The Weirdness of Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s Reluctant Leader – Vanity Fair


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“Where the fuck is Wayne?”

It’s a question that everyone close to Wayne LaPierre has asked from time to time. The answer is usually “I have no idea,” followed by another series of profanities. The bookish NRA executive has a habit of disappearing in times of stress. But this question, this Saturday in the late summer of 1998, was different. It was his wedding day, and he was missing at the worst time. Wayne had gotten cold feet.

Wayne’s conduct in the time leading up to his wedding with Susan was, to any outside observer, absolutely humiliating. He scurried around, according to a witness, nervously polling anyone he ran into about whether he should go through with it. He asked his staff. He asked a secretary. He asked his friends. To anyone watching, it was clear he was looking for a way out of a wedding that he had felt pressured into by the bride. According to two close friends of Wayne’s, Susan had sent out the invitations for the wedding without telling him.

When Wayne was finally found on the day of the wedding, he said he didn’t want to get married. The best man honored that by placing a single, crisp hundred-dollar bill on the dashboard of his car, a Jeep Wagoneer. With the engine running, Wayne’s best man told him they could leave whenever he wanted. The best man later recounted to friends that he offered to drive Wayne away.

But Wayne was ultimately persuaded not to leave by Susan and the priest. Wayne was a remarkably weak-willed man, friends said, and could be counted on to yield to any demand if it was issued strenuously and loudly enough. This in itself might not have been so consequential if he hadn’t risen to head what would become a $400-million-a-year firearm advocacy organization.

Wayne Robert LaPierre Jr. was born in 1949 in Schenectady, New York, but was raised in Roanoke, Virginia, in a firearm-free household. Raised Catholic, he graduated from Patrick Henry High School and attended the Roman Catholic Siena College, his father’s alma mater.

While Vietnam War protests raged on college campuses, Wayne landed an internship with a New York state legislator. He managed to avoid the military draft while in college through a student deferment. He also later received a medical deferment—the same categorization as Donald Trump’s—although the exact reason for this is unknown.

Wayne LaPierre, gun rights activist and Chief Executive of the National Rifle Association, at his office at the N.R.A. headquarters in Fairfax, Virginia, on December 9, 2019.Photograph by Mark Peterson/Redux.

Wayne is an awkward egghead type, and it’s not hard to imagine that with a few different twists of fate he would have ended up as a college professor teaching political science, rather than rising to become one of the nation’s most controversial gun rights advocates. He had a soft spot for children and was employed as a substitute special education teacher in Troy, New York, with poor and developmentally disabled students. In 1973 he started a Ph.D. at Boston University but dropped out to help a Democrat run for the Virginia state legislature; a few years later he received an M.A. in political science from Boston College.

His professorial demeanor is not well suited for leadership of a massive, powerful organization. He is easily bullied and doesn’t have the ability to make firm commitments, or to keep his promises once he makes them. Perhaps the best description came from former NRA board member Wayne Anthony Ross, who said that Wayne had the “backbone of a chocolate eclair.”

He has no core and has a reputation for never being able to say no, especially to the wrong people, NRA insiders said. He disdains the stresses of controversy—internal intrigue most of all—but by being unable to grow a spine and turn down bad ideas, he ends up causing a substantial portion of the drama inside the NRA described in this book. NRA insiders used to joke that even if you came into Wayne’s office with a red nose and big rubber shoes, you could get him to approve an expenditure if you pressured him enough. In other words: if you could get in to see him, you could eventually get him to write a check. Wayne could never deliver critical news, and if it was absolutely necessary to do so, he would designate someone else to do it—then panic later over whether it was the right decision.

If he had not been a professor or an academic, there’s a chance that his life could have led him to another passion: confections. He’s expressed numerous times to friends that he would like nothing more than to retire and open up an ice-cream shop in New England. His heart was never really that much into gun rights advocacy. In 1995, four years into his role as the top leader at the NRA, he told the Los Angeles Times that the job was all-consuming, that he didn’t want to live this sort of life, and that he couldn’t wait to move to northern Maine to open up his ice-cream shop. “Your life goes by,” he mused. A quarter century later, he still holds the top role at the NRA, but ice cream remains in the background: when the New York attorney general’s office probed his expenses, investigators found that Wayne spent substantial amounts of money sending friends Graeter’s ice cream for Christmas, all on his nonprofit organization’s dime.

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