Instead, LaPierre gravitated toward the lobbying world and, in 1978, was hired by Knox as an NRA lobbyist. He had helped write the gun-friendly 1986 legislation, and he maintained an unwavering stance on the Second Amendment. The NRA flourished under LaPierre's leadership. As Bill Clinton ascended to the presidency, some 600,000 people joined the NRA, according to LaPierre's tally. He appointed a Knox ally, Tanya Metaksa, as head of the NRA lobbying unit.
"Wayne was trying to protect his flank, and he needed somebody very hard-core," recalls Richard Feldman, who worked for the NRA in the 1980s and whose book "Ricochet" is a tell-all on gun politics.
LaPierre knew what notes to hit to satisfy the hard-liners. At the annual meeting in 1993, LaPierre told the members, "Good, honest Americans stand divided, driven apart by a force that dwarfs any political power or social tyrant that ever before existed on this planet: the American media."
Democrats in Congress and some Republican allies passed an assault-weapons ban in 1994. That fired up the NRA base. The NRA's rhetoric grew harsher. Out on the political fringe, the militia movement grew in influence, as anti-government activists warned of black helicopters carrying federal agents dressed like ninjas. The militants cited the 1992 shooting deaths of two civilians in a federal raid at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and the 1993 siege by federal agents of a religious sect's compound in Waco, Texas, that culminated in a fire killing 76 people.
John Magaw, then the head of the ATF, recalls trying to set up meetings with the NRA to discuss gun issues. "They would not answer. They would ignore us."
It was personal, too. Once, Magaw says, he saw LaPierre waiting to board a plane at Dulles International Airport in Fairfax County, Va. They were at the same gate.
"I went over to pay my respects and say hello," he says. "He just turned and walked away. He wouldn't talk to me."
The NRA did not make LaPierre or any other NRA official available for an interview for this report.
Change in rhetoric
Everything seemed to be going the NRA's way in the aftermath of the 1994 midterm election, when Democrats were drummed from the House en masse. But then came Oklahoma City.
Timothy McVeigh's April 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building killed 168 people, including 19 young children in a day-care center, and although the NRA had nothing to do with the terrorist attack, the association's strident anti-government rhetoric drew national attention. News reports focused on a fundraising letter, signed by LaPierre and sent to NRA members before the bombing, that said the new assault-weapons ban "gives jackbooted Government thugs more power to take away our constitutional rights, break in our doors, seize our guns, destroy our property and even injure and kill us."
Even staunch NRA members began to get queasy. Former president George H.W. Bush resigned his NRA membership. Former NRA president Richard Riley, who headed the association from 1990 to 1992, told The Post at the time, "We were akin to the Boy Scouts of America . . . and now we're cast with the Nazis, the skinheads and the Ku Klux Klan."
LaPierre apologized for having used language that he said was wrongly interpreted as a broad attack on federal agents. And he began to maneuver behind the scenes to keep the NRA from turning into a fringe organization like the John Birch Society. That would mean doing something about Knox, Metaksa and their allies.
At the 1997 annual meeting in Seattle, Knox ran for the office of first vice president, a position that would put him in the line of succession to become president of the NRA. But suddenly he had competition for that job from none other than Charlton Heston. The legendary actor and NRA supporter beat Knox by four votes and went on to become president.
"Needless to say, when you run against Moses, Moses wins," says Joe Tartaro, the Cincinnati rebel.
Metaksa left ILA the next year, and Knox was off the board at decade's end. He died in 2005. David Gross, a self-described "Knoxinista," says Knox and his allies ultimately won the ideological battle even if they personally didn't survive as NRA leaders.
"You know the old saying, 'You never want to be first'?" Gross says. "The person with the alleged radical ideas, or the new ideas, they extend themselves, they fail, then somebody comes along, picks up the pieces and then develops the project."
By 2000, the NRA had become even more closely aligned with the Republican Party and worked strenuously to keep Al Gore from becoming president. At the annual meeting in May of that year, Hollywood legend Heston provided what might be the signature moment in the history of the NRA. He spoke of a looming loss of liberty, of Concord and Lexington, of Pearl Harbor, the "sacred stuff" that "resides in that wooden stock and blued steel."
Handed a replica of a Colonial musket, he said: "As we set out this year to defeat the divisive forces that would take freedom away, I want to say those fighting words for everyone within the sound of my voice to hear and to heed - and especially for you, Mr. Gore."
He held the gun aloft.
"From my cold, dead hands!"
Had Gore managed to carry Arkansas or West Virginia - states full of gun-toting Democrats - or his home state of Tennessee, he would have become president even without any favorable recount of votes in Florida. The next spring, citing the election results, Fortune magazine ranked the NRA as the most powerful lobbying group in Washington, surpassing even AARP.
Strength in adversity
The paradox for the NRA is that it gains strength when under assault. During the 2000s, with gun control now largely off the table, the NRA membership leveled off. In 2004, the assault-weapons ban expired; in 2008, the Supreme Court ruled, in a 5-4 vote, that the Second Amendment establishes an individual's right to own a firearm.
