The Evolution of Wayne LaPierre

January 6, 2015
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by Patrice Taddonio Assistant Director of Audience Development

National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2013, before the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on gun violence. Supporters and opponents of stricter gun control measures face off at a hearing on what lawmakers should do to curb gun violence in the wake of last month's shooting rampage in Newtown, Ct., that killed 20 schoolchildren. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh) (AP Photo / Susan Walsh )

Wayne LaPierre is one of the National Rifle Association (NRA)’s most recognizable faces, and one of the country’s most vocal gun rights advocates.

The group’s executive vice president, LaPierre is widely regarded as the man who made the NRA the powerful lobbying organization it is today, and his tough, no-compromise stance on gun issues — including calling for armed security in every American school in the wake of the 2012 Newtown shooting — has helped the organization’s membership swell to what it claims is more than 5 million people.

LaPierre wasn’t always a gun enthusiast.

In fact, when he first joined the NRA in 1978, he was more comfortable on K Street than in a duck blind.

“The safest place you could be with Wayne and a gun back then was in a different state, because he really did not know anything about guns,” former NRA spokesman John Aquilino tells FRONTLINE. “Politics, yes; guns, no.”

And the hardline, no-apologies approach that LaPierre is now known for wasn’t always his M.O. – rather, it was a lesson learned the hard way in his early battles during the Clinton administration.

Watch a clip from Gunned Down exploring Wayne LaPierre’s evolution:

As Gunned Down reports, in 1995, in an effort to energize its base, the NRA issued a fundraising appeal that described federal agents as “jack-booted government thugs” who have the power to “take away our constitutional rights, break in our doors, seize our guns, destroy our property, and even injure or kill us.”

Outcry over the letter’s characterization of federal agents was swift and widespread — including from mainstream Republicans like former President George H.W. Bush, who publicly renounced his lifetime NRA membership.

LaPierre took to national television to backtrack, telling Larry King, “If you offend people and you didn’t mean to, what you do is apologize.”

To the NRA’s influential hardliners, though, the apology was LaPierre showing weakness.

“The membership wanted a tough guy … somebody that drew a red line, who didn’t compromise, who didn’t cave,” Sheryl Stolberg of The New York Times tells FRONTLINE.

From there on out, Gunned Down reports, LaPierre made a fundamental decision: to stand tough. Ever since, his defenses of NRA language, his condemnation of any compromises on gun legislation, and his statements in the wake of mass shootings have been defiant and unflinching.

They’ve also been effective: No new federal gun control legislation has been passed since 1994.

For the full story on Wayne LaPierre’s evolution and how the NRA became such a successful lobbying force, watch Gunned Down: The Power of the NRA tonight (check local listings).

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