Skip to main content

Quick draw: How the NRA's LaPierre keeps his enemies guessing

By Tom Foreman, CNN
February 1, 2013 -- Updated 0047 GMT (0847 HKT)
  • NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre has been a strong advocate for gun owners
  • He's also known as a brash, heavyweight brawler who rarely backs down from a fight
  • He testified at a Senate hearing on gun violence Wednesday

Washington (CNN) -- Wayne LaPierre is not a large man. He does not move with the easy assurance of a skilled fighter. His head sits low on his neck, and he seems to turn from the shoulders.

His swept-back, graying hair and rimless glasses make him look like a Central Casting accountant who sleeps with a tie on. Yet, in Washington, LaPierre is a heavyweight of the first degree, a brawler who can make even brave politicians toss in the towel at the first sign of a scuffle.

The longtime executive vice president and public face of the National Rifle Association faced some of his toughest critics on Capitol Hill Wednesday -- including California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, author of the updated bill hoping to again ban military-style assault rifles -- as he testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee at a hearing titled "What Should America Do About Gun Violence?"

He argued that government should focus on enforcing existing gun laws rather than drafting new ones.

"Law-abiding gun owners will not accept blame for the acts of violent or deranged criminals, nor do we believe that government should dictate what we can lawfully own and use to protect our families," he told lawmakers.

NRA official to Congress: More gun laws not the answer

Newtown victims' family members testify
NRA chief vs. Giffords' husband on guns
NRA responds to inaugural address

The tough champion of the Second Amendment has been taking heat since the NRA came out strongly in favor of armed security in every public school in America, days after the deadly shooting in Newtown, Connecticut.

But that's what makes LaPierre so formidable: his unflinching willingness to say aloud what many foes consider outrageous.

"Why is the idea of a gun good when it is used to protect the president of our country or the police, but bad when it is used to protect our children in our schools?"

NRA draws heat over shooting game

That was the head of the National Rifle Association speaking to a room packed with cameras and reporters a week after the Newtown school shooting. He was pushing the idea of armed guards in every school.

Critics howled. A headline in New York proclaimed "Gun Nut!" while another called him the "Craziest Man on Earth."

But LaPierre did not even blink, going on "Meet the Press" to say, "If it's crazy to call for armed officers in our schools to protect our children, then call me crazy." For many of his supporters, that had the ring of common sense, and that's what makes Washington nervous.

LaPierre has been the leader of the NRA for more than 20 years, turning it into a political juggernaut. The group boasts more than 4 million members capable of pouring money into political races at the drop of a hat.

How the violent mentally ill can buy guns

More importantly, NRA fans have proved that they can be relied on to show up at the polls and savage any candidate, Democratic or Republican, who strays from the doctrine of the Second Amendment, as they see it.

And LaPierre is the man who commands that political wrath, frequently by unleashing a torrent of scathing accusations against those who would oppose him.

A few examples:

• In a 1995 fundraising letter, he referred to federal agents enforcing gun laws as "jack booted thugs."

• After 1999's Columbine High School massacre, he complained that gun owners in general, and NRA members in particular, were being unfairly portrayed as "... somehow a reckless, societal, pathogen; a mighty, extremist empire opposed to safety, caution and reason. That is a cruel and dangerous lie."

• In 2000, he suggested that President Bill Clinton was allowing gun deaths to pile up to spur anti-gun sentiment among voters.

• When Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords was shot, LaPierre noted that the gunfire came close to a school, a designated "gun free" zone, and again he ripped into gun opponents. "That didn't make any difference. Their laws didn't work. Their lies don't ring true. And if Tucson tells us anything at all, it tells us this: government failed."

NRA clear on gun debate stance: Arm schools

Make no mistake: There is no indication that LaPierre is a loose cannon or someone who does not mind his words. To the contrary, they are chosen with the precision of a marksman.

Even if his opponents hate to admit it, he follows an unswervingly clear course with his statements; always attacking, never ceding even an inch, and relentlessly portraying those who would infringe on gun rights as radicals.

And he wins. Year after year, for all the bluster around gun issues, the NRA has emerged victorious, galvanizing millions of Americans who feel that government too often overreaches and intrudes upon individual freedoms.

Simply put, it is the language of motivation. And when it comes to guns, no one speaks it like Wayne LaPierre.

