THE SUNDAY PROFILE : On the Defensive : Amid both political and public turmoil, NRA chief Wayne LaPierre has stood fast. But the : strains of combat--from within as well as without--are showing.
Squinting through aviator glasses, a Beretta 12-gauge poised menacingly skyward, National Rifle Assn. chief Wayne R. LaPierre is a figure straight out of American Rifleman, the gun group’s magazine.
But nothing that involves the NRA is ever so simple.
The shotgun is empty. It is pointing in the wrong direction, away from the Fairfax Rod and Gun Club skeet range, where other gunners are banging away at clay pigeons. And LaPierre, who would really be more comfortable debating Second Amendment ideology or scoping out the nearest ice cream shop, is just posing. A merciless newsmagazine photographer will subject him to three hours in the muggy Virginia sunshine on this day to get just the right shot.
For the mild-mannered LaPierre--head of the nation’s most powerful, some say most feared, special interest group--this sweaty session as the bull’s-eye for a camera lens is a metaphor for the NRA crisis of the last 10 weeks.
In Washington politics, it used to be LaPierre and his 3.4-million-member organization that pulled the trigger. Now, more often than not, they are the targets.
Most recently, the NRA came under intense fire from law enforcement officials and leaders ranging from President Clinton to Republican Gov. Pete Wilson to Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein over a scathing NRA fund-raising letter that labeled federal law officers “jack-booted government thugs” who have the “go-ahead to . . . murder.”
Although it had been mailed out early in the year, the letter quickly resurfaced after the April 19 bombing in Oklahoma City that killed 168 people.
LaPierre, who had signed the letter, struggled to defend its allegations of government abuse during a withering series of news program appearances. He finally apologized, saying the harsh remarks were aimed only at certain Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearm agents and not all law officers.
By that time, however, former President George Bush had resigned his lifetime NRA membership in protest and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.), a crucial NRA supporter, kibitzed on national television about the association needing “a little image-repair job.”
That image had been tarnished even before Oklahoma when the NRA suffered major legislative defeats with passage of the Brady Bill, which requires a five-day waiting period to buy a handgun, and the assault-rifle ban spearheaded by Feinstein.
After the Republicans won control of Congress last fall, there were plans to reverse the hated assault-rifle ban. But those plans were postponed after the bombing and may now be doomed.
Meanwhile, the Internal Revenue Service is scheduled to begin next month a comprehensive three-year audit of NRA finances. And rumors of internal strife at the association are mounting, with LaPierre caught between a hard-line board of directors and a more moderate NRA staff. Three top executives, all moderates, were forced out last month. After 20 years as lobbyist for the NRA, the last four as executive vice president and chief executive officer, LaPierre, 45, is showing the strains of combat. In the aftermath of his recent apology, “Mr. LaPierre was a husk of his old self on the Larry King show,” the New York Times said in an editorial.
“It’s not easy to go in front of a whole country, believe me, and say, ‘I’m sorry,’ ” LaPierre says now.
He remains bewildered by the fury and wonders how the debate could run so far afield from the Second Amendment. It is a perfect example, he says, of too much heat in the discourse and not enough light on the issue.
“The gun-control people bash the NRA. The NRA bashes the gun-control people. The politicians bash each other and use this issue as they see fit for political advantage,” LaPierre says from behind the wheel of his Jeep Cherokee after the recent photo session. “And anything that means anything is lost in the process.”
LaPierre reserves his harshest remarks for Washington.
“It’s a much more mean-spirited town all the way around,” says LaPierre, who grew up in Roanoke, Va., in a home without guns only to embrace the right to own one with near-religious fervor. “It’s almost like you get to a point where you’ve seen too much. I mean it kind of turns your stomach on the whole process. And there comes a time when you just need to save yourself.”
It is unusual candor from a man who, despite the recent controversy (or perhaps because of it), has his strongest hold ever on the association. “He’s stood up like a man [amid the letter controversy] and done a hell of a good job for us,” NRA President Tom Washington says.
LaPierre’s position has meant brushes with fame, complete with autograph seekers and countless television and radio invitations. (The limelight, however, is already shifting; he was bounced from a recent appearance on John McLaughlin’s “One on One” in favor of a Bosnian official.) His book, “Guns, Crime and Freedom” (Regnery Publishing, 1994), reached No. 11 on the New York Times bestseller list last year and is due out soon in paperback.
Still, LaPierre jokes that as servant to a 75-member NRA board of directors partial to sacrificing leaders now and again, there’s no job security. The leadership changed four times between 1985 and 1991, when LaPierre took over.
“Being the executive vice president of the NRA is kind of like being the manager of the New York Yankees and working for George Steinbrenner,” he says. “There’s going to come a time when it’s not going to be me.”
If his confidence seems shaky it may be because conservative anti-gun control activists such as Neal Knox dominate the NRA board. “Wayne LaPierre is a very nice guy,” Knox says. “He is sometimes too nice.”
Even such NRA opponents as Robert Walker, legislative director of Handgun Control Inc., wonder how the temperate LaPierre is tolerated by association conservatives. LaPierre shares their “innate unwillingness to compromise on certain issues, but . . . doesn’t have the same type of aggressiveness,” Walker says. “I’ve never really regarded him as being terribly effective.”
Former NRA officials and observers say the board wouldn’t dare switch leaders in the middle of the turbulence, and Knox denies there has been any plan to remove LaPierre. In any event, as the media swarmed the annual NRA meeting in Phoenix last month, he was overwhelmingly reelected by directors.
NRA officials say LaPierre has earned his $190,000 a year by driving membership to a record high, boosting anti-crime legislation, promoting an award-winning gun-safety program for children and keeping a sharp focus on lobbying efforts. The gun association has 550 employees and an annual budget of $100 million.
