Gunned Down: The Power of the NRA

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Michael Kirk

Jim Gilmore

Mike Wiser


Jim Gilmore


Michael Kirk & Mike Wiser


Michael Kirk

911 CALLER: Please hurry. Please hurry!

ANNOUNCER: Once again, innocent victims gunned down.

Pres. BARACK OBAMA: We have been through this too many times.

ANNOUNCER: And then legislation voted down.

Vice Pres. JOE BIDEN: How could they vote that way?

JOHN AQUILINO, Former NRA Spokesman: The government is not supposed to tell you what to do.

ANNOUNCER: All the while, the gun lobby grows stronger.

CHARLTON HESTON, NRA President: —from my cold, dead hands!

ANNOUNCER: Tonight, FRONTLINE takes you inside the politics and the power of the NRA.

JOHN AQUILINO: It has nothing to do with guns, it has to do with freedom.

ANNOUNCER: Tonight’s program contains mature content which may not be suitable for all audiences. Viewer discretion is advised.

PAT MAISCH, Shooting Survivor: In Tucson, it was a beautiful crisp, clear blue sky with a few puffy white clouds. It was a perfect January morning.

NARRATOR: Forty-year old Arizona congresswoman Gabby Giffords was about to meet constituents at an outdoor shopping center.

PAT MAISCH: I went to thank her for her being kind of a Blue Dog Democrat and really working for the people and not for the lobbyists.

MARK KELLY, Gabrielle Giffords’s Husband: Her first person she met with was a young man that was in the Army Reserve. She took some pictures with him. That was the last picture taken of her before she was— before she was shot. He shot Gabby from about three feet away, right in the middle of the left side of her forehead. He had a 9-millimeter Glock in his hand and a 33-round magazine in it.

PAT MAISCH: There was a bang, and then a slight pause, and then a continuous bang, bang, bang, bang, bang.

MARK KELLY: Emptied the magazine in 15 seconds. There were 33 wounds from 33 bullets, so it looks like every bullet hit a person.

911 OPERATOR: 911, what is your emergency?

CALLER: The guy had a semi-automatic pistol!

CALLER: He went and started firing, and then he ran.

PAT MAISCH: I could see him advancing quickly. I’m thinking, “I wonder what it’s going to feel like, how bad it’s going to hurt if he shoots me.”

NARRATOR: The killer tried to reload. He dropped the high-capacity magazine, was tackled, and dropped the gun.

PAT MAISCH: I’m not able to get the gun because it’s too far away, but I am able to get the magazine that he’s pulling out of his pocket.

EMERGENCY DISPATCH: Customers have tackled the suspect. They are holding him down at the Safeway.

DEPUTY: We need a lot more units. And I believe Gabrielle Giffords is here.

NARRATOR: There were 19 victims gunned down— 13 were rushed to area hospitals, 6 were dead. Congresswoman Giffords was in critical condition.

MARK KELLY: When I got to the hospital, she was just recovering from surgery. And at one point that evening, I remember, you know, one tear coming down her eye. It was just one bloody red tear. I think that kind of said it all.

NEWSCASTER: The tragic shootings in Arizona are bringing the national debate over gun control—

NEWSCASTER: Saturday’s attack is now putting gun laws under a magnifying glass.

NARRATOR: Then once again, a familiar response, a public call for the federal government to just do something, something about guns.

NEWSCASTER: Guns, those damn things.

DENNIS HENIGAN, Fmr. V.P., Brady Center: Here you have, you know, one of the Democrats’ own in Congress being struck down, a shooting which showed the weak— the effect of weak gun laws.

NEWSCASTER: As we wait for the latest medical update, President Obama is working—

ED O’KEEFE, The Washington Post: At the White House, initially, there was sort of a wait-and-see, and I think a lot of it rested on, you know, to what extent was the president going to be willing to take this up.

NEWSCASTER: Breaking news. We’ve just learned that President Obama will be going to Tucson on Wednesday—

NEWSCASTER: This just in. The president—

NARRATOR: In the wake of the shooting, the president was facing a political crisis on an issue most politicians try to avoid.

NEWSCASTER: President Obama will deliver what some have called one of the most important speeches of his presidency.

NEWSCASTER: President Obama on a mission to comfort and rally the—

EVENT ANNOUNCER: Please welcome the president of the United States, Barack Obama. [cheers, applause]

Pres. BARACK OBAMA: If this tragedy prompts reflection and debate, as it should, let’s make sure it’s worthy of those we have lost.

NARRATOR: People who wanted to do something about guns listened carefully.

DENNIS HENIGAN: The President was enormously compassionate. He was enormously eloquent. But he did everything in his power to avoid using the word “gun” in the wake of that shooting.

Pres. BARACK OBAMA: We may not be able to stop all evil in the world, but I know that how we treat one another, that’s entirely up to us.

PAUL BARRETT, Bloomberg Businessweek: The silence was deafening. His gun control ardent supporters were irate. The degree of fury over this really can’t be captured in words, but it was never— he was never going to do it.

NARRATOR: Washington insiders say his advisers told him the political cost was too great to take on the nation’s most powerful lobby, the National Rifle Association.

PAUL BARRETT: It was an extraordinary moment and an extraordinary commentary on the advantage that the NRA enjoys and the tilt toward the side of the debate that says there is simply nothing more to be done about regulating the civilian ownership of guns. We just— we— the issue is off the table.

