Twenty young children had just been gunned down by a semiautomatic rifle in their classrooms in Newtown, Conn., in December 2012, and inside the hardened bunker of the National Rifle Association, rattled officials were wrestling with rare feelings of self-doubt.

In the past, the gun rights organization had responded to mass shootings with unapologetic, high-profile attacks on any attempt to restrict firearms. But several senior NRA officials — laid low by images of sobbing parents planning their children’s funerals rather than tucking presents under Christmas trees — thought the organization should take a less confrontational approach this time, according to multiple people familiar with the internal debate.

Over the objections of some top officials, however, NRA chief executive Wayne LaPierre struck a defiant posture. In fiery public appearances crafted by Ackerman McQueen, the organization’s longtime advertising firm , LaPierre announced that the group would create a model program to train armed security guards who could protect schools from shooters, saying that was the only measure that would keep children safe.

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Then LaPierre and his wife left for the Bahamas, a trip they billed through Ackerman McQueen — and was ultimately paid for by the nonprofit organization. Their post-Christmas flights to and from Eleuthera, known for its pink beaches, cost the NRA nearly $70,000, according to internal documents and people familiar with the trip.

NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam said the couple was on official business, doing outreach to donors and supporters, whom he declined to identify.

After the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, “Wayne’s main concern was being respectful of the victims and their families,” he said. LaPierre, as leader of the NRA, sought “to figure out a way to harden our schools” while also defending the Second Amendment, Arulanandam said.

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New details about how the NRA handled the tumultuous moment show how Sandy Hook —one of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history — divided the leadership of the powerful gun rights organization. The episode also showcased the symbiotic relationship between LaPierre and Ackerman McQueen, an alliance that defined the NRA for more than three decades, several former officials said.

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During that period, the bills for LaPierre’s wardrobe and his private jet travel flowed through the Oklahoma-based ad firm, recently revealed internal documents show, a practice that critics say shrouded the nature of the costs from some NRA leaders and members. At the same time, Ackerman McQueen collected tens of millions of dollars in consulting fees and kept a tight grip on the NRA’s aggressive messaging, according to documents and people familiar with the dynamics.

In recent months, a bitter legal dispute over control of the NRA has fractured their longtime alliance, spilling the revelations about the organization’s finances into public view. Ackerman and the NRA are now estranged, locking in warring lawsuits. The tumult led to the resignation last week of longtime NRA lobbyist Christopher W. Cox, whom the NRA has accused of participating in a scheme to oust LaPierre. Cox has denied the allegations.

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The factors that would later fuel this remarkably public civil war were already at play in on Dec. 14, 2012, when the NRA confronted perhaps its worst political crisis in history. On one side was Cox, who was pushing for the group to take a lower-key approach amid a wave of national outrage. On the other was LaPierre, who decided to go on the offensive.

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Four months after the massacre, a raft of gun control measures failed in Congress. But outrage about lawmakers’ inaction after the loss of so many young lives in Newtown also spurred a resurgence among groups fighting to restrict firearms.

'Kids are getting shot'

The mass shooting at Sandy Hook, in which 20 first-graders and six adults were killed, scalded the country.

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President Barack Obama wiped away tears as he spoke that day about the children who had died. When he visited Newtown two days after the shooting to talk privately with families who had lost their loved ones, he later said, he saw something he’d never witnessed before: the stalwart Secret Service agents on his detail quietly weeping.

The tragedy immediately led to a clamoring for new limits on firearms. Obama vowed that gun control would be a “central issue” of his second term.

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Some NRA leaders girded for what they considered inevitable: congressional action to revive the federal ban on assault weapons that had expired in 2004. Several senior officials and longtime leaders thought the killing of children required the group to alter its normally defiant response to mass shootings and keep a low profile — at least in the immediate aftermath, said people familiar with internal discussions.

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“Everyone was saying, ‘Are we doing the right thing here?’ ” one former NRA employee said, describing internal discussions about whether the group should consider a modest gun control compromise or alter its aggressive posture. “Kids are getting shot. Is there something else we should be doing?”

Cox, a seasoned political strategist, wanted to head off efforts to restrict firearms and thought that a combative approach at that time was unwise and could invite a public backlash, said multiple people familiar with the debate.

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But LaPierre ultimately agreed with Ackerman McQueen that the NRA had to forcefully counter growing public calls to rein in weapons.

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Cox, who did not respond to requests for comment, did not attend a news conference that LaPierre held a week after the Sandy Hook shooting.

As soon as LaPierre stepped before hundreds of reporters at the Willard hotel in Washington on Dec. 21, he made it clear that the NRA would remain fiercely opposed to any gun control measures.

The NRA chief announced that a task force would create a program, later called NRA School Shield, to help train armed security guards to protect schools from shooters — and preemptively defended the group from those he predicted would criticize the idea.

“Your implication will be that guns are evil and have no place in society, much less in our schools. But since when did the word ‘gun’ automatically become a bad word?” LaPierre said.

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He then delivered the line that would become a mantra of NRA hard-liners: “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

LaPierre ridiculed gun-free school zones as welcome signs to insane murderers and warned of “monsters . . . who walk among us every day.”

“The truth is that our society is populated by an unknown number of genuine monsters — people so deranged, so evil, so possessed by voices and driven by demons that no sane person can possibly ever comprehend them,” he said.

Two days later, LaPierre went on NBC’s “Meet the Press” to promote the NRA’s new shield program. “If it’s crazy to call for putting police and armed security [guards] in our schools to protect our children, then call me crazy,” he said.

