Manichaean worldview, the insistence on a perpetual struggle between light and darkness. Still, many members seem to feel privileged, after a fashion, to understand what’s really going on. When LaPierre and Heston describe the NRA as the nation’s oldest civil rights organization, thousands cheer lustily.
You call former NRA president Warren Cassidy, inquiring about the root of the group’s appeal. You mention that the NRA calls to mind the CIO unions of the 1930s and the prewar European political parties, mass-based organizations that offered members a way of life as well as politics. Cassidy has a rich chuckle, like hot butterscotch. No, no. He recalls the advice he gave a reporter long ago: “You’d get a far better understanding if you just approach us as if [we are] one of the world’s great religions.”
As the sign states over the red, white and blue NRA insurance booth at the convention center: “Share the Belief.”
It was not always so. Two former Civil War generals founded the NRA on Long Island in 1871 in hopes of improving the marksmanship of the average American. Many of their soldiers had reported for duty during the war without ever having fired, much less owned, a rifle.
Although NRA members take it as scripture that America was forged by frontiersmen with coonskin hats, powder horns and muskets, that’s an uncertain truth. Emory University historian Michael Bellesiles has uncovered considerable evidence that Colonial and pre-Civil War America were marked by a paucity of guns. Professional hunters and militias, by and large, handled hunting and the wars with Native Americans. A Pennsylvania newspaper in the 1820s was rather caustic about the quality of militia marksmanship: “The size of the target is known accurately to have been accurately measured. It was precisely the size and shape of a barn door.” It took the development of Colt Industries, with its formidable marketing skills, and the Civil War to transform America into a nation of gun owners.
A coterie of retired military officers ran the NRA for many years. In the 1930s, they supported taxes on machine guns and helped write a D.C. law that established a 48-hour waiting period for handgun sales. They took pride in being reasonable men.
The 1960s ended all that. Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated President Kennedy with an Italian carbine rifle purchased through a mail order ad in American Rifleman. Five years later, assassins gunned down Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. Picketers marched outside the NRA and Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley called for a handgun ban. Congress passed the Gun Control Act of 1968, which banned the interstate sale and shipment of handguns.
The NRA tried to counterpunch. A headline in American Rifleman was plaintive: “Can Three Assassins Kill a Civil Right?” And the NRA executive vice president registered as a lobbyist. But this was war, and the leadership was found wanting. “The members were demanding that the NRA get into politics with both feet,” recalls Neal Knox. “The leadership lacked a taste for it. They considered lobbying beneath them.”
To make sense of the National Rifle Association’s modern history, it’s helpful to keep an image in mind: the NRA as revolutionary movement, with all the strongmen and dissidents, purges and conspiratorial fevers that implies. And no history would be complete without reckoning with Knox, a bearded, blue-eyed charismatic. He’s a theorist and insurrectionist seemingly destined never to lead the movement he helped found. The Leon Trotsky, if you will, of the gun revolution.
Knox hails from the wheat and cotton country of north Texas, along the banks of the Red River. When he was 5 years old, he split open his piggy bank, counted out $1.04 and went with his grandmother to buy his first BB rifle; he purchased a proper rifle when he was 9. He recalls his wife, Jay, as the only gal at Abilene Christian College who kept a .22 single-shot Remington in her closet. A heaven-made match.
Soon enough he was a young journalist scratching out a living in Texas. He had “one kid on the runway and three in the hangar,” he recalls, when he saw the classified ad: Can You Write About Guns? It was his ambition; he didn’t look back.
Knox and his fellow fundamentalists suffered none of the inhibitions of the old-line NRA leaders. With the passage of the Gun Control Act of 1968, their view -- that the Second Amendment should stand as a fire wall against any form of gun control -- came slowly to dominate the NRA’s politics. Knox later wrote an essay suggesting that it might be no coincidence that political leaders are assassinated just as advocates are readying new gun control proposals.
In 1971, G. Gordon Liddy invited Knox, by then an NRA operative, to Richard Nixon’s White House. Liddy wanted the NRA to support a ban on “Saturday night specials” to get the gun control lobby off the president’s back.
Forget it, Knox told him, those guns are miserable, but that proposal’s DOA.
