LaPierre thought he would teach and studied education and political science at Sienna University in Upstate New York. While other students protested the Vietnam War, he interned as an aide with a New York state legislator.
After graduation, LaPierre worked as a substitute special education teacher at a school in Troy, N.Y. Interacting with children who were not only developmentally disabled but also poor had a dramatic impact, LaPierre says: "I concluded that a lot needs to be done to give those kids hope."
But his interests shifted increasingly toward politics. During graduate studies at Boston College, where he would earn a master's in American government and politics, LaPierre paid his own way home every week to work as political consultant to Roanoke Democrats. The dream of teaching was fading.
LaPierre bought his first gun, a .38-caliber revolver, after college for target shooting. Close friends in Roanoke were gun enthusiasts. And when the NRA helped one of his legislators pass a state law punishing felons who carry firearms, LaPierre found something worth fighting for.
He turned down an offer in 1978 to be legislative aide to then-House Speaker Tip O'Neill (D-Mass.) for a job with the NRA. It would open doors to intimate negotiations with Presidents, attorneys general, chiefs of staff and congressional leaders, and lead to favorable compromises on laws banning plastic guns and armor-piercing bullets.
By 1991, when the NRA leadership seemed in disarray and membership was dwindling, LaPierre, content then as head of the NRA lobby, says he urged others to run for chief executive. In the end, though, no other qualified candidate stepped forward.
More recently, with the Clinton Administration pushing gun control, NRA directors have grown increasingly rigid on political strategy, observers say, quick to snatch support from loyal pro-gun congressmen who make one false step.
A close friend says LaPierre is getting fed up with internal NRA politics. All LaPierre will say is that he feels a sense of malaise over how his life has become consumed with the cause. He dreams of a marriage and family.
"You don't have any time in this town. I mean you work from 7 in the morning until 11 at night, night after night, you end up working weekends . . . and your life goes by," he says.
LaPierre won't say when or if he might leave the job. But when asked what a former NRA chief might do with his life, he smiles. "Probably [go] up to northern Maine, I'm serious, and open an ice cream shop."
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Wayne R. LaPierre Jr.
Background: Born in Albany, N.Y., raised in Roanoke, Va. Now lives in Arlington, Va.
Family: Divorced; no children.
Passions: Spectator sports of all kinds, chocolate ice cream, "Saturday Night Live."
On the NRA's renowned access to Washington power figures: "Any group that represents 3.4-million members is going to have access. If you have that large of a constituency, you're going to be listened to. That doesn't mean they're always going to do what you say."
On the press: "They never lob softballs at me. I know it's going to be a hardball. It's going to be fast. It's often going to be at the head."
On his passion for politics: "It's people. I mean, that's what politics is about. . . . It's about helping them. It's about trying to do the right thing."