For three decades, Wayne LaPierre has been the face of gun rights in the US. Lean and bespectacled, known for his expensive suits, he was an unlikely spokesperson for American machismo. But the National Rifle Association leader’s willingness to defend Americans’ access to guns, no matter the cost, made him a powerful rightwing figure, whose relentless, paranoid rhetoric made him an important precursor, and then ally, of Donald Trump.
Today, LaPierre is facing a reckoning: he is expected to testify in a civil corruption case in Manhattan that will scrutinize allegations that he and other senior executives misused NRA donors’ funds, squandering millions of dollars on lavish personal trips and expenses, and treating the NRA as his own “personal piggy bank”.
On Friday, just days before the trial is expected to begin, the NRA announced LaPierre, 74, would be stepping down as its chief executive, after leading the group since 1991.The NRA said LaPierre “cited health reasons as a reason for his decision”, and announced that Andrew Arulanandam, LaPierre’s longtime spokesperson, would be taking over as interim head of the organization on 31 January.
“It’s the end of an era,” said Adam Winkler, a law professor and gun rights expert. Though LaPierre departs with a tarnished reputation, leaving a weakened NRA that has lost members and influence during its legal battles, the gun rights movement he led continues to gain strength.
The supreme court’s new pro-gun majority is expanding the legal scope of the second amendment, ruling in 2022 that Americans had a constitutional right to carry a handgun in public for self-defense, and instituting a more difficult legal standard to justify gun-control laws. The court is currently deliberating over whether it’s constitutional to ban domestic abusers, perhaps the most dangerous category of people in the country, from owning guns.
“America is a different place in part because of Wayne LaPierre,” Winkler said. “It’s not necessarily a better place, but it is a changed place, and it is one in which gun rights have broader protection than ever before.”
Fear-mongering and rightwing politics
In 1991, when LaPierre became the chief executive of the NRA, gun-control groups were gaining power, as the US suffered through record-high rates of daily gun violence. In 1993, Congress passed a landmark bill instituting criminal background checks on gun sales. In 1994, it passed a federal ban on military-style “assault weapons”. (That ban expired in 2004, and Congress has refused to renew it.)
LaPierre initially faced scepticism from some gun rights activists, perceived as someone with little personal facility with guns or hunting culture, Winkler said. His handling of firearms in early years drew mockery.
But in the face of political demands for even more gun control, LaPierre pushed back, using aggressive, fear-mongering arguments. In 1995 a domestic terrorist bombed a federal building in Oklahoma City, leaving nearly 200 people dead. When a, NRA fundraising letter assailed “jack-booted government thugs” eager to confiscate guns, and compared federal agents to Nazis, LaPierre faced furious backlash. Former president George HW Bush announced he was resigning as a life member of the NRA.
But on Meet the Press, LaPierre defended those words as “a pretty close description of what’s happening in the real world”.
In 2012, after 20 children were shot to death in their Newtown, Connecticut, elementary school, many people expected that the NRA would be forced to take a more conciliatory approach, and support some kind of gun-control compromises. Instead, LaPierre held a press conference where he said: “The only thing that stops a good guy with a gun is a bad guy with a gun.” The United States did not need any new gun-control laws, LaPierre argued: it needed guards with guns in every public school.
LaPierre’s statement was initially mocked and criticized, even by Republicans. The tabloids branded him a “gun nut” and a “loon”. Four months later, Congress rejected the Obama administration’s push for even a modest expansion of gun-control laws. LaPierre had won again.
The moments when LaPierre appeared to have sparked the greatest backlash “actually were moments of strength for him – moments when he rallied his movement behind him”, said Winkler, the author of Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America.
By the time LaPierre made an early bet on Donald Trump and spent at least $30m to put him in the White House, LaPierre’s brand of extreme rightwing politics was winning control of the Republican party, bringing rhetoric about the “deep state” and government conspiracies into the Oval Office itself.
‘A legacy of terror’
Gun-control activists have for years accused LaPierre of having blood on his hands. “He leaves behind a legacy of terror,” Guns Down America, a gun-violence prevention group, said in a statement. But it is allegations of greed and self-dealing, not violence, that have finally brought him to court.
LaPierre railed for years against the American elites he claimed were oppressing and undermining the freedom-loving gun owners it was his job to represent.
Now he faces a lawsuit filed in 2020 by the New York attorney general Letitia James that is full of allegations painting LaPierre as a corrupt Washington elitist: allegedly charging the NRA for millions of dollars in private plane trips for himself and his family, including repeated to the Bahamas for vacations on a yacht, and more millions for his personal security.
During an acrimonious public battle between the NRA and its longtime advertising firm Ackerman McQueen, the Wall Street Journal obtained documents alleging that LaPierre spent $39,000 on a single day of shopping at a clothing store in Beverly Hills, and that his total bills from the Zegna designer menswear store totalled $274,695.03 over more than a decade.
The NRA said in the statement announcing LaPierre’s resignation that it had taken major steps to clean house, firing employees and vendors that had faced allegations of misconduct, and “accepted reimbursement, with interest, for alleged excess benefit transactions from LaPierre”.
Alan Gottlieb, a longtime gun-rights activist who leads the Washington state-based Second Amendment Foundation, said LaPierre had been missing in action for several years as the NRA fought its internal battles, no longer making phone calls or attending events as he once had.
His stepping down now would no longer be a “seismic moment” for the gun-rights activists, Gottlieb said: “I don’t see much of an impact.”