His ally on the walk along the hard line was Harlon Bronson Carter. A former Immigration and Naturalization Service regional commissioner, Carter had a barrel chest and a shaved head. In the words of one gun control advocate, he “looked like a cross between Mr. Clean and a .45 slug.” Asked in 1975 if he would rather let convicted violent felons and the mentally deranged buy guns than endorse a screening process for gun sales, Carter did not hesitate to say yes. That’s the “price we pay for freedom.”
Knox and Carter’s revolutionary moment came at an NRA convention in Cincinnati in 1977. In NRA lore, it’s the storming of the Winter Palace. Carter, who had just been fired by the NRA as political action director, and Knox arrived toting walkie-talkies and lists of names of the like-minded. On a humid night in late May, 2,000 NRA members debated and conspired until 4 a.m. When it was over, Carter was elected president and took the dais to sweaty claps and hoots of joy.
“Beginning in this place and at this hour, this period in NRA history is finished,” Carter said, according to Josh Sugarmann’s Money, Power and Fear, a history of the NRA. “There will be no more civil war in the National Rifle Association.”
Carter appointed Knox as his new political director. Knox had the kinetic connection to the true believers. “I wanted to gut the Gun Control Act of ‘68,” Knox recalls. “I was naive enough to think I could kick the boulder back down the hill and go back to Arizona.”
A curious cat, Knox. He has a scholarly knowledge of history and legal precedent, and a visceral feel for the jugular. He can be courtly -- or pugnacious. He can cut the very figure of a worldly Beltway lobbyist, or play the unreconstructed rifleman. (He once ripped his pants on the way to meet the attorney general. He simply took off his jacket, tied it about his waist and continued.)
Knox put together a crack lobbying unit, hiring two bright young political operatives: Wayne LaPierre, a self-effacing Democratic Party legislative aide from Roanoke; and James Jay Baker, a cocksure Missouri prosecutor and big-game hunter. Of the two, Knox harbors more liking for Baker, a man expert at politics and shooting. It is whispered, none too approvingly, that LaPierre possessed little shooting expertise when he came to work for the NRA.
Knox commanded the NRA’s first presidential foray: the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan. The NRA dispatched organizers and mailed 814,000 postcards in states considered too close to call. Months later, Knox had to explain the NRA’s role to a surprised Reagan official. It was an epiphany.
Knox settles into his lounge chair overlooking Smith Mountain Lake in southern Virginia and draws a singular lesson: “Working for a candidate without telling him is like wetting your pants when you have black trousers. It gives you a warm feeling, but no one knows it.”
The next decade became the NRA’s golden age. Membership leaped from 900,000 to near 3 million and the budget doubled as the NRA acquired high-priced consultants and PR firms. A key NRA ideologue named Tanya Metaksa (”Spell that M-e-t-a-k -- like in AK 47 -- s-a, like in semiautomatic,” she instructed reporters) even ghost-wrote an article for President Reagan that advocated gutting the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
NRA endorsements were electoral gold for Democrat and Republican alike. Congressman Al Gore was firmly anti-gun control. So was that young Arkansas governor Bill Clinton. In 1982, the NRA told Clinton that it didn’t like his answers on an NRA candidate questionnaire. Clinton called and changed his answers. “I am in support of the NRA position on gun control,” he wrote to the association.
A former aide for Democratic Speaker of the House Thomas Foley of Washington state recalls his boss’s maiden NRA endorsement. After receiving it, Foley took a lap around his rural district. At each stop, in churches and school auditoriums, someone would stand and brandish that letter and say, I’m not crazy about Democrats, but if you’re good enough for the NRA . . .
Foley’s vote total spiked in the next election. “People on the left make the mistake of saying the NRA’s power is big money,” says Rep. Barney Frank, a liberal Democrat from Massachusetts. “Votes beat money any day, and the NRA has votes. I tell gay and lesbian groups that the NRA is the model that all advocacy groups should use.”
The age of NRA triumphalism culminated with the passage of the McClure-Volkmer Act, which effectively repealed key sections of the Gun Control Act of 1968. LaPierre, then head of the NRA’s lobbying branch, and Baker personally wrote drafts of that legislation. Ronald Reagan signed it into law on May 19, 1986.
