The National Rifle Association announced Friday that longtime chief Wayne LaPierre will resign at the end of the month, marking the end of an era as the group continues to face legal and financial trouble.
Long-maligned by gun control activists and constantly controversial, LaPierre has served as the group’s face in Washington for over three decades.
Rise to power
LaPierre is not generally the type of person one would expect to head a gun-rights organization. He grew up in Roanoke, Va., in a home without firearms, and didn’t purchase his first gun until he was out of college.
Bouncing around between political jobs in Virginia and Massachusetts Democratic circles — once turning down a job from then-Speaker of the House Tip O’Neil (D-Mass.) — LaPierre joined the NRA lobbying team in 1978.
In his 2021 critical history of the organization, journalist Tim Mak described LaPierre as “bookish” and an “awkward egghead type.”
But, he was considered extremely effective by colleagues and quickly rose in the group’s ranks. In just a few years, he was promoted to lead the NRA’s state lobbying arm and then its federal lobbying effort.
“This organization was sliding into … an abyss when he took over, and he stabilized it and turned it around and started building it,” former NRA President Marion Hammer said in a 1995 Los Angeles Times feature.
Known for social awkwardness, lackluster fashion sense and a reputation for being a push-over, Mak described, LaPierre nonetheless found success winning over Washington politicians to his gun-rights cause.
He took the CEO job in 1991 with reluctance, only after no other candidate stepped up. Even in the 1995 LA Times feature he showed little confidence in his own job, joking that the NRA board would be quick to have him removed.
It was an open secret that LaPierre didn’t even enjoy shooting guns, Mak wrote, once showing up to a skeet shoot with an embarrassingly rusted shotgun, and years later being so clumsy with gun safety that his weapon was confiscated during a video filming.
“He represents a real departure for the NRA,” author Osha Gray Davidson, who wrote a 1993 book on the history of the organization, told the LA Times. “He’s the first leader for the NRA that doesn’t come from the shooting-sports and hunting area. He’s a politician.”
A video leaked to The New Yorker in 2021 showed LaPierre on an African trophy hunt, attempting to take down an elephant. After nervously felling the elephant, he went on to miss a killing blow three times and was chastised by his guide.
“Wayne would be spotted far more often with his legal pads than with a pistol,” Mak wrote. “He looks at guns through the lens of politics — as a political junkie, not as a lover of firearms.”
His early years at the helm of the NRA were marked with internal strife and legislative difficulties. The first hurdle was the 1991 Brady Bill, named for the press secretary who was paralyzed during an assassination attempt on President Reagan.
It mandated federal background checks on gun purchases for the first time, and faced fierce opposition from the NRA. While it did pass, the group won a concession, doing away with the proposed five-day waiting period to purchase a weapon and instead opting for an instant background check.
Then came the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban, a landmark bill that threatened to severely hamper gun enthusiasts. But with NRA support, a sunset clause was added to the weapon ban portion of the 1994 crime bill, which expired in 2004. Two decades later, there is little political will to re-implement it, despite efforts from Democrats.
Through scandals of spending and controversies of policy surrounding ever-more-frequent school shootings, the NRA reached its height in the 2000s and 2010s.
LaPierre was the head of arguably the most powerful lobby in Washington, and wielded that power to force the hands of dozens of politicians on gun policy. Through a militant membership and hefty political donations, the NRA could sink a candidate by endorsing a rival.
The group also spent hundreds of millions on legal cases, challenging gun control measures in nearly every state.
Cracks began to show in the late 2010s and into this decade. As former President Trump took center stage of GOP politics, less attention was paid to the gun lobby. While the NRA was still successful in pursuing legal cases, its influence was no longer what it was.
Membership started to drop, and with it fundraising.
The association lost about a half-million members from 2021-22, according to gun violence news nonprofit The Trace. It raised just $213 million in 2022, about half of its 2016 total, according to the nonprofit Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
That came at the same time legal bills rose. New York Attorney General Letitia James (D) filed a suit against the NRA in 2021, alleging that LaPierre and other executives corruptly spent millions of association funds on personal luxuries.
That included Caribbean vacations, private jet trips, fancy dinners and even LaPierre’s penchant for gourmet ice cream.
Following an 18-month investigation, James said the NRA fostered “a culture of self-dealing, mismanagement and negligent oversight,” costing the group $64 million over three years. She sought to dissolve the whole organization in the suit, but a state judge pared back that demand last year.
LaPierre’s resignation announcement came just three days before the New York case is set to go to trial. He remains a defendant in the case, and has denied wrongdoing.
His resignation was somewhat unexpected, but the 74-year-old chief cited heath reasons for his departure.
In the interim, the NRA will be led by long-time executive and Head of General Operations Andrew Arulanandam, the group announced Friday.
LaPierre now has the opportunity to go through with a retirement plan he laid out for the LA Times in 1995 and has reportedly frequently repeated to friends since: to start an ice cream shop in northern Maine.
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