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Wayne LaPierre, the public face of the National Rifle Association, was nowhere to be seen this week as President Barack Obama laid out the most far-reaching challenge to the US gun industry and owners for decades.
The lower Mr LaPierre’s profile the better, judging by reviews of his efforts to handle the political fallout from the shooting of 20 children and six teaching staff at Sandy Hook school in Newtown, Connecticut, in mid-December. “They have been indescribably stupid beyond all reason in terms of their own interest,” says Robert Spitzer of the State University of New York, author of books on the politics of guns.
Even supporters of gun rights have been taken aback by the uncompromising Mr LaPierre. First, at a press conference days after the Sandy Hook shooting, he stridently called for more guns in schools. Then an NRA advertisement launched this week, ahead of the White House announcement, attacked the president as an “elitist hypocrite” for securing armed protection for his daughters while allegedly denying it to other kids. “I did not like that,” says Warren Cassidy, whom Mr LaPierre succeeded as the NRA’s executive vice-president in 1991.
With four young children standing behind him, Mr Obama unveiled on Wednesday the most sweeping gun control package in nearly half a century. Pulled together in just a month, the measures include mandatory background checks for nearly all gun purchases, reinstating the assault weapons ban that lapsed under George W. Bush, his predecessor, and outlawing high-capacity magazines.
In a country where guns are embedded in the political culture, Mr Obama’s decision to take on the NRA marks a turning point. It will pit his formidable grassroots movement against a lobby that represents much of what his coalition of women, urban professionals and ethnic minorities wants to overturn.
Few expect Mr Obama’s laws to have an easy passage through Congress – if they pass at all – largely because of the power of Mr LaPierre and the NRA. For all his missteps since the Sandy Hook shooting, underestimating the 64-year-old veteran gun lobbyist has always proved a mistake.
Mr LaPierre did not create the modern NRA, which began its transformation from a bipartisan sporting body into a hard-edged lobbying organisation following a rightwing takeover in 1977.
But more than anyone else, he is responsible for building it into the force that it is today, a body powerful and wealthy enough to keep gun control off the national political agenda for two decades, even after successive mass shootings.
“The NRA and the gun industry share an abiding interest – they want to have as many guns in as many households throughout the country as possible,” says Mr Spitzer.
Born in Virginia, Mr LaPierre graduated in the mid-1970s from Boston University with a masters in government and joined the NRA in 1978, rising rapidly through the ranks. He first worked for, then ran, its most important division: its congressional lobbying arm.
Tall and broad-shouldered, he has always kept his own life shrouded. Even after working with him for 10 years, Mr Cassidy says he has never met Mr LaPierre’s family and has no idea about his outside interests. “The only hobby of his I know of was lobbying up on [Capitol] Hill,” he says. “He is a very private man.”
Mr Cassidy says Mr LaPierre guarded his Capitol Hill contacts jealously. Despite their differences, he concedes his former deputy has been a “highly effective” advocate for the second amendment of the US constitution: protecting the right to bear arms.
Mr LaPierre is well rewarded for work. In the past four years, his average salary has exceeded $1m, generous even by Washington lobbying standards. His wife, Susan, sells NRA-branded products, including toasters that brand bread with the group’s logo.
Many of the controversies surrounding the NRA have been of Mr LaPierre’s own making. In 2000, for example, he accused Bill Clinton, then president, of tolerating a certain amount of violence and murder to strengthen the case for gun control.
George H.W. Bush, Mr Clinton’s predecessor, resigned from the NRA in 1995 after Mr LaPierre described federal law enforcement agents as “jackbooted government thugs” who wear “Nazi bucket helmets and black storm trooper uniforms”. The coincidence of these comments with the terrorist bombing of an Oklahoma City building containing federal agents created a crisis for Mr LaPierre and the NRA but he deftly saw off his critics.
When challenged by hardliners trying to take the position of NRA president, he fielded his own, more moderate candidate – Charlton Heston, the actor. “Needless to say, when you run against Moses, Moses wins,” Joe Tartaro, a veteran NRA member, told The Washington Post.
Throughout his decades at the helm of the NRA, Mr LaPierre has never been given to understatement. At the 2012 annual meeting, he said: “All that is good and right about America could be lost if Barack Obama is re-elected.”
The irony of his comments was that Mr Obama did nothing on gun control in his first term. As early as the 2006 midterm congressional elections, the Democrats went out of their way to recruit pro-second amendment candidates, and gained seats as a result.
Gun ownership numbers have been slowly moving against Mr LaPierre for decades. And in the wake of the Connecticut shooting, public opinion is swinging behind Mr Obama.
Not only that, the president’s grassroots network dwarfs the NRA’s 4m membership. His campaign apparatus, largely dormant since his re-election, sent out a call-to-arms email on Thursday. After more than three decades in the NRA, Mr LaPierre is facing his greatest challenge.
The writer is the FT’s Washington bureau chief
This article has been updated since original publication to reflect the fact that Sandy Hook is in Newtown.
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