In downtown Washington, the troops crowded into the Devil’s Fork Bar in the Gramercy Hotel, and baptized the victory with hops and barley. “We had embraced the cause, lived and breathed it,” recalls a former NRA operative. “We were . . . sure that we were on the right side of history.”
In fact, a seed of discord was already sown. Knox had left the NRA party early -- his revolutionary soul was ever at war with his life as a political operative. He couldn’t hew to the party line. He fought the appointment of a judge approved by the NRA. He opposed McClure-Volkmer after the NRA had cut loose one of its embattled minorities: the machine gun owners of America (in NRA parlance, the full auto community).
Carter wasn’t amused. “Excise the cancer,” he ordered and the NRA tossed Knox off its board. “Knox had an arrogance like I’ve never seen, so we chopped his head off,” says former NRA president Marion Hammer.
Knox took his medicine like a good Jac-obin. His regret was that he had not wielded the guillotine first. “My mistake -- Mine! -- was not to have cleaned house on the board when I had a chance.”
Carter retired soon after and the NRA fell on hard times. Contributions and membership fell off amid rumors of money and sex scandals. The guns-and-crack epidemic of the late 1980s spurred a public demand that something be done about guns.
In 1991, Knox was reelected to the board. The hard line was back. When he nodded, his comrades on the board voted yes. They appointed as executive vice president Wayne LaPierre, who appeared to share their ideological coloration.
President Bush became the test case for the newly emboldened NRA. He was a lifelong NRA member but he had supported a ban on imported assault rifles. The NRA refused to endorse him in 1992. Bill Clinton grabbed 60 percent of the gun vote and Bush lost.
“If the NRA was an army at war,” LaPierre wrote of the 1992 elections in a Rifleman column, “and we knew an enemy train was carrying troops to the front in an attempt to turn the tide of battle, it would be our duty to stop that train.
“When you’re at war, you do what it takes to win.”
The NRA took to biting at the flanks of more friends. In 1993, longtime Democratic allies of the NRA -- Speaker Foley and Judiciary Committee Chairman Jack Brooks -- reluctantly voted for President Clinton’s assault gun ban. They might as well have swallowed a shot glass of hot lead. The NRA endorsed their opponents the following year and Foley and Brooks both went down.
For the association, it was a swagger too far. The NRA offensive helped elect a Republican Senate and House, but by the mid-1990s it had precious few Democratic allies left in either chamber. And the first openly anti-gun president in history occupied the White House.
Baker quit the NRA in 1994, tired of “all the infighting and taking crap. We had made a lot of mistakes.” In a familiar pattern, the NRA softened his landing by handing him a lobbying contract.
LaPierre now appeared to be the perfect Knox protege. His rhetoric waxed as hot as that of any gun fundamentalist.
“Those anti-gun shepherds out there can’t understand that if you take away the Second Amendment then you and I become the headlines that pour out of an oppressed Eastern Europe,” LaPierre said in 1991. Someday we could “face the same treachery and torture today commonplace in the Middle East.”
But who exactly is Wayne LaPierre? The former PhD student at Boston University, a likable man of politics mild enough to attract a post-college job offer from Tip O’Neill? The political NRA organizer of the 1980s? The self-proclaimed hard-liner of the early and mid-’90s? Or the man who now calls Knox a “Second Amendment suicide artist”?
The question has become a parlor game within the NRA. Marion Hammer describes LaPierre as a smart plodder and a planner, intent on building a modern corporation while the board played ideological poker. Board member Wayne Anthony Ross, a large, smart moose of a man from Anchorage, Alaska, describes him as a telegenic spokesman with the “backbone of a chocolate eclair.”
“Wayne plays the game very, very well,” says Richard Feldman, a former NRA political operative. “You will never hear him say, `You’re wrong. I disagree.’ It’s always, `Hey, yeah, that’s a good point.’ And he’ll tell the next person the same thing.”
One thing LaPierre knew real well. “He knew you didn’t mess with Neal [Knox] and the right,” Feldman says. “When you’re in the NRA, the problem is never extreme moderation.”