NARRATOR: Without lifting a finger, the National Rifle Association had demonstrated its power.

ED O’KEEFE: They are the best equipped, most feared special interest group on Capitol Hill. They are sort of the gold standard in how to do lobbying work in Washington.

NEWSCASTER: Two well armed robbers outgunned cops—

NEWSCASTER: This time, the madness struck in California.

NARRATOR: This is the story of the rise to power of the NRA.

NEWSCASTER: Firing a semi-automatic rifle at least 50 times—

NEWSCASTER: It was lunchtime, but it looked like wartime.

NARRATOR: How, over the years, in the face of violence and tragedy—

NEWSCASTER: The gunman fired between 50 and 100 rounds—

NARRATOR: —public outrage came up against political reality.

NEWSCASTER: Guns almost anyone can buy—

NEWSCASTER: It was rage unleashed—

NEWSCASTER: A massacre on a commuter train—

NEWSCASTER: —the kind of violence that many Americans fear most—

NEWSCASTER: After firing off 30 bullets, the nightmare ended—

NARRATOR: It’s a story that took a dramatic turn in the aftermath of one particular shooting—

NEWSCASTER: We begin tonight with a deadly shooting at an American high school—

NARRATOR: —in a Colorado high school—

NEWSCASTER: It was in the school cafeteria that he went after his fellow students—

911 OPERATOR: 911, what’s your emergency?

1st CALLER: There’s a shooting going on at Columbine High School!

2nd CALLER: I’ve got shots going off like crazy!

3rd CALLER: You’ve got multiple shots now in the cafeteria!

NARRATOR: The deadly assault on Columbine High School in Littleton.

NEWSCASTER: We’re going to continue to follow this horrific situation taking place in Littleton, Colorado.

NEWSCASTER: —Fox News alert on the horrific mass shooting—

NARRATOR: The school surveillance video showed police some of the story. Terrorized students fled when they heard shooting in the hall, 188 rounds. Then a bomb went off in the cafeteria. As the two assailants, seen here, enter the room and hunt for student victims, they had killed 13 and wounded 23 more.

NEWSCASTER: You see some of the victims being taken out. We want to advise you we have no confirmation—

TOM MAUSER, Columbine Parent: I was in touch with my wife, and she was getting upset because she hadn’t heard from Daniel. She had gone to one of the places where they were taking students who had escaped, and his name was not on the board and she didn’t see him. He didn’t call.

NARRATOR: Tom Mauser’s son, Daniel, was a sophomore, 15 years old, studious and quiet. By nightfall, his parents went home to wait.

TOM MAUSER: We had to spend that night not knowing if he was dead or alive. You cry a lot. We tried to sleep. I couldn’t. I went downstairs, two levels down from the bedroom. And I was crying out, and my wife heard me and came down. What can you do? You’re just— you’re just helpless.

NARRATOR: FBI documents show the bodies they found in the school library. Daniel Mauser was one of them. Hiding under a table, he had been shot point-blank in the face.

In the days that followed, the police gathered evidence, including home videos of the attackers and their weapons.

DYLAN KLEBOLD: [home video] Yo! What up, dog? I heard you got some beef with me, nigga?

NARRATOR: They had assembled a small arsenal— sawed-off shotguns, a 9-millimeter Carbine rifle and a Tec-9 pistol with a 30-round magazine. The shooters got a friend to buy some of the weapons at a gun show without a background check. It would become known as the gun show loophole.

PAUL BARRETT, The Wall Street Journal, 1987-2005: Columbine is really the ultimate nightmare because Columbine really brought to the surface the idea that a couple of disturbed teenagers, if they want to on any given weekend, can go to a gun show and assemble the weapons they need to go and take over the school and start shooting everybody.

NEWSCASTER: At the Colorado state capitol, the anguish over the Columbine massacre turned to protests.

NARRATOR: In the wake of the shootings, thousands of protesters marched in Denver demanding that something, anything be done.

NEWSCASTER: Eight thousand strong, they targeted the National Rifle Association—

NARRATOR: Daniel Mauser’s father joined them.

TOM MAUSER: I had a sign made at a sign shop with Daniel’s picture on it, and the words, “My son died at Columbine. He would expect me to be here today.”

NARRATOR: The protesters had a familiar target, the guns.

TOM MAUSER: Something is wrong in this country when a child can grab a gun— grab a gun so easily and shoot a bullet into the middle of a child’s face, as my son experienced. Something is wrong.

NEWSCASTER: The National Rifle Association, target of much anger in Colorado—

NARRATOR: As it happened, just blocks away, the NRA was gathering for its long-planned annual convention.

NEWSCASTER: Gun enthusiasts insist there’s no connection between the Columbine tragedy and weapons—

NARRATOR: Inside, top executives of the NRA weighed how to respond. They issued a public statement of sympathy and then sent out their most famous member, Charlton Heston.

RICHARD FELDMAN, Former NRA Lobbyist: To this day, when I would look at Charlton Heston, I didn’t see the president of the NRA, I saw Moses. You couldn’t have picked a better caricature of who you wanted speaking, with that stentorian voice of his.

CHARLTON HESTON: America must stop this predictable pattern of reaction. When an isolated, terrible event occurs, our phones ring, demanding that the NRA explain the inexplicable. Why us? Because their story needs a villain.