“This organization was sliding into . . . an abyss when he took over, and he stabilized it and turned it around and started building it,” says NRA First Vice President Marion Hammer.
Strong praise for a man who adamantly denies ever having wanted the job--and in some ways, hardly seemed to fit the profile.
An NRA fund-raising letter (also signed by LaPierre) issued last year proudly describes the membership as “all-American,” noting that 82% of members are married and raising children and 71% of them have family members who served in the military.
LaPierre is divorced, has no kids and never served in the military.
Moreover, the small arsenal of shotguns, rifles and handguns he uses for target practice or bird hunting have been silent for six months. And he has no plans to obtain one of the new Virginia right-to-carry-firearm permits the NRA fought for. His official NRA bio calls him an “avid sport shooter,” but friends say it just isn’t so.
“He represents a real departure for the NRA,” says Osha Gray Davidson, author of “Under Fire, the NRA & the Battle for Gun Control” (Henry Holt, 1993). “He’s the first leader for the NRA that doesn’t come from the shooting-sports and hunting area. He’s a politician.”
Every morning, LaPierre says, he speed-reads six major daily newspapers cover to cover. He gives 100 speeches a year, travels one-third of his time, and listens to his mother when she calls from Roanoke to offer a tough critique of every TV appearance. She graded the last one as only adequate.
For the rough-and-tumble NRA constituency that likes its leaders smelling of campfire smoke, there’s a teasing bit of LaPierre lore:
* Like the story of how he nearly shot an ABC television cameraman. It wasn’t quite that way. LaPierre was being filmed while shooting skeet at the Fairfax range when the cameraman ran out in front of him just as he swung his shotgun in the same direction. No one got hurt.
* Or the time LaPierre overslept a golf date with former Vice President Dan Quayle. (It happened five years ago, but LaPierre eavesdropped on a scorching version of the story just a few months ago at a golf course restaurant.) The truth is, LaPierre didn’t know the makeup of the foursome until it was too late. “Quayle gets out there and he starts walking around the cart . . . going, ‘Where’s Wayne?’ ” LaPierre says.
But there’s nothing apocryphal about LaPierre’s love for things political. “He’s a student of it, lives, eats and breathes politics,” says friend and former chief NRA lobbyist James Jay Baker. The devotion has its origins in high school, where LaPierre canvassed districts for the parents of school chums who were running for city council.
Wayne Robert LaPierre Jr. had moved with his family--he was the youngest of two born to Wayne R. and Hazel LaPierre--to Roanoke at age 5. His father worked as an accountant at the General Electric plant there. The LaPierres were Catholics in the Bible Belt and Wayne Jr. remembers feeling somewhat different, but not unwelcome.
His strongest memories are of playing football and baseball and seeing a little of Virginia segregation. LaPierre father and son would attend all-black high school football games on Thursday nights, the only evening when the white schools did not use the stadium.
LaPierre thought he would teach and studied education and political science at Sienna University in Upstate New York. While other students protested the Vietnam War, he interned as an aide with a New York state legislator.
After graduation, LaPierre worked as a substitute special education teacher at a school in Troy, N.Y. Interacting with children who were not only developmentally disabled but also poor had a dramatic impact, LaPierre says: “I concluded that a lot needs to be done to give those kids hope.”
But his interests shifted increasingly toward politics. During graduate studies at Boston College, where he would earn a master’s in American government and politics, LaPierre paid his own way home every week to work as political consultant to Roanoke Democrats. The dream of teaching was fading.
LaPierre bought his first gun, a .38-caliber revolver, after college for target shooting. Close friends in Roanoke were gun enthusiasts. And when the NRA helped one of his legislators pass a state law punishing felons who carry firearms, LaPierre found something worth fighting for.
He turned down an offer in 1978 to be legislative aide to then-House Speaker Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.) for a job with the NRA. It would open doors to intimate negotiations with Presidents, attorneys general, chiefs of staff and congressional leaders, and lead to favorable compromises on laws banning plastic guns and armor-piercing bullets.
By 1991, when the NRA leadership seemed in disarray and membership was dwindling, LaPierre, content then as head of the NRA lobby, says he urged others to run for chief executive. In the end, though, no other qualified candidate stepped forward.
More recently, with the Clinton Administration pushing gun control, NRA directors have grown increasingly rigid on political strategy, observers say, quick to snatch support from loyal pro-gun congressmen who make one false step.
A close friend says LaPierre is getting fed up with internal NRA politics. All LaPierre will say is that he feels a sense of malaise over how his life has become consumed with the cause. He dreams of a marriage and family.
“You don’t have any time in this town. I mean you work from 7 in the morning until 11 at night, night after night, you end up working weekends . . . and your life goes by,” he says.
LaPierre won’t say when or if he might leave the job. But when asked what a former NRA chief might do with his life, he smiles. “Probably [go] up to northern Maine, I’m serious, and open an ice cream shop.”
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Wayne R. LaPierre Jr.
Background: Born in Albany, N.Y., raised in Roanoke, Va. Now lives in Arlington, Va.
Family: Divorced; no children.
Passions: Spectator sports of all kinds, chocolate ice cream, “Saturday Night Live.”
On the NRA’s renowned access to Washington power figures: “Any group that represents 3.4-million members is going to have access. If you have that large of a constituency, you’re going to be listened to. That doesn’t mean they’re always going to do what you say.”
On the press: “They never lob softballs at me. I know it’s going to be a hardball. It’s going to be fast. It’s often going to be at the head.”
On his passion for politics: “It’s people. I mean, that’s what politics is about. . . . It’s about helping them. It’s about trying to do the right thing.”