Gun foes assumed that events like the Oklahoma City bombing and the Columbine school shootings would put LaPierre and the NRA on the defensive. They did nothing of the sort. The association is expert at transmuting fear of gun control into rising membership and a fattened treasury. LaPierre used the money to reconstruct the NRA.
And he became a media celebrity, talking the good fight against the liberal elite on the Sunday television blow-dry festivals. If he harbored doubts about Knox and the hard line, he didn’t share them.
In late 1996, Knox came to LaPierre and told him to fire the NRA’s influential consulting firm, Ackerman McQueen, whose staffers have high-level Republican Party connections and tend to oppose the gun fundamentalists. LaPierre said yes and did nothing. Six months later the lucrative contract was still in place. So Knox said: Wayne, I’ve warned you. Now I’m going to take your job.
It wasn’t so easy. It turned out that LaPierre and his board allies and Ackerman McQueen had gone and changed the locks on the old revolutionary.
Finely oaked red wine and pungent cheese and Cuban cigars in the Hollywood Hills, and bull that flowed late into the evening. That’s how NRA board member John Milius recalls plotting the counter-coup against Neal Knox. Milius has a broad belly and beard, and the look of a man always ready to be in on the next joke. He’s a B-list movie director and an A-list screenwriter. A Zen anarchist with Republican libertarian tendencies. And he became a key agent of Knox’s fall and the rise of today’s NRA.
In early 1997, Knox had a majority on the board, and he had LaPierre and the consultant contract in his gun sights. Milius huddled with Col. Robert Brown, publisher of Soldier of Fortune magazine, and Anthony Makris, an NRA consultant from Ackerman McQueen. To describe these men as political moderates would be to insult them; but they were pragmatists.
Under Knox, they believed, the NRA had veered too far to the right, courting the militias and losing legislative battles. In 1995, a Republican House voted for the Brady Bill, which imposed background checks on gun purchases. Not to mention they realized that Ackerman McQueen’s million-dollar contracts were at stake.
“We were facing a genuine and extremely well-organized coup d’etat.” Milius pauses to cut, wet and light his Cohiba cigar, and wedge it between his teeth. “So we used our best techniques: lying, cheating and disinformation. I didn’t tell the truth for weeks.”
Makris and Milius invited a Knox loyalist to dinner in Los Angeles and seemingly conspired to bribe LaPierre into leaving. The loyalist got well-lubricated and so pumped; this plan was great! The next day Milius leaked the plot to LaPierre, who rose publicly and proclaimed himself shocked! -- shocked! -- that a Knox ally would try to buy him off.
LaPierre, in fact, gamed the moment perfectly. Privately, board members had for several years warned him about playing the dutiful son to Knox. The executive vice president knew just when to pull away from Knox’s embrace.
The coup de grace was administered at the Seattle NRA convention in 1997. LaPierre needed a guardian angel; he got Moses. Charlton Heston (who is also represented by Makris) was elected to the board and then surprised many members by announcing he would run against Knox for first vice president. Heston beat Knox by four votes. LaPierre took the stage to cheer Heston and declare that he didn’t intend “to stand by and let the NRA be turned into the John Birch Society.”
For Knox, it was like storming the Winter Palace again only to find himself surrounded by the Russian army. “I had no idea there was a candidate out there with the horsepower to take me out. Then I get there and see Heston . . .”
Brown shrugs when asked about Knox’s downfall. Brown’s got a buzz cut, jutting chin and perpetual squint, and an I-gargle-with-rock-salt voice. He’s a dead ringer for Gen. Buck Turgidson in “Dr. Strangelove.” He’s romantic only about shooting.
“Knox made his move a little too early, and, at risk of strategic oversimplification, he got his [expletive] ass kicked.” Brown wags his eyebrows and snaps a salute. “That’s war, buddy.”
The Gun business is in an irreversible decline . . . Vote Republican, write letters to newspapers, join the NRA, buy Ruger stock, move to Montana, bury a box of AKs. But don’t go into denial over the fact that there is an inexorable cultural shift . . .