NARRATOR: Despite the shooting, the NRA stayed focused on its core beliefs.

WARREN CASSIDY, Former NRA Executive V.P.: The base of the National Rifle Association believes so strongly, it’s more a religion, or what a religion used to be. There’s a passion involved in it.

JOHN AQUILINO, Former NRA Spokesman: The NRA is the closest thing that a membership group can have to just pure patriotism. They love their country.

CHARLTON HESTON: As long as there’s a 2nd Amendment, evil can never conquer us. Tyranny in any form can never find footing within a society of law-abiding, armed, ethical people.

NARRATOR: Heston tapped into a fundamental fear of NRA members, that the government would use Columbine to restrict and then take away their guns.

RICHARD FELDMAN: Purchases at gun stores start to go up astronomically as people, who are thinking about buying a particular gun over the course of the next year or so, worry that they may outlaw it. “I better get it while I can.”

NARRATOR: Hundreds of thousands of new members signed up for the NRA right after Columbine.

JOHN AQUILINO: The gun is a symbol of freedom, the only thing that keeps bad government from taking over. It really has nothing to do with guns, it has to do with freedom. Do you give your freedom to the government, or do you keep it within yourself, within your community, within your family? And that’s the broad appeal.

NARRATOR: But for the NRA, the gun wasn’t always a political issue. It had once represented something for hunters and sportsmen.

PAUL BARRETT: This is an organization that, back in the ‘60s, was a very tame, not particularly political organization.

NRA VIDEO: The National Rifle Association has made possible the training of thousands of instructors—

MATTHEW BENNETT, Pres. Clinton Policy Adviser: The NRA was a safety organization. They helped people teach their children and their friends and family how to use and store and keep firearms safely.

NARRATOR: Then the assassinations of the ‘60s— John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King—

Sen. ROBERT F. KENNEDY (D-NY), Presidential Candidate: My thanks to all of you. And now it’s on to Chicago, and let’s win there.

NARRATOR: —and Robert F. Kennedy. Many American cities erupted into armed conflict. In response, Congress passed the first comprehensive gun control law in decades.

Pres. LYNDON B. JOHNSON: Effective crime control remains, in my judgment, effective gun control.

NARRATOR: Those were fighting words for some in the NRA. The 1968 gun control bill banned mail order sales and restricted some purchases.

WARREN CASSIDY, Former NRA Executive V.P.: NRA people said, “Wait a minute. We’ve got— we’ve got other things to worry about than teaching guys how to shoot or how to hunt, and so forth, or collect guns.” And that’s when— that was the transformative period.

NARRATOR: It formally happened in 1977 at the NRA Convention in Cincinnati. As they got down to business, there was a showdown, hunters and sportsmen versus gun rights activists.

CBS NEWS: [May 21, 1977] The National Rifle Association convention in Cincinnati went into overtime last night, a stormy all-night session. When it was over, some dissident members had taken control of the 400,000-member organization. What it means is even stricter support for the right to bear arms and against gun control.

JOHN AQUILINO: The core of NRA’s political support comes from a very conservative Republican group of people. They’re the ones who give the money. They’re the ones that pay the freight for all the political battles. And they’re very conservative.

NARRATOR: Just a few years later, another dramatic shooting.

NEWSCASTER: You can see the president coming out now—

NARRATOR: President Reagan shot in the lung, and his press secretary, James Brady, in the head.

NEWSCASTER: They said six shots in two seconds—

NARRATOR: In the aftermath, once again a call to do something.

NEWSCASTER: These incidents seem to keep happening, and that is a tragic puzzle—

NARRATOR: Although Reagan stayed out of it during his presidency, over the years, Jim Brady became a powerful symbol. A gun control group formed around him, and by the time Bill Clinton was elected, the movement had found a president willing to take up their cause. Clinton cracked down on guns— the Anti-Crime Initiative banning the import of assault-style handguns, the assault weapons ban and the Brady bill requiring background checks at gun stores.

It seemed like victory for the anti-gun forces, but that’s not how the NRA saw it.

WARREN CASSIDY, Former NRA Executive V.P.: I think NRA benefited tremendously through the Clinton years because of the extreme radicalism of the anti-gun— call them left-wingers, I call them regressives, not progressives, but the anti-gun people.

PAUL BARRETT, The Wall Street Journal, 1987-2005: It’s in combat that the NRA thrives. It’s with enemies that the NRA is best able to communicate its point of view, and above all, raise money.

NARRATOR: So near the end of his administration, in the wake of Columbine, the president would once again take on the NRA.

Pres. BILL CLINTON: [Columbine Memorial May 20, 1999] You have a unique chance— a chance— to make sure that the children of Columbine are never forgotten.

MATTHEW BENNETT, Pres. Clinton Policy Adviser: Well, Columbine was one of those visceral events where people reacted as parents and as people, not as politicians. And that’s how Clinton reacted. I mean, all he could think about was “That could have been my kid.”

NARRATOR: Behind closed doors, Clinton told top adviser Bruce Reed to push more gun restrictions.

BRUCE REED, Pres. Clinton Policy Adviser: The attack in Columbine was such a shock to the body politic that we felt the country needed to do something.

NARRATOR: A bill to close that gun show loophole was quickly rushed to a vote in the Senate. As the roll was called, the vote became closer and closer.

