The NRA's Wayne LaPierre: Washington's all-powerful gun man

Paul HANDLEY
Wayne LaPierre arrives prior to a speech by US President Donald Trump at the NRA Annual Meeting in Indianapolis, Indiana in April 2019 (AFP Photo/SAUL LOEB)

Washington (AFP) - After a surge in mass shootings and reports of scandalous spending on his own luxury needs, Wayne LaPierre's time as Washington's preeminent power-broker appeared to be up.

But with President Donald Trump desperate to win reelection next year, the National Rifle Association chief worked his magic, convincing the US leader to further help under-attack gun owners in exchange for their votes.

After two shocking massacres at the beginning of August, Trump initially promised tougher gun controls, a pledge which quickly melted away after he spoke on the phone Tuesday with LaPierre.

Suddenly, Trump was again a hardliner defending the most absolutist interpretation of the US Constitution's Second Amendment guarantee of firearms ownership.

"People need weapons, unfortunately, for protection," Trump told reporters.

"A lot of the people who put me where I am are strong believers in the Second Amendment," he said.

- Conservative power-broker -

It was another victory for LaPierre, the man who almost singlehandedly has made gun control the untouchable third rail of US politics over three decades.

It also put to rest the idea that dozens of US deaths by extremists carrying assault weapons, combined with an ugly financial scandal at the NRA, were about to end LaPierre's career.

The 69-year-old joined the NRA as a lobbyist in 1977 and has led the organization as chief executive since 1991.

In that time he has turned it from a hunting and shooting hobbyists' club into a potent conservative power broker focused on Americans' ability to buy whatever gun they want, when they want, and to carry them openly.

Gun foes are in awe of his ability to not only block firearms regulations but to get more lethal weapons into the hands of Americans.

LaPierre has turned the NRA's estimated five million members into a voter force ready to battle any politician who would regulate guns.

The NRA ranks politicians on their fidelity to Second Amendment principles, spends heavily in advertising to support favored candidates, and organizes voters when elections come around.

That has little impact in solidly Democratic, urban areas, but it can make a huge difference in rural areas where gun enthusiasm is high.

Moderate Republicans are forced to move to the right, and some Democrats find themselves having to attest fealty to the Second Amendment.

- US needs armed teachers -

After the slaughter of 26 children and adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut on December 14, 2012, he managed to halt conservatives from joining a wellspring of support for new gun controls.

The shooting, he said, necessitated more guns -- armed guards and even armed teachers in schools.

Conservatives cringed but went along, and no significant firearms controls were instituted.

The same thing happened after 58 people were murdered in Las Vegas in October 2017 and 17 gunned down in at a high school in Parkland, Florida four months later.

Trump -- who in 2017 told the NRA annual meeting that they helped him secure the White House -- appeared to have a change of heart after Parkland.

He upbraided lawmakers of both parties on national television for not passing tougher gun controls, telling them "You're afraid of the NRA."

But months later, Trump and senior Republicans had taken virtually no action.

- Lavish lifestyle -

LaPierre's hardline stance has clearly made many more moderate politicians and NRA members uncomfortable.

His position atop the wealthy organization appeared endangered early this year amid stories that it had financial problems and that LaPierre, among other top officials, were using donations to fund a lavish lifestyle.

Court documents alleged LaPierre and his wife spent hundreds of thousands of dollars for holidays to Italy, Hungary and the Bahamas, traveling by private jet.

He also spent some $275,000 in NRA funds on Italian suits, and tens of thousands for a hairdresser to travel with his wife.

And after the Parkland shooting the NRA explored buying a $6 million Dallas mansion for LaPierre in a gated golf course community.

But just when it appeared LaPierre had gone a step too far, it was his rivals who fell. NRA president Oliver North and chief lobbyist Chris Cox were forced out after the NRA board unanimously reelected LaPierre in April.

In the annual meeting in April, he waxed triumphantly, using much of the same nationalist, defiant language Trump does.

He condemned opponents as "socialists" and spoke of a "historic restoration" of firearms freedoms, protected by two new conservative justices he helped get Trump to appoint to the Supreme Court.

"In a dangerous world the Second Amendment is often all we have," he said.

"Who is going to protect us but ourselves?"