-- Cameron Hopkins,
American Handgunner, March/April 2000
Atop a hotel terrace with a distant view of a hazy and sun-washed Atlanta and the flat Atlantic plains beyond, Richard Feldman surveys his suburban Elba. Once, two years back, Feldman thought he saw the future of America’s gun culture from here. It was vibrant and, not coincidentally, it wasn’t dominated by the National Rifle Association. Feldman is a New Yorker and former NRA staffer, whose torrent of words, tangents, jokes, digressions and Yiddishisms tended to go right over the heads of the association’s predominantly Southern staff. But he was a hell of a organizer and he could take a hot issue like Bernhard Goetz, the subway shooter, and spin it like a top.
After a while, though, the NRA playbook came to feel like an old headache. Same enemies, and the cultural moment didn’t feel right. So he tried to pull off a compromise. He rejuvenated the moribund American Sports Shooting Council and represented the nation’s gun manufacturers, wholesalers and dealers. Soon enough he cut a deal with the White House to include standardized child safety locks with every handgun. In exchange, Clinton withdrew his support for a Senate bill mandating such locks.
Feldman persuaded his gun men to stand alongside Clinton in the Rose Garden in October 1997. The idea was to toss a rope bridge across the chasm to anti-gun America, to convince both sides that detente was possible. And to contest the NRA’s claim to sole guardianship of American gun rights.
“The gun community does not have a monolithic view of gun rights; it’s simply organized monolithically,” Feldman says. “There is no alternative group that takes a different view from the NRA. I wanted to make friends and pick fights carefully.”
The NRA squashed him like a bug.
Baker, who was a consultant then to both the NRA and another industry group, passed the word that Feldman was a naif getting used by the Clinton administration. The NRA leaned on Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott to disavow Feldman’s deal (Lott’s senior adviser has since taken a post
with the Mercury Group, an Ackerman
McQueen-affiliated NRA consultant). And, at Baker’s suggestion, NRA board members mailed letters to the gun companies warning: “You’ve been conned into the notion of making your business `acceptable’ to a wider non-gun owning audience.”
It was hardball and Baker is proud to claim it. Discipline is essential. “Our industry learned that in today’s climate, you can’t go it alone,” he says.
The reform intermezzo officially ended in March 1999 when Feldman was fired. The NRA had crushed its right and left opposition. Metaksa was given a plum consultant’s contract and pushed into retirement. Baker returned to the fold, reclaiming his job as NRA political director. Feldman is writing a book on his years in the association, titled: Confessions From the Gun Lobby.
And the gun industry today speaks with a single political voice: NRA Inc. Only Smith & Wesson -- which cut a deal with the Clinton administration to include standardized safety locks with every gun and ensure that its dealers adhere to various other regulations -- remains outside the fold. The NRA has stirred enough consumer anger to cut into the company’s sales, although no one will specify by how much.
It might be argued this is a splendid time for the newly monolithic NRA to display a glimmer of moderation. To locate someone on the other side of the looking glass and seek compromise. Former NRA president Warren Cassidy says as much: “If I could ever sit down with Wayne, I’d quote Shakespeare: `Know thyself.’ We have to go public with the fact that things have changed and we need to compromise. He knows that.”
Somehow, though, that feels like yesterday’s argument. Sit in LaPierre’s blue-glassed office, or in Baker’s office a block south of the Capitol, and the vision is of armies massing, cannons thundering. The pragmatists may have won but compromise isn’t on their agenda. The NRA has allocated $15 million for election 2000; the vast bulk will go to defeating Democratic candidates.
LaPierre leans forward in his office, as though into a harsh wind. In his telling, he is a politician who must answer to a constituency no less than the men and women on Capitol Hill. “We’re not here to be popular at Beltway cocktail parties; gun owners put us here to defend their freedoms and beliefs,” he says. “We only get one bite at the apple. Once they ban rifles, they’re gone forever.”
The NRA isn’t beyond some revisionism. It occasionally accepts what it once denounced as perfidy: most recently, voluntary safety locks and background checks on some sales at gun stores. Nor do its leaders any longer argue that Second Amendment guarantees are absolute. But no hilltop is yielded willingly. If the Democrats and gun controllers push, LaPierre and Baker will contest every piece of ground.
