The wounded elephant was on the ground, his hunters drawn close for the kill. But the longtime head of the National Rifle Association – touted as a skilled marksman – struggled to finish the job.
Following a guide and clad in safari gear, Wayne LaPierre fires shots from a few feet away. The elephant’s breathing is labored.
“I’m not sure where you’re shooting,” the guide says. One apparently errant shot later, another man steps in.
The 2013 footage from a Botswana hunting trip – captured for a TV show that the NRA used to sponsor – never aired out of concern it could became a “public relations fiasco,” according to the New Yorker and the nonprofit newsroom the Trace, which published the video Tuesday. LaPierre at times appears to struggle with basic marksmanship and could have violated the NRA’s ethics code for hunters: “I will do my best to acquire those marksmanship and hunting skills, which insure clean, sportsmanlike kills,” the code reads.
The video came at a fraught time for the NRA, a major political force and powerful lobbyist against gun control. The footage was posted just two days before LaPierre is due to testify for the second time in an ongoing NRA bankruptcy case in Dallas, one that has put LaPierre’s stewardship of the gun rights lobby on trial. A New York native, LaPierre has led the NRA since 1991.
The elephant hunt footage quickly drew backlash and derisive reactions on Tuesday.
“In which @NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre manages to alienate both hunters and gun owners because not only is this inhumane, but he’s a horrible shot,” tweeted Shannon Watts, a fierce NRA critic and the founder of Moms Demand Action, which fights for stronger gun restrictions.
In a statement, NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam confirmed that LaPierre was part of a hunt in Botswana and that “the corresponding video footage was for an outdoor TV show the NRA once sponsored.”
He defended the hunt as “fully permitted and conducted in accordance with all rules and regulations” and as an activity that contributes to the region’s economy and culture, echoing arguments from other proponents of big-game hunting.
“The video offers an incomplete portrayal of the experience – and fails to express the many ways this activity benefits the local community and habitat,” Arulanandam said.
The video was shot for “Under Wild Skies,” which showcases big-game hunts and is hosted by Tony Makris, an executive at the NRA’s estranged former PR company Ackerman McQueen – now in a legal fight with the gun rights group. Makris could not be reached Tuesday evening for comment.
In 2013, video of Makris shooting an elephant in the face sparked another outcry, leading NBC Sports Network, which aired the show, to respond in a statement that the “Under Wild Skies” episode should not have aired and would not run again. Makris was filmed chasing the injured animal, eventually killing it and celebrating with champagne.
“While this form of hunting is legal, we understand that many viewers find it objectionable,” NBC said at the time.
The video published Tuesday captures LaPierre and Makris on another elephant hunt. After an animal is spotted and LaPierre prepares to fire, a guide instructs him to wait. But LaPierre, wearing earplugs, does not hear the instructions, he later says.
His first shot lands off-screen. LaPierre asks, “Did we get him?” The guide locates the downed elephant and points out where LaPierre should fire a fatal round. LaPierre fires two more shots from only a few feet away.
“I’m not sure where you’re shooting,” the guide says.
“Where are you telling me to shoot?” LaPierre asks.
The guide moves forward and points out a place near the ear – a recommended target to pierce the animal’s brain. He fires his fourth shot and misses again.
The guide laughs and suggests to Makris he finish up. He fires a shot. “That’s it,” the guide says.
Makris downplays his own role, however.
“You dropped him like no tomorrow,” he tells LaPierre.
LaPierre’s wife, Susan, kills her own elephant with better marksmanship than her husband – after shooting a tusked elephant in the head, the guide directs where to shoot it in the chest to ensure it’s dead. Her second shot wins approval from the group, and she laughs with relief.
The guide says it’s a hunter custom to cut the tail off a dead elephant so it cannot be claimed by someone else.
Susan LaPierre saws through the hide with a knife and raises it to the sky.
“Victory,” she says.
African elephants are endangered, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The African forest elephant population has fallen by more than 86% over about the past three decades, according to the organization, while the number of African savanna elephants has dropped at least 60% over the past half-century. The group points to poaching and loss of habitat, and Botswana’s government has spoken about the benefits of legalized elephant hunts.
Critics called the gory display in Tuesday’s video disturbing. “This is disgusting,” tweeted MSNBC host Joy-Ann Reid.
“We’re in the midst of a poaching epidemic, and rich trophy hunters like the NRA chief are blasting away at elephants while the international community calls for stiffer penalties for poachers – what message does that send?” Tanya Sanerib, international legal director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement.
The video’s release comes as the NRA is embroiled in messy legal battles.
After the group was sued last year by New York Attorney General Letitia James for violating state charity laws, NRA leaders announced that the organization was declaring bankruptcy and moving to Texas largely to avoid the New York lawsuit. James claimed that LaPierre and other executives enriched themselves at the expense of the tax-exempt organization and its 5 million members – and she sought dissolution of the NRA, which was originally chartered in New York state.
James and others have contested the NRA bankruptcy filing and asked the federal bankruptcy court judge to appoint an independent trustee to run the organization. The trial has revealed flaws in the NRA’s fiscal management through the years, including payments made to Ackerman McQueen, one of the group’s leading outside contractors.
“Under Wild Skies” is hosted and owned by Makris, but Ackerman McQueen is not otherwise associated with the venture.
The video was filmed in mid-2013, months after the December 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., which resulted in the deaths of 20 children and six adults. Under LaPierre’s leadership, the NRA opposed a regulatory response championed by gun-control advocates at the time.
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