NEWSCASTER: —Vice President Gore called to the Capitol to break a deadlock—

NEWSCASTER: New laws to govern gun sales are deeply dividing the Senate—

NARRATOR: Gore needed to break the tie.

Vice Pres. AL GORE: On this vote, the yeas are 50. The nays are 50. The Senate being equally divided, the vice president votes in the affirmative, and the amendment is agreed to.

NEWSCASTER: —setback today for the gun lobby and its allies in Congress—

NARRATOR: One month after Columbine, the NRA had lost the first round.

NEWSCASTER: The president praised the Senate today for what he called the common sense of their vote—

NARRATOR: The bill then headed to the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, and that was where the National Rifle Association would make its stand. Forty-nine-year-old Wayne LaPierre led the NRA.

SHERYL GAY STOLBERG, The New York Times: Wayne LaPierre is the NRA. He built the NRA into what it is today.

NARRATOR: In the 1970s, he started as a lobbyist.

RICHARD FELDMAN, Former NRA Lobbyist: If you’re a political junkie, like Wayne or like myself, it was a wonderful job. You’re working with all these people and having these fights. And you’re cutting your teeth.

NARRATOR: But LaPierre was no one’s idea of a glad-handing lobbyist.

WARREN CASSIDY: He was a very quiet man. I was amazed he was a lobbyist because he did not have the “hail fellow well met” attitude or personality that I associated with politicians or with lobbyists.

NARRATOR: And surprisingly for the NRA, he was not a gun enthusiast, more comfortable on K Street than in a duck blind.

JOHN AQUILINO: 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. Politics, yes. Guns, no.

NARRATOR: And inside the fractious politics of the NRA, LaPierre was skillful, navigating between the sportsmen and the gun rights activists.

WARREN CASSIDY: Wayne could put a finger to the wind and see which way it was blowing, and he would position himself so that neither side would be offended and might even think that he were, in fact, on that side.

TIM DICKINSON, Rolling Stone: In an organization that is so beset by factionalism, his being unmoored to any particular point of view is actually very helpful for him in terms of being able to ride the torrents that have occasionally swept through the NRA and emerge always on top.

NARRATOR: During the early battles with the Clinton administration, those political skills were put to the test. In an effort to energize the gun rights activists, he released this incendiary fund-raising letter.

LETTER: —“that the semi-auto ban gives jack-booted government thugs more power to take away our constitutional rights, break in our doors, seize our guns, destroy our property, and even injure or kill us.”

TIM RUSSERT, Moderator, Meet the Press: [April 30, 1995] Aren’t you concerned when you say, “Nazi bucket helmets, government thugs, kicking down doors, killing, maiming people”— aren’t you inciting people? Aren’t you willing now to apologize for the tone of this letter?

WAYNE LaPIERRE: Those words are not far— in fact, they’re a pretty close description of what’s happening in the real world.

PAUL BARRETT: And in response to that, many mainstream Republicans, George H.W. Bush being the leading example, said, “This is not the NRA I’m a member of.”

NARRATOR: President Bush resigned his lifetime membership in the NRA.

NEWSCASTER: President Clinton lined up the leadership of the National Rifle Association in his crosshairs today—

NEWSCASTER: —NRA fund-raising letter calling federal ATF agents, quote, “jack-booted thugs”—

NARRATOR: Before long, LaPierre was forced to backtrack.

LARRY KING, “Larry King Live”: [May 18, 1995] Wayne, right up front, why the apology?

WAYNE LaPIERRE: Well, Larry, if you say something and you offend people and you didn’t mean to, what you do is you apologize. We never meant that letter to broad-brush all of federal law enforcement, all of BATF, or all of law enforcement in general.

NARRATOR: But to the NRA’s hardliners, LaPierre was showing weakness.

SHERYL GAY STOLBERG: Bad move. There was a big uproar from the NRA membership over that. The membership wanted a tough guy. The membership wanted somebody that drew a red line, who didn’t compromise, who didn’t cave.

NARRATOR: And so in the spring of 1999, as Clinton’s proposal to close that gun show loophole now moved from the Senate to the House, LaPierre made a fundamental decision. He would stand tough.

WAYNE LaPIERRE: What we see is the president now dusting off every tired old gun control bill that’s been around his administration for the last six years.

JOHN AQUILINO: The NRA needed to go and show that it could stand up to the president, that it could stand up, and it could toe-to-toe meet him in the ring and bash his brains out.

NARRATOR: The NRA counterattack began by sounding the alarm to its members.

NRA ROBOCALL: Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association.

WAYNE LaPIERRE: This year, more than ever, your vote really can make a difference—

NARRATOR: Within days, members received this fax from NRA headquarters.

FAX: “The Clinton-Gore administration isn’t wasting any time attempting to further its aggressive anti-gun agenda”—

RICHARD FELDMAN: Fear is a much greater motivator in American politics than anything else, the fear of losing rights that you perceive you have. When that fear level is high, that’s when the groups that represent the issue do well.

NRA ROBOCALL: “NRA calling with an urgent legislative alert—

NARRATOR: The NRA turned loose their members, flooding congressional offices with telephone calls and letters.

PAUL BARRETT: You don’t need thousands of people and you don’t need millions of dollars. You need hundreds of people who will get on the phone, and really, a couple hundred people to show up at a town hall meeting. You do that a couple of times, and your member of Congress gets the message.