The NRA is now headquartered outside the District of Columbia in Fairfax, Va., and, according to its 2010 filing with the IRS, has 781 employees and 125,000 volunteers. Annual revenues top $200 million. It's a tax-exempt, "social welfare" organization with the self-described mission "to protect and defend the U.S. Constitution, to promote public safety, law and order and the National defense."
LaPierre received $960,000 in compensation from the NRA and related organizations, according to the 2010 documents. Kayne Robinson, executive director of general operations, was paid more than $1 million. Chris Cox, head of the ILA, made $666,000. NRA President David Keene, a longtime conservative activist who was elected in 2011, is unpaid.
Last election cycle, the NRA spent about $20 million on federal election campaigns, according to Opensecrets.org. It has endowed a professorship at George Mason University (the Patrick Henry Professorship of Constitutional Law and the Second Amendment). It's a prodigious publisher of newsletters and glossy magazines, including American Rifleman, which in 2011 reported a paid circulation of 1.8 million. The NRA has a weekly TV show ("American Rifleman Television" on the Outdoor Channel and a satellite news service, NRA News). The website is as slick as they come (as it loads on the screen, the site informs the visitor, "The full NRA experience requires a broadband connection").
Beyond the financial muscle, the NRA has people power. The NRA can inundate local, state or congressional offices with phone calls via a single action alert to the membership.
Cleta Mitchell, an NRA board member, says, "Obama famously referred to people who 'cling to guns and religion.' He was right. We do. And we are proud of it. This is about abiding principles, and people take action when they think someone or some group is taking away precious values."
Grover Norquist, the influential tax activist and an NRA board member since 2000, believes that gun-control advocates fail to recognize that their efforts are viewed by many gun owners as a message that says, "You don't like me." That message blots out all other efforts to communicate, he says. And no one, he says, votes for a candidate simply because that candidate is in favor of gun control. Millions of voters, however, will vote against a candidate on that single issue, he says. He thinks Democrats' efforts to pass new gun laws will backfire.
"The D's keep coming back to this. This is so visceral to them," Norquist says. "Again, it's an expression of contempt for Middle America. They don't like you and yours and don't think you should be in charge of the capacity to take care of yourself. They know they can't do this for you, but they've hired these nice people to draw chalk outlines of your kids, and that's supposed to make you feel better."
William Vizzard, a retired ATF official who is now a criminal justice professor at California State University at Sacramento, says the NRA is not trying to be like other Washington organizations seeking to influence legislation.
"The NRA is a populist lobby," he says. "They get support when people are mad and stirred up. They want the attention. They're not interested in fixing things. They want to stir things up, and the more they stir things up, the more members they get and the more money they make. What do they gain by compromising? Nothing."
In the fall of 2009, Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, convened a gun conference that brought police chiefs and law enforcement officials to Washington from around the country. Wexler also reached out to the NRA. The NRA representative remained largely silent, and at the end of the day, Wexler sensed that the NRA had showed up merely to say no.
"They were not willing to accept what police chiefs who deal with shooting and firearms every day were saying," Wexler says. "It was like, we don't really care what you're saying because this is what we think. The NRA has a preconceived idea about what should be done. And that is nothing."
The NRA keeps track of gun-control supporters and makes lists. The NRA compendium of "National Organizations With Anti-Gun Policies" includes AARP, the AFL-CIO, the American Medical Association, the American Bar Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics - just from the A's on the list. (Toward the end of the list is The Washington Post.)
The NRA waited a week before it responded in depth to the Newtown massacre. LaPierre's news conference, covered live on cable television, reintroduced America to the core values of the association. After calling for armed guards for every school and uttering the line, "The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun," LaPierre predicted that he'd be beaten up in the news media:
"I can imagine the headlines, the shocking headlines you'll print tomorrow. 'More guns,' you'll claim, 'are the NRA's answer to everything.' Your implication will be that guns are evil and have no place in society, much less in our schools."
"CRAZIEST MAN ON EARTH" blared the front-page headline of the next morning's New York Daily News.
"GUN NUT!" proclaimed the New York Post.
Among the most sensitive issues for the NRA is the idea of a national database of gun registration. It is orthodoxy among gun rights advocates that registration is a prelude to confiscation. The diehards invoke Hitler and other dictators who confiscated guns prior to slaughtering innocents. The NRA also argues that such registration is unconstitutional.
Two years ago, as part of The Post's investigative series "The Hidden Life of Guns," NRA lobbyist Chris Cox explained the organization's position:
"The federal government has no business maintaining a database or a registration of Americans who are exercising a constitutional right. Just like they have no right and no authority to maintain a database of all Methodists, all Baptists, all people of different religious or ethnic backgrounds."
Last week, Vice President Joe Biden said the administration might use "executive orders" to curtail gun violence, a remark that incited the Drudge Report to run a screaming headline with photographs of Hitler and Stalin splashed on the page.
Biden met with NRA representatives Thursday at the White House. The NRA listened to the administration's ideas and then provided an immediate response.
"We were disappointed with how little this meeting had to do with keeping our children safe and how much it had to do with an agenda to attack the Second Amendment," the NRA said afterward in a statement emailed to its members. "We will not allow law-abiding gun owners to be blamed for the acts of criminals and madmen."
In short: No.