WASHINGTON — Victims of the massacre in Newtown, Conn., had just been laid to rest when Wayne LaPierre, the chief executive of the National Rifle Association, met with his board of directors in early January.
A national tide of grief had prompted new attacks on his group and a White House push for more gun control measures, while LaPierre — who had called for armed guards in every school — was pilloried as a ‘‘gun nut’’ on the cover of The New York Post.
‘‘I don’t know why the NRA or the Second Amendment and lawful gun owners have to somehow end up in a story every time some crazy person goes off and kills children,’’ he complained to Cleta Mitchell, a board member, who says LaPierre was ‘‘horrified’’ by the deaths and ‘‘insanely angry’’ that he and the NRA were being blamed.
‘‘These people are out to get us and the Second Amendment,’’ she recalls him telling the board, ‘‘and we’re not going to let them.’’
Now, as the Senate takes up gun control measures, the no-compromise strategy LaPierre has honed over his 35 years with the association is facing its most difficult test in decades.
Lawmakers may defy LaPierre by extending background checks on some gun purchases, which the NRA opposes. But since that grim January planning meeting, LaPierre has prevented what he and his group feared most: bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.
Though LaPierre has long been on the public stage, today he provokes perhaps more debate than ever about who exactly he is. Supporters see him as a steadfast Second Amendment purist; critics cast him as a paranoid figure who believes, as he said last year, in ‘‘a massive Obama conspiracy’’ to seize the nation’s firearms or as a cynical mouthpiece who is paid nearly $1 million a year to warn of crackdowns and crises he knows will never come.
‘‘Wayne reminds me of the clowns at the circus,’’ one of his most vocal detractors, Governor Dannel P. Malloy of Connecticut, said after his state passed new gun control laws this month. ‘‘They get the most attention. That’s what he’s paid to do.’’
Once so bookish that he was known for his copious note-taking and so clumsy with a gun that colleagues laughed at his shooting, LaPierre, 64, helped invent the modern NRA and transformed himself along with it into a right-wing folk hero and a reliable source of polarizing statements.
Liberals search for explanations as to how a man who is no one’s idea of a highly polished spokesman can be so effective, and they accuse LaPierre of buying influence with campaign cash and intimidating lawmakers by ‘‘scoring,’’ or issuing public report cards, on how they vote. But what his critics often overlook is the iron relationship LaPierre has forged with many NRA members.
Week after week, year after year, he is on the road, traveling to gun shows and hotel ballroom fund-raisers, where he dispenses affirmation and absolution, telling firearms enthusiasts that their NRA ties have nothing to do with violence and everything to do with freedom.
NRA members admire LaPierre, who declined to be interviewed for this article, as ‘‘a guy who will never fold,’’ said Grover Norquist, the antitax crusader who is another board member.
‘‘We are so used to electing politicians who go to Washington, D.C., and trim their sails and trade favors and do things they say they would never do,’’ Norquist said. ‘‘If you are going to ask people to write $25 checks, you have to signal to people, ‘I’m not folding; don’t you think about folding.’ And him not folding reminds everybody that we haven’t given up.’’
From the earliest days after the shooting, LaPierre had been working to counter any legislative impact: sowing concerns about background checks, which in the late 1990s he supported; introducing his ‘‘National School Shield’’ plan to arm teachers, administrators, and other school personnel; and making sure his base felt protected as the national trauma sank in.
As a teenager growing up in Roanoke, Va., LaPierre had no apparent interest in hunting or guns, but a deep interest in politics, recalled Tom Lisk, a childhood neighbor who later worked for the rifle association.
He volunteered for the 1972 presidential campaign of Democrat George McGovern; earned a master’s degree in government and politics from Boston College; and then worked for a Virginia state delegate and gun rights advocate, Vic Thomas.
LaPierre essentially fell into his job at the NRA through Thomas, and he began working as a state lobbyist covering New York and New England.
He earned a reputation as being more shy and studious than ideological. Later, he recruited Lisk by telling him that the rifle association was ‘‘a great place to learn politics, learn about lobbying.’’
The association’s skilled lobbying arm, the direct-mail hailstorms that help influence elections, the women’s council, the television network, the sports stars and celebrities (including the rock musician Ted Nugent and the actor Tom Selleck) who sit on its board are all, to some degree, the handiwork of LaPierre. Outreach to minorities has also been a LaPierre priority, said Roy Innis, the national chairman of the Congress of Racial Equality, who serves on the NRA board.