Even some NRA members were aghast. Former President George W. Bush very publicly quit the group. LaPierre at first defended the letter then offered a qualified apology.
He'd slipped over the line from hard-nosed to incendiary in an episode that will always brand him.
By those standards, his words have been generally more measured since. But when LaPierre speaks, those who watch him wonder what undercurrents he’s tapping.
The NRA’s website describes LaPierre as ‘‘a skilled hunter, from Chesapeake waterfowl to African Cape buffalo.’’ Online, there are lots of suit-and-tie photos of LaPierre, and a couple of hunting shots, including a picture of him next to a downed buffalo in Botswana.
The NRA declined to make LaPierre available for an interview or to answer questions about him.
But former colleagues say LaPierre did not show great interest in shooting. And they’re hard pressed to recall any LaPierre hobbies beyond devouring nonfiction. LaPierre is married but does not have children.
‘‘There was an opportunity for him to learn about firearms, and he certainly knows about them,’’ says Tanya Metaksa, who hired LaPierre at the NRA and later worked under him. ‘‘But he’s more the intellectual in his understanding of the history of the issue and the philosophical underpinnings of what it means to uphold the Second Amendment.’’
LaPierre’s path to the top of the NRA began with an interest in politics, not guns.
Richmond attorney Tom Lisk grew up across the street from LaPierre in Roanoke, Va., and remembers him as an avid bowler, passionate about hockey and politics. As a teenager, LaPierre would take his young neighbor along to the bowling alley on Saturday mornings, and he'd hang out at Lisk’s house to talk government with Lisk’s father, who was on the city council.
The NRA executive who’s worked against many a Democratic presidential candidate over the years actually cut his teeth working for Democrat George McGovern’s campaign in Roanoke back in 1972, when LaPierre was 22. LaPierre, who has a bachelor’s degree from Siena College in Loudonville, N.Y., and a master’s from Boston College, got a job early on as an aide to Vic Thomas, a pro-gun Democratic state legislator in Virginia. He worked on gun legislation for Thomas, and that led to his hiring by the NRA in 1978.
Lisk, whom LaPierre later recommended for an NRA job, remembers LaPierre as ‘‘a person that people gravitated toward’’ at the organization.
‘‘Wayne wanted to be liked,’’ says Lisk, noting that he'd send out for ice cream as the group’s lobbyists met to decide which candidates would get campaign contributions.
Richard Feldman, who worked with LaPierre at the NRA but later had a falling out and now runs the Independent Firearm Owners Association, says LaPierre’s success as a lobbyist came in part from never saying ‘‘no’’ to those he might need.
‘‘Wayne’s approach would be, ‘That’s a good idea. Yeah, I'm with you on that,'’’ says Feldman. ‘‘Meanwhile, he’s doing everything around your back to kill it.’’
After a surprisingly long run as the NRA’s executive vice president, surviving insider plots along the way, LaPierre remains the hero to many a gun lover and villain to opponents.
The sharpened battle lines since Newtown have made it easier for LaPierre to pitch his uncompromising message that gun owners must band together to fight liberal elites out to take their firearms.
LaPierre has been here before.
When he went before the Senate Judiciary Committee last month, one of the questioners was Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., his longtime nemesis on the subject of banning assault weapons.
Feinstein welcomed the witnesses and made a point of saying, ‘‘Even you, Mr. LaPierre. It’s good to see you again. I guess we tangled, what was it, 18 years ago? You look pretty good, actually.’’
Associated Press news researcher Monika Mathur and AP writer Calvin Woodward contributed to this report.
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