NRA ROBOCALL: I’m Charlton Heston. We need your help to protect our freedoms—

JOHN AQUILINO: The NRA’s membership, if it had one political trait, they vote. It’s that simple. You are a politician. You want to get elected. You want votes. NRA has votes.

HOUSE SPEAKER: Those in favor of the amendment will say aye.


HOUSE SPEAKER: Those opposed will say no.


HOUSE SPEAKER: Members will record their votes by electronic device.

NARRATOR: After the NRA lobbying blitz, the White House came up 22 votes short.

NEWSCASTER: Gun control legislation on Capitol Hill was left for dead today on the floor.

NEWSCASTER: —a hands-down victory for the NRA.

TOM MAUSER: When I saw that after this horrific tragedy, despite everything that people say about, “We have to do something to prevent this from happening again,” when they couldn’t do something as basic as that, I was livid.

NEWSCASTER: The National Rifle Association opens its annual convention today.

NEWSCASTER: The NRA convention here is rallying the gun rights—

NEWSCASTER: —holding its annual convention in Charlotte—

NARRATOR: One year after Columbine, it was time for another NRA national convention

ANNOUNCER: Ladies and gentleman and members of the National Rifle Association of America, your president, Charlton Heston!

NARRATOR: They had overwhelmed the Clinton administration and successfully demonstrated their power in Congress. It had been a very good year for the NRA.

CHARLTON HESTON: The NRA is back! [cheers, applause]

NARRATOR: And now the NRA would take the offensive.

CHARLTON HESTON: That leads me to that one mission that is left undone, winning in November!

RICHARD FELDMAN, Author, Ricochet: The race between George W. Bush and Al Gore— that’s the last year that the gun issue played a critical role in American politics.

NARRATOR: Now it was time to settle a score with the man who had broken that tie vote in the Senate, Al Gore.

CHARLTON HESTON: I want to say those fighting words for everyone within the sound of my voice to hear and to heed, and especially for you, Mr. Gore— from my cold, dead hands! [cheers, applause]

NARRATOR: They would spend $20 million on the 2000 election, the most aggressive political campaign they had ever undertaken.

CHARLTON HESTON: [NRA commercial] Al Gore wants government testing, licensing and registration for all firearms owners. He cast the vote that would have shut down every gun show. This year, vote freedom first because if Al Gore wins, you lose.

WAYNE LaPIERRE: To all of you in West Virginia, it’s Halloween, and Al Gore doesn’t need a mask to scare gun owners and hunters! [cheers, applause]

TIM DICKINSON, Rolling Stone: The NRA wins because it’s patient and because long after America’s dismay about these gun massacres has faded, the NRA and its membership are still thinking about guns.

NEWSCASTER: Good evening, everybody, and welcome to our election coverage 2000.

NEWSCASTER: Stay with us. We’re about to take you on an exciting and bumpy ride.

NARRATOR: On the night of the election, it all came down to a handful of critical states.

NEWSCASTER: The winner in Ohio is Mr. Bush—

NARRATOR: One of the first one to go was Ohio.

NEWSCASTER: What we found in an exit poll is gun owners— 40 percent of the voters in Ohio are gun owners, and they went almost 60 percent for George W. Bush.

NEWSCASTER: George W. Bush gets West Virginia—

NARRATOR: West Virginia—

NEWSCASTER: West Virginia, which has been solidly in the Democratic column for a long, long time—

NEWSCASTER: Bill Clinton’s home state has gone Bush—

NARRATOR: And Arkansas—

NEWSCASTER: —six electoral votes, and they go for Bush—

NARRATOR: And even Al Gore’s home state of Tennessee.

NEWSCASTER: —embarrassing Vice President Gore by snatching his state’s 11 electoral votes—

PAUL BARRETT, Author, Glock: The Rise of America’s Gun: Al Gore lost his home state, lost West Virginia. These are states that he should have won.

RICHARD FELDMAN: Had any of those states gone the other way, Al Gore would have been president.

NEWSCASTER: Florida goes Bush, the presidency is Bush. That’s it.

NARRATOR: In Washington, they say the NRA was a decisive factor in Al Gore’s defeat.

RICHARD FELDMAN: In no small measure, it was that fight over guns after Columbine that had the firearm community more enlivened, engaged. And a few votes difference in Florida, and the whole thing would have gone the other way.

Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: I, George Walker Bush, do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of president of the United States.—

NARRATOR: George W. Bush’s inauguration would mark the beginning of a decade where gun control was off the agenda in Washington. The assault weapons ban would expire. The Supreme Court would rule that individuals had a constitutional right to own guns. Congress would pass a law to protect gun makers from lawsuits. The gun control forces were left in disarray.

PAUL BARRETT: The gun control movement is fragmented. You don’t have what you need to mount a true movement, which is committed warriors, people who don’t need money, who don’t need fancy galas, come out because they care. That’s what the gun people have.

NARRATOR: For the NRA, it was total victory.

911 OPERATOR: 911. What’s the location of your emergency?

CALLER: Sandy Hook School. I think there’s somebody shooting in here, in Sandy Hook School. Down the hallway—

NARRATOR: Eleven years later—

CALLER: They’re still running. There’s still shooting!