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When Obama later voiced skepticism that putting more guns in schools would keep children safer, Ackerman McQueen produced a video that alluded to his daughters’ Secret Service protection, calling him an “elitist hypocrite.”

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“Are the president’s kids more important than yours?” the narrator intoned.

There were signs that some inside the NRA were uncomfortable with the focus on Obama’s daughters. Jim Baker, one of the organization’s top lobbyists, said at the time that he considered the ad “ill-advised,” adding, “I don’t think it was particularly helpful.”

In a statement, Ackerman McQueen officials said that the firm’s job was to help the NRA respond to news and public events, as it did after the Sandy Hook massacre, and that LaPierre was the final decision-maker on the strategy to propose armed defenders in schools.

“Throughout the entire relationship with the NRA, Wayne LaPierre controlled every aspect of NRA public communications,” the firm said.

Po Murray, chairwoman of Newtown Action Alliance, whose four children graduated from Sandy Hook Elementary before the shooting, called the approach taken by the NRA and Ackerman McQueen “corrupt and irresponsible.”

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“We felt the NRA’s position after Sandy Hook was completely insensitive and so out of touch when we were going through such a significant amount of trauma,” she said.

Arulanandam said that LaPierre “had great compassion for those impacted by this horrific event” and was seeking to find a way to “protect our most treasured resource — our children.”

“These events, sadly, all too often become politicized by people on all sides of the conversation,” he said, adding: “At the same time, during these events the media demands that we defend our position on the Second Amendment.”

Gun control falters

After his combative public performance, LaPierre left town.

Three days after the mass shooting in Newtown, he charged $39,947 for a private jet to Eleuthera, according to internal travel records detailed in letters this spring from Ackerman McQueen’s chief financial officer to LaPierre, which were first reported by the Wall Street Journal and obtained by The Washington Post.

On Dec. 27, the LaPierres flew to the island, NRA officials confirmed. The organization has previously said that LaPierre, as the public face of the organization, must travel by private plane for security reasons.

Arulanandam, the NRA spokesman, said the couple’s week-plus visit to the Caribbean resort area during the winter holidays was a business trip related to donor outreach. The organization declined to provide details, saying it was against NRA policy to discuss individual donors.

“There was a business trip after Christmas 2012 involving donor outreach and the recruitment of influential NRA supporters and members,” Arulanandam said. “Wayne is responsible for a campaign to raise almost $400 million annually, so he travels extensively on behalf of the Association — even over the holidays.”

Susan LaPierre, co-founder of the NRA Women’s Leadership Forum, a coalition of female philanthropists who support the Second Amendment, traveled with her husband to “assist with NRA business and development efforts as she frequently does,” Arulanandam said.

After ringing in the New Year in the Caribbean, Wayne LaPierre charged another private air charter on his Ackerman McQueen credit card: $29,100 on Jan. 3 to fly from Nassau, Bahamas, to Dallas, according to internal documents and people familiar with his trips.

NRA officials said LaPierre flew to Dallas to attend donor and member events there as part of a hunters’ sporting exposition.

William A. Brewer III, a lawyer for the NRA, has said that the vast majority of LaPierre’s travel involved “donor outreach, fundraising and stakeholder engagement.” He said that the NRA chief routed some travel expenses through Ackerman McQueen for “confidentiality and security purposes,” but that this method of billing has since been modified.

Ackerman McQueen said the firm footed the initial bill for LaPierre’s travel at the NRA’s instructions.

“Ackerman McQueen did not have any knowledge of the plans or details of the expenditures in question, all of which the NRA client claimed had a sound business or security rationale,” the firm said in a statement.

For several months, the deaths of the Connecticut schoolchildren continued to spur public cries for action. Polls showed that 90 percent of Americans supported new legislation to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill.

In a letter dated Jan. 3, 2013, that was sent to congressional lawmakers, Cox said the NRA wanted to be a “constructive voice” in the debate about how to prevent the next school massacre. He stressed his opposition to a ban on assault weapons, but said the organization supported efforts to keep all weapons out of the hands of the mentally ill.

The tragedy spurred a rare bipartisan effort on gun control in the Senate. Sen. Joe Manchin III (W.Va.), a pro-gun Democrat, and Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) joined forces to expand background checks to cover a major source of gun sales: unlicensed dealers at gun shows and online vendors.

Parents of the Sandy Hook victims visited Washington to pressure lawmakers to act, carrying pictures of their children: a freckle-faced boy smiling with a missing front tooth, a 6-year-old boy in his favorite Superman shirt.

But by the time of the final vote on April 17, their chance of victory was slim. Some Republicans said the bill was unfair to gun owners because it would require them to pay for a background check to exercise their right to buy a gun. The NRA had vowed to “score” senators based on their vote on the legislation, stressing that they would face consequences for supporting it. The organization asked its members to flood senators with letters, emails and phone calls.

John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun control group backed by former New York mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, said that Sandy Hook was a turning point for the NRA and that “its leaders chose the course of extremism and refused to even consider common-sense laws supported by most Americans.”

As a cluster of Sandy Hook parents gathered in the gallery to watch the key vote, a Republican-led filibuster blocked the measure, with four Democrats joining to oppose it. The Senate also blocked other measures Obama sought to ban certain military-style rifles and limit the size of ammunition magazines.

The visibly angry president declared that it was a temporary loss.

“All in all, this was a pretty shameful day for Washington,” he said, vowing to try again. “Sooner or later, we’re going to get this right.”

Julie Tate, Alice Crites and Katie Zezima contributed to this report.