Opinion: How Wayne LaPierre ran the NRA as ‘Wayne’s World’

Gun Rights

Opinion by Jennifer Tucker

(CNN) — As Wayne LaPierre prepares to take the stand this week in the corruption trial of the National Rifle Association (NRA), fresh questions are swirling around the timing of his resignation and the extent of his health problems, as well as what his continued presence at the trial means for the future of the organization – and the power politics behind the nation’s gun conversation.

On January 5, just five days before the opening of a major trial that alleges self-dealing and financial corruption at the highest level of the NRA, the organization’s executive vice president and CEO Wayne LaPierre, 74, abruptly resigned, citing health reasons.

The case was brought in May 2022 by New York State Attorney General Letitia James, who alleged misuse of funds for personal gain by LaPierre and other senior leaders of the organization, in violation of New York’s nonprofit laws — a charge to which he and his associates pled not guilty.

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LaPierre, who has led the organization for more than 30 years, will be replaced on January 31 by Andrew Arulanandam, one of his top lieutenants, who has been instrumental in molding the NRA’s public persona.

Despite NRA leadership downplaying LaPierre’s resignation as a “course correction” (in effect, as nothing to see) in a recent filing, the long-time leader’s departure raises significant questions about his personal legacy, as well as the future of the NRA and the struggle for common sense gun laws.

LaPierre was a long-standing employee of the NRA — first joining the organization as a lobbyist in 1978—before becoming its unlikely executive vice president in 1991, when he also became the NRA’s chief spokesman, as outlined in his 2002 book, “Shooting Straight.” At the trial, a lawyer for New York state described how LaPierre ran the NRA as “Wayne’s World” for decades. And though he sometimes seemed awkward on stage at NRA events and tended to avert eye contact in person, he made up for his lack of charisma in his relentless focus on prioritizing gun rights over the right to live safely in a country where people fear—and live with the many consequences of — being shot.

During the 1990s, the NRA saw internal divisions over its political purity and financial problems. During the Clinton administration, therefore, the NRA focused much of its energy at the state level, successfully enacting numerous “right-to-carry” laws throughout the country, which provided individuals easier access to concealed weapons licenses. Yet, the NRA also experienced major stumbling blocks during this period, including the 1993 Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act — which imposed waiting periods and background checks on purchasers of handguns — and the now-expired 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban.

Significantly, following the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people by former NRA member Timothy McVeigh, LaPierre referred in a fundraising letter to federal law enforcement agents as “jack-booted thugs,” a term commonly associated with fascism and Nazi SS soldiers. This led the former President George H. W. Bush and many others to resign their lifetime NRA memberships.

LaPierre is credited with the renewal and invigoration of the NRA’s cultural agenda in the years that followed. He recruited the actor Charlton Heston — best known for playing “Moses” on the big screen — to “part the red seas” in shaping a public image for the NRA. The pair led a campaign that encouraged civilian gun owners to believe that it was they who were victimized.

With LaPierre and Heston leading the organization, the NRA expanded its crusade to broaden gun rights and industry protections and positioned gun control advocates as adversaries in an all-out liberal culture war. Whereas before the 1990s, the NRA’s perceived opponents were mainly individuals who lacked rifle training, who were unwilling to fight for the nation, or were “hoplophobes” (a term coined by American marine Jeff Cooper in 1962 to describe an aversion to guns), now the “enemy” was much more expansive: including progressive social movements, government agencies, “globalists,” the UN, and the “mainstream media.”

In contrast, the NRA praised individual citizen gun rights defenders as patriots, defending individual rights and freedoms. As LaPierre wrote in his 2003 book, “Guns, Freedom, and Terrorism,” this battle is “about suppressing our culture, our heritage, our freedom.”  He oversaw the rise of NRA’s televisual presence, with its own high-end advertising campaign ads, films and NRATV station, which ceased operations in 2019. In 2000 the NRA introduced “America’s 1st Freedom” magazine, aimed beyond NRA members, to report “the news from the perspective of the concerned gun owner.” (LaPierre has written a regular monthly column, “Standing Guard,” for the magazine since 1991).