NARRATOR: —154 rounds from a Bushmaster semi-automatic rifle.

911 OPERATOR: Newtown 911. What’s the location of your emergency?

NARRATOR: It was Friday morning, December 14th.

CALLER: Sandy Hook Elementary School. I believe there’s shooting at the front— it’s still happening!

NARRATOR: It lasted less than six minutes.

CALLER: I keep hearing shooting. I keep hearing popping.

NARRATOR: This time, it was 6 and 7-year olds.

CALLER: Please hurry. Please hurry! We smell fire from the gunshots. You guys come into my room now. Get in here.

911 OPERATOR: OK, well—

CALLER: There’s still shooting going on. Please!

CALLER: I need— I need assistance here immediately.

CALLER: I still hear him shooting!

NARRATOR: Twenty children and six adults were shot dead.

911 OPERATOR: OK, get everybody you can going down there. All right, let me—

NARRATOR: Outside, it was chaos.

CALLER: My daughter’s in that building! Please!

CALLER: I have five children who ran from Sandy Hook School.

MARK BARDEN, Sandy Hook Parent: There were just more emergency vehicles and personnel and helicopters than I had ever seen in my life. I couldn’t— I just— it was a surreal scene. I just couldn’t believe it.

NARRATOR: Mark Barden’s son, Daniel, was a 1st grader at Sandy Hook elementary.

MARK BARDEN: More and more of the kids were being collected by their families, and no Daniel. And there was this growing group of parents that were growing in concern, “Where’s my child?”

NARRATOR: Nicole Hockley’s son, Dylan, was another 1st grader at Sandy Hook.

NICOLE HOCKLEY: I saw some 1st graders, but I couldn’t— they were all sitting down, but I couldn’t see Dylan’s class. You know, and you’re searching, searching the eyes, searching the faces for someone that you recognize, and I just— I couldn’t.

DANIEL BARDEN: They told us that, “If you haven’t been reunited with your loved one yet, you’re not going to be.” So that— that was just—

NICOLE HOCKLEY: And the room just erupted. But even then, I still didn’t believe that Dylan was dead because none of it made any sense whatsoever. This is a school. These are 1st grade kids. This doesn’t happen!

ED O’KEEFE, The Washington Post: And you see on his face the pain and the angst. And the president said it was the saddest day of his presidency.

BRUCE REED, Fmr. Chief of Staff, V.P. Biden: Newtown had the same impact on Barack Obama that Columbine had had on Bill Clinton. What happened in Newtown broke his heart. It was devastating for everybody.

Pres. BARACK OBAMA: The majority of those who died today were children, beautiful little kids between the ages of 5 and 10 years old. They had their entire lives ahead of them— birthdays, graduations, weddings, kids of their own.

BRUCE REED: You could see when he spoke just how sickened he was by the whole thing.

Pres. BARACK OBAMA: As a country, we have been through this too many times. May God bless the memory of the victims, and in the words of scripture, heal the broken-hearted and bind up their wounds.

NARRATOR: This time, Obama decided to try to do something.

ED O’KEEFE: It was, like, “If this isn’t going to do it, then what is?” And so they knew they had to act quickly because you have to capture that concern and that attention that the issue’s getting.

NARRATOR: He handed the job to Vice President Joe Biden, and told the staff to make something happen.

Vice Pres. JOE BIDEN: It was in a context of sorrow, extreme, I mean, anger and frustration about why can’t we do something about this. It was, like, “Enough is enough is enough. Put together something for me, Joe.”

NARRATOR: This time, it was also a crisis for Wayne LaPierre.

PAUL BARRETT, Bloomberg Businessweek: Within the inner circles of the NRA, the wives of senior NRA officials shedding tears and saying to their husbands, “Something has to happen. You have to do something different, honey.”

NARRATOR: His advisers wanted him to lie low, but LaPierre had a very different idea. Expecting trouble, he hired personal security guards, and headed into Washington.

ROBERT DRAPER, The New York Times Magazine: Without telling anyone, LaPierre himself staged a press conference in Washington, D.C.

NARRATOR: The media gathered. Many expected a chastened and conciliatory LaPierre.

ROBERT DRAPER: I think there was an assumption that, surely, he’s going to throw the gun safety advocates, and for that matter the Newtown parents, some kind of bone.

NARRATOR: But LaPierre had something else in mind.

WAYNE LaPIERRE: The only way — the only way — to stop a monster from killing our kids is to be personally involved and invested in a plan of absolute protection. The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.

ED O’KEEFE: And he almost immediately goes right back to what they usually say, which is that the answer to this is more guns.

WAYNE LaPIERRE: What if, when Adam Lanza started shooting his way into Sandy Hook elementary school last Friday, he’d been confronted by qualified armed security?

SHERYL GAY STOLBERG, The New York Times: His comments are aimed directly at the gun owners of America, to rile them up, to get them behind the NRA’s no holds barred, never say die, you know, no compromise position.

WAYNE LaPIERRE: Our children— we as a society leave them every day utterly defenseless, and the monsters and the predators of the world know it and exploit it.

NARRATOR: In Washington, they said the speech was a political disaster.

PROTESTER: The NRA stop killing our children!

NARRATOR: In New York City, LaPierre was called the craziest man on earth and a gun nut. But those who know LaPierre say the speech was no miscalculation.

