Secret recordings of NRA officials after Columbine school shooting show strategy Just after the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School, NRA leaders agonized over what to do. NPR obtained recordings of the calls, which lay out how the NRA has handled mass shootings ever since.

A secret tape made after Columbine shows the NRA's evolution on school shootings

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The Columbine High School shooting back in 1999 killed 13 people in a Colorado high school. Two teenagers were responsible. In the hours and days that followed, leaders of the National Rifle Association huddled in private to debate how to react. And today we want to play for you never-before-heard recordings of those meetings. Here's the NRA's top official Wayne LaPierre and lobbyist Marion Hammer discussing whether to cancel their annual meeting, scheduled only days later in nearby Denver.


WAYNE LAPIERRE: We have meeting insurance.

MARION HAMMER: Screw the insurance. The message that it will send is that even the NRA was brought to its knees, and the media will have a field day with it.

CHANG: NPR has obtained more than two and a half hours of tapes like this, and they reveal that the NRA contemplated taking a vastly different public position than the uncompromising stance that they've come to be known for after mass shootings. NPR investigative correspondent Tim Mak obtained those tapes, and he joins us now. Hey, Tim.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Hey there.

CHANG: So tell us. How did you get these tapes in the first place?

MAK: So they were recorded some 22 years ago by a participant on the call who provided it to NPR, and we've taken steps to verify the identities of those on the call. What you can hear in these tapes is the deliberations about what to do about the annual meeting and the problem of having it so close to the site of the Columbine shootings. About a dozen of the NRA's top executives, officials, lobbyists and PR strategists are all scrambling onto this conference call. You have Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre who's there. And longtime ad man Angus McQueen is, too. Marion Hammer, the former NRA president, joins the line. They kind of sound shaken. Here's the NRA's top lobbyist at the time, Jim Baker.


JIM BAKER: This is the same concern, obviously, that everybody has - is that at the same period where they're going to be burying these children, we're going to be having media within 10 miles of our convention center, the world's media trying to run through the exhibit hall, looking at kids fondling firearms, which is going to be a horrible, horrible, horrible juxtaposition.

MAK: It's clear to the participants on the call that this is the biggest crisis the NRA has faced in years.

CHANG: It's fascinating. What are some of the possible responses that they're coming up with on this phone call?

MAK: So they've got a few options. They can cancel the convention entirely. They can kind of pare it down. And they're also wondering if there's any action they can take. Can they contribute money to the victims, for example? Here's NRA official Kayne Robinson.


KAYNE ROBINSON: If there's something concrete that we can offer - not because guns are responsible but because we care about these people - is there anything - does that look crass, or...

MAK: And so they even discuss giving money.


TONY MAKRIS: Like a victims fund or...

ROBINSON: We can create a victims fund, and we give the victims a million dollars or something like that. Does that look bad, or does it look...

MAKRIS: Well, I mean, that can be twisted, too. I mean, why are you giving money - you feel responsible?

ROBINSON: Well, true, it could be twisted. But we feel sympathetic and respectful.

MAK: So I don't know if you can hear that there. He says respectful.

CHANG: Yeah.

MAK: So it's the suggestion of a softer tone. But over the hours of tape, you can hear as they settle into this view of the position they must take.


JIM LAND: I got to tell you, we got to think this thing through because if we tuck tail and run, we're going to be accepting responsibility for what happened out there.

MAKRIS: That's one very good argument, Jim, on the other side. If you don't appear to be deferential in honoring the dead, you end up being a tremendous [expletive]head who would tuck tail and run, you know? So it's a double-edged sword.

MAK: So you can hear the two competing tensions there.

CHANG: Such an interesting window into this time. I mean, Tim, you have been covering the NRA for quite some time now. And just listening to these - what? - nearly three hours of tapes, I'm just curious. What else struck you?

MAK: So there's been this longstanding internal problem with the group. Often, its most radical members are also its most passionate and dedicated. So the NRA exists in part to advocate for the legislation. But there have always been hardline gun activists within the organization disinterested in any sort of legislative compromises. And on the tape, you can hear the NRA's leaders referring to these members in less than flattering terms. Here's LaPierre again.


LAPIERRE: You know, the other problem is holding a member meeting without an exhibit hall.

MAKRIS: You know, yeah.

LAPIERRE: The people you are most likely to get in that member meeting without an exhibit hall are the nuts.


MAKRIS: I made that point earlier. I agree.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: But you've got to have...

MAKRIS: The fruitcakes are going to show up.

MAK: They're talking about what's called annual members meeting. It's an unscripted event where the NRA supporters can propose resolutions or make speeches from the floor. And it's clear the NRA's top leaders feared it would get out of control after Columbine. The next bit I want to play comes from Hammer.


HAMMER: If you pull down the exhibit hall, that's not going to leave anything for the media except the members meeting. And you're going to have the wackos with all kinds of crazy resolutions, with all kinds of dressing like a bunch of hillbillies and idiots. And it's going to be the worst thing you can imagine.

MAK: It's really shocking to hear the NRA's officials disparage some of their own members so freely...

CHANG: Yeah.

MAK: ...When they've had no issue in the past taking this faction's money or mobilizing them when it suits their purposes.

CHANG: Sure. The name-calling and laughing is pretty remarkable. I'm curious. Who else did they talk about on this call?

MAK: Well, let's hear what they had to say about the gun industry.


MAKRIS: Jim, let me ask you a question. What are you - what is the industry going to do?

BAKER: I think the industry will do whatever we ask them to do.

LAPIERRE: Do you think they have a preference, Jim? Is there anybody we ought to be talking to?

BAKER: I talked to Delfay this morning, and he said they stand ready to help us orchestrate whatever we want to do. They're just waiting to know.

MAK: Robert Delfay was then the head of a gun industry trade group. Now, some critics accuse the NRA of being beholden to the gun industry. But here in these tapes, the NRA is saying it's the other way around. Now, much like the gun industry, pro-NRA politicians are also looking to the NRA for guidance. Here, LaPierre refers to then-Senate Majority Whip Don Nickles.


LAPIERRE: Well, I'm just - I was talking to Nickles' office this morning, and what they told me is they're planning on sending them all to school 'cause what they wanted us to do was secretly provide them with talking points.

MAK: So just to emphasize here, LaPierre is saying that the Republican leader is asking them to secretly provide them notes on what to say.

CHANG: It is so fascinating to listen to these tapes. What do you think these conversations from more than 20 years ago can tell us about the NRA's actions ever since then?

MAK: Gradually, what we see and what we hear in these tapes is the NRA's playbook emerging just as America's entering this era of school shootings. The NRA is arguing in these tapes that society, not firearms, is the source of the real problem. And their strategy would really also revolve around skepticism of the press and not wanting to show any signs of weakness. You'll remember after the Parkland shootings, when NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch said that, quote, "the legacy media loves mass shootings." And that's a strategy that the NRA has used for decades.

CHANG: That is NPR investigations correspondent Tim Mak. Thank you, Tim.

MAK: Thanks a lot.

CHANG: Now, NPR did reach out to the NRA and provided them with transcripts of the audio that we used in this story. In order to protect our source and in keeping with prior practice, we did not provide the actual tape. An NRA spokesperson called this story a, quote, "hit piece" and complained that they were denied the audio.

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