Following the 1999 mass shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, LaPierre and Heston met ahead of the NRA’s annual meeting in Denver to discuss the group’s communications. Heston delivered a defiant messagesimilar to its position on mass shootings nowadays: The national media was not to be trusted and any conversation about guns and the NRA after mass shootings was a vulgar politicization of the issue. They cast gun rights as a religious and moral imperative, invoking comparisons to Nazi Germany and even hired lawyers who accused critics of gun rights of committing “blood libel.” They argued that other rights (including the right not to be shot) must be sacrificed in the process.

After the attacks of September 11, 2001, the NRA’s leadership compared Osama bin Laden’s attacks on American freedom with those “attacks on freedom” allegedly perpetrated by gun control advocates against gun owners.

The NRA’s defiant stance continued to strengthen. At the group’s 2002 meeting in Reno, Nevada, Heston memorably hoisted a gun in the air and boasted that it could only be taken, “From my cold dead hands!” NRA officers’ gloating messages to the board contrasted sharply with their portrayal of threats to gun rights at the members’ meetings. “The bottom line is, we’re on the offense,” LaPierre proudly announced at the Reno board meeting, meaning that the NRA was able to focus on lobbying for pro-gun legislation rather than against gun control legislation. In Orlando a year later, he told the board that the NRA is “stronger and more widely accepted than ever.”

The NRA’s approach resonated with a rising right-wing, anti-government shift in the Republican Party (as well as with some Democrats). Under pressure from the NRA and its supporters, in 2004 the Republican-controlled Congress allowed the federal assault weapons ban to expire.

LaPierre and the NRA saw another victory in the 2005 enactment of the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which granted immunity to firearms manufacturers and dealers from damages resulting from the misuse of their products. The NRA described the act as “the most significant piece of pro-gun legislation in 20 years.”

Lobbying against the inclusion of firearms in consumer product protections, the organization downplayed the state’s collective responsibility for protecting citizens, creating and mobilizing its membership around a slew of laws, policies and social norms that shield manufacturers, sellers and buyers from meaningful liability.

In December 2012, one week after Adam Lanza shot and killed 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, LaPierre announced during a press conference that “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” This narrative has landed with many Americans who believe that guns are essential for self-protection and the swift and just resolution of disputes. It also shifts the argument away from the characteristics of firearms as lethal weapons, to a debate about the moral character, social identities and mental states of the people carrying the gun.

LaPierre’s resignation brings to a close an extraordinary era of growth for America’s most powerful consumer lobby. He will certainly be remembered for guiding the organization through a bumpy period and for taking the country to new and significantly more dangerous terrain when it comes to guns. He oversaw the transformation of the NRA from its somewhat bipartisan past to its current status as a highly politicized social movement — and a political project that does not take the realities of gun violence or the need for equal protection under the criminal justice system seriously.

By both galvanizing gun safety supporters while also emboldening gun rights activists and facilitating a political and cultural evolution whereby defensive homicides are ever more justifiable in the legal system, LaPierre helped make the debate about guns in America even more contentious while shaping how the country talks about guns, gun control and itself.

But does LaPierre’s departure mark a turning point for guns in America?

It’s too soon to say, but it’s unlikely we’ll see significant changes any time soon. Notably, other gun rights organizations are rising in influence, many of which have long seen the NRA as too compromising.

LaPierre and the NRA are not entirely responsible for our country’s growing sense of vulnerability in the wake of mass shootings, police shootings of unarmed Black men and the threat of domestic terrorism. But in shaping a new set of rights and responsibilities, in which where citizens are sold the idea that private gun ownership is generally essential to be prepared to combat potential threats (and that “more guns means less crime”), they escalated the risk that even more people will be silenced, fearful, injured and killed. They moved us farther from being able to look at the distribution of harm rather than the pathologization of “bad actors.” They moved us farther from being able to approach the problem together.

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