PAUL BARRETT: This was not off the cuff. He didn’t lose it. This was very thought out. And they decided on a strategy and they executed the strategy.

JOHN AQUILINO: Because the people that it resonated with gave more money, and this is what you need to do in order to keep that— that tough persona.

PAUL BARRETT: And we’ve got to send the signal that this is not the time to compromise, that Obama is the enemy, and they want to take your guns away. Yes, it’s too bad about the kids, but we are not going to back down.

NARRATOR: In Newtown once again, out of grief, an impromptu political movement was forming.

NEWTOWN RESIDENT: Friends and neighbors were determined to do everything within their power to make a difference. We created a name for our group, Sandy Hook Promise. We then developed a promise, which is the essence of what we believe must be done.

NICOLE HOCKLEY, Sandy Hook Parent: I just had no idea what to do. I didn’t know anything about gun violence. I didn’t know anything about politics.

It’s been one month since I lost my son, Dylan, and 25 other families lost their loved ones.

MARK BARDEN, Sandy Hook Parent: We don’t really know what we’re going to do, or we don’t really have an agenda. We’re not sure what it wants to be yet.

NARRATOR: They began by talking to experts.

MATTHEW BENNETT, Gun Control Advocate: The very first thing I said to them in our very first meeting was, “You are about to wade into the roughest waters in American politics. Nothing is nastier than the gun debate.” And they had what I think any reasonable expectation would be, is, “We have just been through the worst gun event in the history of the United States, and something surely is going to change.”

NARRATOR: Some of the families wanted to push to outlaw the types of weapons used in the Sandy Hook shooting, high-capacity magazines and assault weapons. But the seasoned veterans of the political gun wars delivered a dose of reality.

MATTHEW BENNETT: What I knew, and was able to impart eventually to them, was that a new assault weapons ban was not going to happen, that there was basically no appetite for that in Congress, that the high-capacity clip ban made sense, but probably also was politically impossible in part because there were just so many high-capacity clips in circulation. You can buy them on the Internet for $10.

MARK BARDEN: That was an unfortunate learning for me in that, you know, there’s going to be resistance to this.

NARRATOR: They were told the very best they could hope for was expanding background checks, closing that gun show loophole, and even that would be an uphill battle.

SPEAKER: In memory of those lost and in tribute to their families, I ask that you please join me now in a brief moment of silence.

NARRATOR: Reality was setting in at the White House, too. As Christmas approached, Joe Biden’s task force debated how to respond. Some worried the president himself would be a liability.

ED O’KEEFE: Since the president’s trust with Republicans was already so damaged from health care, from the fiscal cliff fights, and from all the other fights he’d had with them, if he were to say, “I want you to do this and I want you to do that,” it would have been dead immediately because most Republicans didn’t want anything to do with something that he supported.

NARRATOR: What the White House needed was someone from Congress who could try to find middle ground in the highly polarized world of gun politics.

Sen. JOE MANCHIN (D), West Virginia; [campaign commercial] As your senator, I’ll protect our 2nd Amendment rights. That’s why the NRA endorsed me. I’ll take on Washington and this administration to get the federal government off of our backs and out of our pockets. And I’ll take dead aim at the cap-and-trade bill.

NARRATOR: Joe Manchin, an A-rated NRA member and junior senator from West Virginia, was shaken by the Newtown shootings.

Sen. JOE MANCHIN: It really got to me. These are babies, 5 and 6-year-old children. Who would have ever— it’s just beyond my imagination, most Americans’, to conceive anything this horrific could happen in America.

ED O’KEEFE: Lightbulbs went off at the Capitol. Harry Reid and Chuck Schumer and their aides realize, “Wait a second. We now have a Democrat with an A rating from the NRA saying he wants to do something.”

NARRATOR: Manchin’s plan was to draft a simple bill that would require background checks at thousands of gun shows, where a significant number of sales take place. He hoped that even the NRA would be on board.

ROBERT DRAPER, The New York Times Magazine: So Manchin’s argument to the NRA is, “Look, this is— you’ll never find a gun safety bit of legislation that is as gun-friendly. And all we’re really doing is closing a loophole.”

Sen. JOE MANCHIN: I felt this would be something that they would embrace. It was truly a time that Wayne LaPierre and the NRA, the leadership, could have rose to another level, complete other level.

NARRATOR: With polls showing wide public support for expanding background checks, Manchin and the vice president figured they had a chance.

Vice Pres. JOE BIDEN: I was optimistic. Over 91 percent of the American people supported expanding background checks, 80 percent of the households that had an NRA member supported it.

NARRATOR: At first, there was hope LaPierre might go along with the bill. The NRA went to meetings with Manchin.

Sen. JOE MANCHIN: They made some suggestions on some wording and changes from that standpoint, so yes, they had input and we valued that input.

SHERYL GAY STOLBERG, New York Times: We’re starting to see almost a glimmer of possibility in Washington, where the NRA is at least talking to Manchin.

NARRATOR: But many in the gun rights community were furious at the talk of compromise.

ROBERT DRAPER: The two small groups, the Gun Owners of America and the National Association of Gun Rights, began to circulate letters saying, “We hear that the NRA is compromising with Manchin.” They used that word, the dreaded “C” word, that there’s a compromise bill.

NARRATOR: Larry Pratt was the executive director of Gun Owners of America, representing 300,000 of the most fervent gun rights activists.