In truth, no one talks truce now. Gore frames Republicans as “anti-family” for opposing gun controls and approaches the NRA as a birthday boy would a pinata. Smash it! Chat with some -- though by no means all -- gun control advocates and their Democratic allies and you’ll hear the words “first step,” as in: The “first step” is to pass this law, then that law. Then you hear the words “handgun ban.”
The NRA and the gun companies, in this telling, are pterodactyls flapping toward extinction. Just like the tobacco companies. Keep after them and eventually all that’s left will be the bleached bones of carbines past.
The ecstatic vision has the predictable effect of uniting NRA members. As Fordham University law professor Nicholas Johnson, an NRA liberal, says: “It is . . . rather senseless to compromise on small things with one who aims ultimately to drive you into the sea.”
LaPierre almost never mentions George W. Bush by name. An NRA official was videotaped a few months back boasting that the association would have an office in the Bush White House. So indiscreet. LaPierre just aims at the Democrats.
“President Clinton and Gore have made it pretty clear that they’re coming after us and the rest is cosmetic nonsense,” LaPierre says. “We’ve got the NRA righted, we’ve got a big national election. I’m not wasting time. If Al Gore wins, we all lose.”
LaPierre has purged the absolutists, consolidated his rule and . . . returned to the wars. The pragmatist cannot afford pragmatism, for fear that his right flank might rise again, and because his blast-oven rhetoric helps keep the membership rolls high.
Maybe after all these years, this is the only move he knows. The past dictates the present, and the future scares everyone. “The one word you’re never, ever allowed to use in this battle is compromise,” says a gun manufacturer who is as tired of the NRA’s whip as he is of the government’s. “No one wants to find common ground.”
He’s got the soft reagan grin. The self-deprecating wigwag of the head and the stern voice that dips just so. He’s laying down all the moves.
“I guess I’m back for one more encore,” Charlton Heston tells the crowd in Charlotte. “George Washington hung around until we won the Revolution. Franklin Roosevelt hung around until World War II was won. Ronald Reagan hung around until the Cold War was won. So if you want, I’ll hang around until we win this one, too!”
The convention floor explodes. Everyone knows what’s coming. Soon enough, Heston is raising that from-central-casting Kentucky long rifle over his head . . . He’s gritting the perfect teeth . . . He’s talking about those liberal pols . . . His voice is going steely.
“When the loss of liberty looms as it does now [he peers directly into the television cameras], this is for those who would take it, and especially for you, Mr. Gore [he shakes the rifle], from -- my -- cold -- dead -- hands!”
It was another smooth LaPierre-Baker move, persuading Heston to come out of the Hollywood Hills to take the NRA president’s chair three years ago. They did not ask him to immerse himself in the arcana of board politics. His genius is for image and articulation. He gives a terrific television interview and once a year he does his cold-dead-hands routine.
So revered is Heston that the NRA board tossed aside its treasured bylaws and reelected him to a third term in May. The board wants to be fully armed for an election year. Heston’s rhetorical thrusts perfectly fit the NRA line. “My President is Charlton Heston” T-shirts are seen everywhere at the convention. The pragmatists have vanquished the true believers -- a semiofficial NRA committee poured $80,000 into ads ensuring that Neal Knox and his followers would not gain a single seat on the board this year -- but the stakes are ever the same:
It’s the most important election in a century. Clinton is a felon. Gore and the Dem-ocrats will confiscate your guns. Freedom
is imperiled. It’s high noon. They’re hammering that old cultural fault line, and the NRA is on one side and ClintonGore (always a single word) and the gun haters are on the other.
The gamble is that the old call to arms still resonates.
“Who cares about the mainstream? All we care about is who votes,” says Brown, the NRA board member. “Fear is a kick in the ass to every gun owner.”
It’s late in the convention’s last day when Kelly Boatwright, a bearded freelance writer from Atlanta, places his hand on the shoulder of his 7-year-old son and points out Wayne LaPierre. The executive vice president is standing in front of the Markesberry Muzzle Loaders booth, signing autographs, pumping his fist, asking his people to keep the faith and and basking in their love.
“That’s an honest man and a good leader, son.”
What, Boatwright’s son asks, about President Clinton?
“The president is a liar who hates guns.”
So the line is drawn, now and forever and evermore.