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THE SUNDAY PROFILE : On the Defensive : Amid both political and public turmoil, NRA chief Wayne LaPierre has stood fast. But the : strains of combat--from within as well as without--are showing.

June 25, 1995|GREGG ZOROYA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Still, LaPierre jokes that as servant to a 75-member NRA board of directors partial to sacrificing leaders now and again, there's no job security. The leadership changed four times between 1985 and 1991, when LaPierre took over.

"Being the executive vice president of the NRA is kind of like being the manager of the New York Yankees and working for George Steinbrenner," he says. "There's going to come a time when it's not going to be me."

If his confidence seems shaky it may be because conservative anti-gun control activists such as Neal Knox dominate the NRA board. "Wayne LaPierre is a very nice guy," Knox says. "He is sometimes too nice."

Even such NRA opponents as Robert Walker, legislative director of Handgun Control Inc., wonder how the temperate LaPierre is tolerated by association conservatives. LaPierre shares their "innate unwillingness to compromise on certain issues, but . . . doesn't have the same type of aggressiveness," Walker says. "I've never really regarded him as being terribly effective."

Former NRA officials and observers say the board wouldn't dare switch leaders in the middle of the turbulence, and Knox denies there has been any plan to remove LaPierre. In any event, as the media swarmed the annual NRA meeting in Phoenix last month, he was overwhelmingly reelected by directors.

NRA officials say LaPierre has earned his $190,000 a year by driving membership to a record high, boosting anti-crime legislation, promoting an award-winning gun-safety program for children and keeping a sharp focus on lobbying efforts. The gun association has 550 employees and an annual budget of $100 million.

"This organization was sliding into . . . an abyss when he took over, and he stabilized it and turned it around and started building it," says NRA First Vice President Marion Hammer.

Strong praise for a man who adamantly denies ever having wanted the job--and in some ways, hardly seemed to fit the profile.

An NRA fund-raising letter (also signed by LaPierre) issued last year proudly describes the membership as "all-American," noting that 82% of members are married and raising children and 71% of them have family members who served in the military.

LaPierre is divorced, has no kids and never served in the military.

Moreover, the small arsenal of shotguns, rifles and handguns he uses for target practice or bird hunting have been silent for six months. And he has no plans to obtain one of the new Virginia right-to-carry-firearm permits the NRA fought for. His official NRA bio calls him an "avid sport shooter," but friends say it just isn't so.

"He represents a real departure for the NRA," says Osha Gray Davidson, author of "Under Fire, the NRA & the Battle for Gun Control" (Henry Holt, 1993). "He's the first leader for the NRA that doesn't come from the shooting-sports and hunting area. He's a politician."

Every morning, LaPierre says, he speed-reads six major daily newspapers cover to cover. He gives 100 speeches a year, travels one-third of his time, and listens to his mother when she calls from Roanoke to offer a tough critique of every TV appearance. She graded the last one as only adequate.

For the rough-and-tumble NRA constituency that likes its leaders smelling of campfire smoke, there's a teasing bit of LaPierre lore:

* Like the story of how he nearly shot an ABC television cameraman. It wasn't quite that way. LaPierre was being filmed while shooting skeet at the Fairfax range when the cameraman ran out in front of him just as he swung his shotgun in the same direction. No one got hurt.

* Or the time LaPierre overslept a golf date with former Vice President Dan Quayle. (It happened five years ago, but LaPierre eavesdropped on a scorching version of the story just a few months ago at a golf course restaurant.) The truth is, LaPierre didn't know the makeup of the foursome until it was too late. "Quayle gets out there and he starts walking around the cart . . . going, 'Where's Wayne?' " LaPierre says.

But there's nothing apocryphal about LaPierre's love for things political. "He's a student of it, lives, eats and breathes politics," says friend and former chief NRA lobbyist James Jay Baker. The devotion has its origins in high school, where LaPierre canvassed districts for the parents of school chums who were running for city council.

Wayne Robert LaPierre Jr. had moved with his family--he was the youngest of two born to Wayne R. and Hazel LaPierre--to Roanoke at age 5. His father worked as an accountant at the General Electric plant there. The LaPierres were Catholics in the Bible Belt and Wayne Jr. remembers feeling somewhat different, but not unwelcome.

His strongest memories are of playing football and baseball and seeing a little of Virginia segregation. LaPierre father and son would attend all-black high school football games on Thursday nights, the only evening when the white schools did not use the stadium.

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