NRA chief: Obama makes 'mockery' of American freedoms

Part of complete coverage on
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1645 GMT (0045 HKT)
Former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones, the president and acting CEO of the National Domestic Violence Hotline, discuss the lethal mix of domestic violence and guns.
May 30, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
Gun rights and gun control advocates largely agree there should be restrictions on mentally ill people obtaining firearms. The case of Myron Fletcher illustrates how difficult it is to put that into practice.
April 23, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal signed a wide-ranging gun bill into law Wednesday that has critics howling and proponents applauding.
June 13, 2013 -- Updated 1052 GMT (1852 HKT)
Six months after a gunman burst into a Newtown, Connecticut, elementary school and slaughtered 20 children and killed six others, promises of stricter national gun control laws remain largely unfulfilled.
June 25, 2014 -- Updated 1844 GMT (0244 HKT)
Next time there's a mass shooting, don't jump to blame the National Rifle Association and lax gun laws. Look first at the shooter and the mental health services he did or didn't get, and the commitment laws in the state where the shooting took place.
June 8, 2013 -- Updated 1120 GMT (1920 HKT)
The sign at the door of the Colt factory displays a gun with a slash through it: "No loaded or unauthorized firearms beyond this point." Understandable for workers at a plant, but also a bit ironic, considering one of the largest arsenals in America lies just beyond.
June 8, 2013 -- Updated 1118 GMT (1918 HKT)
Much attention has been paid to the defeat in Congress of proposals to ban assault weapons and expand background checks for firearm purchases.
June 29, 2013 -- Updated 1304 GMT (2104 HKT)
Morgan Spurlock's "Inside Man" gives CNN viewers an inside and in-depth look at the issue of firearms -- as viewed from behind the counter of a gun store. Here are five things to know about the debate.
May 5, 2014 -- Updated 1728 GMT (0128 HKT)
The Supreme Court continued its recent hands-off approach on gun control, refusing to accept a challenge to New Jersey's restrictions on carrying weapons in public.
April 18, 2013 -- Updated 1502 GMT (2302 HKT)
The Senate defeated a compromise plan to expand background checks on firearms sales as well as a proposal to ban some semi-automatic weapons modeled after military assault weapons.
April 12, 2013 -- Updated 0003 GMT (0803 HKT)
As Congress grapples with major gun control legislation proposals, brothers and sisters, mothers, fathers and children write about the people they loved and lost to gun violence and how it changed their lives.
April 11, 2013 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
Hear from both sides of the gun debate as opinions clash.
May 1, 2013 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
It was a bit awkward the first time Kate Daggett asked the question.
April 10, 2013 -- Updated 1341 GMT (2141 HKT)
Many Americans and lawmakers are in favor of continuing or expanding background checks on gun purchases, but few understand how the checks work.
April 4, 2013 -- Updated 1935 GMT (0335 HKT)
Still stinging from the shooting deaths at Sandy Hook, Connecticut lawmakers approved what advocacy groups call the strongest and most comprehensive gun legislation in the nation.
March 29, 2013 -- Updated 1353 GMT (2153 HKT)
It took fewer than five minutes for Adam Lanza to squeeze off 154 rounds, upending life in Newtown, Connecticut, and triggering a renewed national debate over gun control.
Who should get them? Join the gun control debate and share your perspective on CNN iReport.
April 2, 2013 -- Updated 1524 GMT (2324 HKT)
Before having children, she was a firm believer that guns were dangerous. Now this mother of three has a different perspective.
March 19, 2013 -- Updated 2254 GMT (0654 HKT)
In the biggest fight over firearms since December's massacre at a Connecticut elementary school, gun-control advocates are poised to notch a victory in an unlikely place.
A former drug addict turned anti-violence crusader, and a man who lost his father in a temple shooting. These are just two of many in the conversation.
February 1, 2013 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
At a town hall that brought all sides of the gun debate together, was there a consensus? Sort of.
February 5, 2013 -- Updated 1551 GMT (2351 HKT)
The federal background check system for gun buyers didn't stop a mentally ill man from buying a gun, which he used to kill his mother.
February 1, 2013 -- Updated 0037 GMT (0837 HKT)
In disputes over the future of gun laws, people espousing different positions often literally don't understand each other.