LARRY PRATT, Gun Owners of America: The Manchin bill was not aiming at loopholes, it was aiming at nailing down some remaining freedom the American people have. Gun control simply kills people. And for Senator Manchin to wave the bloody shirts of those children from Newtown is despicable.

NARRATOR: Pratt quickly issued an alert to his members, warning them about the NRA’s talks with Manchin.

LARRY PRATT: We put out an alert saying, “Please, if you belong to the NRA, call this guy at this number and ask him to urge the powers that be to oppose the bill.”

NARRATOR: At NRA headquarters, they got the message.

PAUL BARRETT: The NRA’s main anxiety at that moment is not losing. It’s not seeing something enacted, it’s not looking soft to their own membership and to the substantial number of Americans, who probably number in the millions, who think the NRA is not tough enough.

NARRATOR: In the middle of April, the NRA pulled out of the talks.

ROBERT DRAPER: Suddenly, the NRA stopped cooperating with Manchin, stopped returning their e-mails, stopped calling.

NARRATOR: LaPierre launched a full-scale assault on the legislation and even went after Senator Manchin.

Sen. JOE MANCHIN: As your Senator, I’ll protect our 2nd Amendment rights.

NRA TELEVISION COMMERCIAL: That was Joe Manchin’s commitment. But now Manchin is working with President Obama and New York mayor Michael Bloomberg. Concerned? You should be.

JOHN AQUILINO: Senator Manchin was vilified by the NRA. It was almost like a personal vendetta. So they— you know, they chewed up one of their own. It was stupid, absolutely stupid.

NARRATOR: The NRA activated its playbook— denouncing the legislation, alerting its members and threatening lawmakers.

Sen. JOE MANCHIN: You can deal with anything that you know up front you’re dealing with. I knew they were not going to be supportive. I was fine with that. I didn’t know that they would be in opposition as strong as they would and come out as strong as they did.

NARRATOR: But the Democrats had a secret weapon, and one day, she appeared on Capitol Hill, Gabby Giffords. Giffords had been pro-gun, the proud owner of a Glock 17 handgun.

GABRIELLE GIFFORDS: We must do something. It will be hard, but the time is now. You must act. Be bold. Be courageous. Americans are counting on you. Thank you.

NEWSCASTER: It’s decision day for new gun control legislation in the Senate—

NEWSCASTER: The first votes taken today on the gun safety legislation—

NEWSCASTER: Members of the families in the gallery today—

NEWSCASTER: —parents of the victims looking on—

NICOLE HOCKLEY: Sitting in the gallery. watching the vote, I was so anxious. And I genuinely thought we were going to be OK. I knew it would be close, but I thought it would go through.

NARRATOR: The votes of five key senators would decide the matter. None of them would agree to talk to FRONTLINE about their position. As the roll was called, the crucial votes were slipping away.

MARK BARDEN: I remember sitting there kind of in a daze, and that’s about all. I’m just— I’m sorry that I have such a— you know, I think my psyche was just kind of letting in little bits at a time. It was just all so— it was such a whirlwind of craziness for me.

NARRATOR: Also watching in the gallery, Tucson survivor Pat Maisch.

PAT MAISCH: I went from being sad to being mad. They’re all down there in their good ol’ boy stance, shaking hands, chatting—

Vice Pres. JOE BIDEN: On this vote, the amendment is not agreed to.

PAT MAISCH: Like, people’s lives aren’t in the balance on this. And I just thought they needed to be shamed. They should be ashamed of themselves. I stood up and said, “Shame on you.”

Shame on you!

Vice Pres. JOE BIDEN: There will be order in the Senate.

PAT MAISCH: Because they needed to be shamed. Shame on them. Shame on me if after what I’ve gotten to witness, I choose to be quiet.

MARK BARDEN: I’m surprised that she was the only one, actually, that burst out because it was so intense and so charged.

Vice Pres. JOE BIDEN: The gallery will refrain from any demonstration or comment.

They felt betrayed. That’s the word, “betrayed.” “How could they vote that way? Don’t they understand what happened? How can they do that? How can this be?” I mean, it was disbelief and a sense of betrayal. That was the mood.

NARRATOR: Manchin’s bill had fallen five votes short. The defeat effectively ended any talk of a national effort at gun control.

ED O’KEEFE, The Washington Post: It’s over for now. And it may be over for a very, very long time.

LARRY PRATT, Gun Owners of America: Victory builds the next victory, defeat builds the next defeat. We can’t ever afford to lose one because then we’ve lost something tangible and essential to the definition of being an American.

NARRATOR: In Washington, they say the NRA came out of the shootings at Sandy Hook stronger than ever.

PAUL BARRETT, Bloomberg Businessweek: The NRA plays the game of democracy more effectively than any other influence group in Washington. It is an organization that works the levers of democracy in a way that is not illegal or improper, it’s just very, very effective.

WAYNE LaPIERRE, National Rifle Association: Mark my words. The NRA will not go quietly into the night. We will fight!

NARRATOR: Neither Wayne LaPierre nor any current NRA official would agree to be interviewed for this film.

1h 54m
Lies, Politics and Democracy
Ahead of the 2022 midterms, a look at American political leaders and choices they've made that have undermined and threatened democracy in the U.S.
September 6, 2022