Flashback: Wayne LaPierre’s Role in the NRA’s Transformation

Second Amendment

When Wayne LaPierre first joined the National Rifle Association in 1978, he was more comfortable on K Street than in a duck blind.

“The safest place you could be with Wayne and a gun back then was in a different state, because he really did not know anything about guns,” former NRA spokesman John Aquilino told FRONTLINE in the 2015 documentary Gunned Down: The Power of the NRA.

As the documentary explored, what LaPierre did know was politics and lobbying. And in the years to come, he would play a crucial role in the NRA’s reinvention of itself from a group of gun enthusiasts and sportspeople with minimal engagement in politics, to a powerful lobbying force opposing any perceived limitations on the right to bear arms.

“Wayne LaPierre is the NRA,” Sheryl Gay Stolberg of The New York Times told FRONTLINE in Gunned Down. “He built the NRA into what it is today.”

Amid news that LaPierre is resigning as the NRA’s CEO and executive vice president, effective Jan. 31, revisit Gunned Down to explore the story of his role in the NRA’s transformation.

The documentary traces how, under LaPierre’s leadership, the NRA became an unrivaled and highly effective lobbying organization with a no-compromise stance — mobilizing its members around fears that their guns would be taken away, developing a playbook to resist the calls to “do something” that followed mass shooting after mass shooting, and successfully defeating attempts at significant federal gun legislation for more than two decades after 1994, including in the wake of the 2012 Newtown massacre.

“The NRA wins because it’s patient and because long after America’s dismay about these gun massacres has faded, the NRA and its membership are still thinking about guns,” Tim Dickinson of Rolling Stone said in Gunned Down.

In the following years, though, the NRA — and LaPierre himself — would come to face challenges on all sides. Building on the reporting in Gunned Down, FRONTLINE chronicled the gun group’s shifting fortunes in 2020’s NRA Under Fire.

The documentary examined how student survivors of the 2018 Parkland mass shooting embarked on a sustained campaign calling for gun legislation that helped motivate a groundswell of politicians to take on the NRA. The film also traced how, in 2019, leaked internal documents revealed lavish spending and sparked allegations of financial misconduct by LaPierre, who has consistently denied all wrongdoing.

“There were a lot of people around the NRA looking to be rich,” former NRA fundraiser Aaron Davis told FRONTLINE in the film. “Can’t imagine any other non-profit in the entire country that has a similar mission where people are making so much money. The hypocrisy of it all is that the membership who gives $25 doesn’t — they don’t know where their money is going.”

As the film reported, one of the candidates elected following the Parkland students’ organizing was New York State Attorney General Letitia James, and she immediately turned her sights on the NRA. At the time the film was released, James had issued nearly 100 subpoenas to current and former employees of the NRA as part of an investigation into the finances of the tax-exempt gun rights organization, which is chartered in the state of New York. Several months later, she filed a lawsuit moving to “dissolve” the NRA and alleging that its leaders had “looted” millions of dollars from its charitable mission for their own gain.

LaPierre was one of four individuals charged in the New York state lawsuit, along with the NRA, whose president called the lawsuit “a baseless, premeditated attack on our organization and the Second Amendment freedoms it fights to defend.” LaPierre in a statement at the time called the lawsuit “an unconstitutional, premeditated attack” and said that “the NRA is well governed, financially solvent, and committed to good governance.”

A New York judge in 2022 blocked James’ bid to dissolve the NRA, but allowed the lawsuits against the organization, LaPierre and three other individuals to proceed. That same year, following mass shootings in Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas, Congress passed the first significant federal gun safety legislation in decades despite opposition from the NRA.

According to The New York Times, the NRA’s membership has dropped from almost 6 million people to 4.2 million people in the last five years, and the organization’s revenue has decreased 44 percent since 2016.

The announcement of LaPierre’s resignation, effective Jan. 31, 2024, came days before his civil trial in connection with James’ charges began in New York.

“With pride in all that we have accomplished, I am announcing my resignation from the NRA,” LaPierre said in an NRA statement that cited health reasons as the impetus for his decision. “I’ve been a card-carrying member of this organization for most of my adult life, and I will never stop supporting the NRA and its fight to defend Second Amendment freedom.”

In the statement announcing LaPierre’s resignation, NRA President Charles Cotton thanked LaPierre for his service — and commended him on building “an organization that is bigger than him.”

Cotton said that “the NRA will continue to thrive — with a renewed energy in our business operations and grassroots advocacy,” adding, “Our future is bright and secure.”

As LaPierre steps back from the organization he helped to transform, and his civil trial continues, watch NRA Under Fire to get the backstory on the NRA’s evolution, and the raft of challenges the once-unrivaled group has come to face.

Gunned Down is a FRONTLINE production with the Kirk Documentary Group. The producers are Michael Kirk, Jim Gilmore and Mike Wiser. The director is Michael Kirk. The writers are Michael Kirk and Mike Wiser. The reporter is Jim Gilmore. The deputy executive producer of FRONTLINE at the time was Raney Aronson-Rath. The executive producer of FRONTLINE at the time was David Fanning.

NRA Under Fire is a FRONTLINE Production with the Kirk Documentary Group. The director and producer is Gabrielle Schonder. The reporters are Gabrielle Schonder and Jim Gilmore. The writers are Michael Kirk, Mike Wiser and Gabrielle Schonder. The senior producers are Michael Kirk and Mike Wiser. The executive producer of FRONTLINE is Raney Aronson-Rath.

Patrice Taddonio

Patrice Taddonio, Senior Digital Writer, FRONTLINE

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