Wayne LaPierre, the leader of the National Rifle Association who galvanized the nation’s firearms debate Friday with his call for armed guards in every school, is a former Democratic aide-turned-lobbying powerhouse who has come to personify the NRA’s fierce opposition to any form of gun control.
LaPierre’s news conference — in which he blamed gun violence on everything from “blood-soaked films” and “vicious violent video games” to hurricanes and the Obama administration — displayed his pugnacious public style in the most high-profile of settings. In the first extensive public remarks from the NRA since last week’s mass shooting at a Connecticut elementary school, LaPierre said that Congress should fund armed security guards “in every single school in this nation.’’
“Is the press and the political class here in Washington, D.C., so consumed by fear and hatred of the NRA and American gun owners,’’ LaPierre said, “that you’re willing to accept the world, where real resistance to evil monsters is [an] alone, unarmed school principal left to surrender her life, her life, to shield those children in her care?’’
LaPierre, 63, has long specialized in stirring up the NRA’s estimated 4 million members and his legions of political foes, and condemnation poured in Friday from gun-control advocates.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I) called his performance “shameful,’’ while Rep. James P. Moran (D-Va.) labeled it “galling” and said that the NRA’s opposition to “sensible gun safety reforms . . . may well backfire.”
Friends of LaPierre, a native of the Roanoke area who enjoys hunting birds and big game, defended his comments and described him as a bookish, quiet political junkie who is different in private from his public persona.
“He’s really a low-key guy, not a screaming hell-raiser,’’ said Richard Feldman, a former NRA lobbyist who wrote a book about the organization. “You can criticize the NRA on a lot of things, but how can anybody criticize what he said about having security at schools?’’
Joseph Tartaro, president of the pro-gun rights Second Amendment Foundation, said LaPierre “may feed on” the criticism because “he sees this not only as a question of defense of self, but defense of community. He thinks that if people are so driven that they don’t understand the good side of guns, he feels he has to oppose them at every turn.’’
Those beliefs have led LaPierre to make a series of statements that hearten gun-rights advocates but infuriate those who oppose him. Earlier this year, he warned a conservative audience that President Obama’s reelection would mean that “America as we know it will be on its way to being lost forever.” After then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and others were wounded or killed in last year’s shooting rampage in Tucson, he said that “the acts of a deranged madman” should not cause restrictions on law-abiding gun owners.
The man who once called federal agents “jack-booted government thugs” (a comment he later apologized for) summarized his philosophy in a 1992 column for the NRA publication American Rifleman: “When you’re at war,’’ LaPierre wrote, “you do what it takes to win.”
LaPierre was paid more than $960,000 by the NRA and related organizations in 2010, according to the most recent NRA federal tax filings that could be located. Corporate records show that he also has served on the board of several other organizations, including the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the American Conservative Union.
The former PhD student in political science who once worked for a Virginia Democratic state legislator was hired at the NRA as a lobbyist in the late 1970s. Although LaPierre was interested in guns, Tartaro said, it was more of a career move. “It was a good place to get started if you were involved in politics in Washington,’’ Tartaro said.
LaPierre rose to executive vice president in 1991 and took the association from its dusty downtown Washington offices to new high-tech digs in Northern Virginia, installing new computers and streamlining direct mail and fundraising.
“The NRA was run like an old-time club when I took over,” he recalled in a 2000 interview with The Washington Post. “We were in the red and getting cut off from our membership.”
The lobbying behemoth that LaPierre helped build spent more than $100 million over the following two decades on political activities in the United States, including $22 million on lobbying and nearly $75 million on political campaigns, according to a 2010 review by The Post.Today, the NRA is still one of Washington’s most feared lobbies, even as it has suffered some recent defections from Democratic allies as the nation has renewed its debate over gun control. With an annual budget of more than $200 million, the group keeps political scorecards that are closely watched by state and federal candidates, who frequently boast in their campaigns if they earn an “A” rating from the NRA.
LaPierre has been personally involved in those campaigns. In the 2000 presidential election, when the NRA blanketed the nation’s airwaves with $25 million in ads attacking Vice President Al Gore, the Democratic nominee, on gun rights, he looked into the camera and asked: “Did you know that right now in federal court, Al Gore’s Justice Department is arguing the Second Amendment gives you no right to own any firearm? No handgun. No shotgun.”
In recent years, LaPierre has been a determined foe of Obama, who has been criticized by some of his own allies for his lack of action on gun control.
“All that first-term lip service to gun owners is part of a massive Obama conspiracy to deceive voters,” LaPierre said at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference. He accused the president of trying to hide his true intentions to “destroy the Second Amendment during his second term!”
When the administration sought to invite the NRA in for a chat about possible gun legislation after the Tucson shootings, LaPierre refused. “Why should I sit down with a group of people who have spent their life fighting the Second Amendment?” he said in an interview.
In the 2000 interview, LaPierre argued that he has rejected the political culture of Washington, much as he has sought to influence it. “We’re not here to be popular at Beltway cocktail parties. Gun owners put us here to defend their freedoms and beliefs,” he said, leaning forward in his office. “We only get one bite at the apple. Once they ban rifles, they’re gone forever.”
Alice Crites contributed to this story.