Wayne LaPierre, the leader of the National Rifle Association who galvanized the nation’s firearms debate on 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 resistance to gun control.
LaPierre’s afternoon press 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 style in the most high-profile of settings. The address drew fierce condemnation from gun-control advocates.
In his first extensive public remarks since since last week’s mass shooting at a Connecticut elementary school, LaPierre said 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, effectively took over the Fairfax County organization in 1991 and is now executive vice president. He has specialized in stirring up both the NRA’s estimated 4 million members and his legions of political foes.
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,’’ he 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 he also has served on the board of several other organizations, including the American Association of Political Consultants, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the American Conservative Union.
The former PhD student at Boston University — who was once a Democratic Party legislative aide from Roanoke and drew a post-college job offer from liberal icon and then-House Speaker Tip O’Neill — has adopted that martial approach in Washington.
He was first hired at the 141-year-old NRA as a lobbyist in the late 1970s and rose to executive vice president in 1991. He 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 had huge financial problems; 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, he 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 issues.
“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.”