After 3 decades leading the National Rifle Association, Wayne LaPierre resigns NPR's Steve Inskeep talks to Mike Spies, senior staff writer of The Trace, a nonprofit media outlet for gun-related news, about LaPierre's legacy, and how he shaped America's gun culture.

After 3 decades leading the National Rifle Association, Wayne LaPierre resigns

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1223424808/1223424809" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The man who led the National Rifle Association for more than 30 years is stepping down. Wayne LaPierre departs just as testimony is about to start in a civil trial over alleged mismanagement and corruption at the NRA. So what's his legacy? We've called up Mike Spies, a senior staff writer at The Trace, which is a nonprofit media outlet for gun-related news. Good morning.

MIKE SPIES: Good morning. Thanks for having me, Steve.

INSKEEP: Wow. I'm just reflecting on this. Wayne LaPierre has been a fixture at the NRA and on television for about all the time that I've been a journalist. Presidents changed, issues changed, even the century changed and he was still there. So what does it mean that he's leaving?

SPIES: It means that the organization no longer has its face, especially at a time when it has been - become a hollowed out shell of its former self. Without him there, there is no recognizable aspect of the organization.

INSKEEP: I'm just thinking of the consistency with which he said the same thing regardless of the news. There would be a mass shooting somewhere, and Wayne LaPierre would say essentially the same thing, insisting on his view of the Second Amendment, which is by no means universally held, insisting on the same solutions or lack of solutions every single time.

SPIES: Yeah, that's right. I mean, what's interesting, as you point out, that he just said the same thing over and over again. And I think it's key to remind people that in some respects, he was a bit of an automaton who was just sort of being talked through by the organization's longtime public relations firm that effectively created his image and the persona that the American people interacted with for so long.

INSKEEP: Now, with that said, this has been a very influential, very powerful, very well-known organization. How did it evolve under his many years of leadership?

SPIES: Well, it was sort of early in its willingness to exploit fear and paranoia on a mass scale and its willingness to divide people. And it did that incredibly successfully. And its PR firm that I mentioned devised some of the most creative and consequential media campaigns that I can think of from a political committee. And that, you know, stems - going back to the I am the NRA campaign, which everybody remembers, to freedom's safest place. It was built on agitprop and creating a hyperpartisan environment that relied on the kind of, like, tribalism that under him the organization really built out.

INSKEEP: I'm thinking about what gave this organization power, and we should note that. Didn't this organization have millions of members who paid regular dues, which was a regular stream of income that gave the group great influence?

SPIES: It did. I mean, its willingness to pay in elections definitely was significant and grew more significant as the years went on, but it's not the only thing. I mean, it did matter. But what also mattered was that the Republican Party over time realized there was some value in giving the NRA power. As you may know, some of the organization's board members were also sitting members of Congress. And it was seen - getting an A from the organization, especially in the earlier days, was seen as a way to distinguish yourself in a primary as well as in a general election.

INSKEEP: Oh, when you talk about an A, of course, they grade lawmakers on their votes. A lot of organizations do, which gives them a certain amount of influence. But you said it was seen as something powerful. What has caused the NRA's diminishment in the last few years?

SPIES: Well, once we originally broke the stories about widespread self-dealing and mismanagement at the organization, that led to a host of lawsuits, including with the attorney general. That also resulted in the other, more important executives at the organization - especially the man who led, the group's lobbying wing, Chris Cox - to be forced out. As that sort of stuff started to happen and the revelations began to come out about Wayne's self-dealing and other issues, members started to drop off and the organization's brand became toxic.

INSKEEP: And when you mention the attorney general, I guess we should say it's the attorney general of New York, which is now suing the NRA, trying to effectively disband the organization. Mr. Spies, thanks so much for your insights. Really appreciate it.

SPIES: Thanks, Steve. Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: That's senior staff writer Mike Spies of The Trace.

Copyright © 2024 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.