Why the NRA’s Press Conference Was Silly and Brilliant

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Dec. 21 2012 3:56 PM

Wayne’s World

The NRA didn’t persuade its critics. But it did trick the media into discussing its popular, gun-industry-friendly master plan.

National Rifle Association Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre calls on Congress to pass a law putting armed police officers in every school in America.
National Rifle Association Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre calls on Congress to pass a law putting armed police officers in every school in America during a news conference Friday in Washington, DC.

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images.

Be fair: Nothing that the NRA said on Friday could have possibly won over its enemies. Perhaps if he was a different sort of person, NRA Executive Vice President and CEO Wayne LaPierre could have fallen to his knees, cried “Hosannah!” and announced his conversion to the cause of gun control. But that’s not who Wayne LaPierre is, and that’s not why the stagey “press conference” became a predictable circus.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel, a former Slate politics reporter, is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

The organization, based in the D.C. suburbs, rented out a location that was far more convenient for the media. Satellite trucks from all major cable networks were parked around the downtown Willard International Hotel, clustered around the main entrance with a view of the White House. If you tried to get in another way, two guards with NRA pins were ready to politely march you out.

No, you had to pass a small group of pro-gun-control protesters, mostly from the groups CREDO and Avaaz.org, waving signs at anything that looked like a camera. I had the misfortune to enter the hotel along with some aimless protesters who wanted to get in the NRA’s face but hadn’t thought to hide their signs. “You shouldn’t be holding this!” muttered one protester as she was turned away. “Children are dying because of these people.” I continued to the second press checkpoint, eyed warily by yet more guards, and I picked up my hard-copy event pass: “NRA Press Conference, Friday, Dec. 21, Washington, D.C.”

The world’s leading gun rights organization had booked a room fit for a second wedding—a room that filled up fast. Cameramen who showed up late, and missed out on the press risers, ambled around the print-press seats, looking for a good view of the stage. They shot over a short barricade that had been covered with a velvet curtain, keeping the “program”—as it was called in our two-minute warning—about 15 feet from reporters. Finally, at 11 a.m., NRA President David Keene walked onto the stage and set our rules.

“And at the end of this conference we will not be taking questions,” he said. “Next week we will be available to any of you who are interested in talking about these or other issues of interest to you, so contact us, please, at that point.”

A rare event that had attracted top anchors was transformed into a one-way conversation. The media’s questions, suddenly, were subject to a three-day waiting period. We stayed quiet as LaPierre, a 64-year-old who has spent most of his life at the NRA, took to the podium. His head sunk, as if he needed to compose himself for a confession.

“While some have tried to exploit tragedy for political gain,” he said. “We have remained respectably silent.” This was what the NRA said in response to every mass shooting, but it hadn’t been enough this week, so LaPierre promised to “speak for the safety of our nation’s children.” America’s youth were being put at risk by the lack of armed guards in schools.

“How have our nation’s priorities gotten so far out of order!” said LaPierre. “Think about it. We care about our money, so we protect our banks with armed guards. American airports, office buildings, power plants, court houses, even sports stadiums are all protected by armed security.”

Unbeknownst to LaPierre, or to any of the security guards lurking around wearing NRA pins, two members of the leftist protest troupe Code Pink had gotten into the event with media credentials. Now, one of them had a cue. He walked toward the barricade and unfurled a sign, giving photographers a perfect shot—the NRA president in the background and a pink sign in the foreground.

“Stop killing our children!” yelled the protester. “It’s the NRA and—the assault weapons that are killing our children, not armed teachers!”

LaPierre tried at first to talk over the interruption. He gave up, sinking his head again, as the security guards slowly dragged away the distraction. When the protester was out of the room, LaPierre picked up his script: “The truth is that our society is populated by an unknown number of genuine monsters.” The protest had only delayed a weird riff on pop culture, one that could have been frozen in Lucite from 2000, the last time LaPierre was on the defensive.

“There exists in this country, sadly, a callous, corrupt, and corrupting shadow industry that sells and stows violence against its own people,” he said. It did this through games “with names like Bullet Storm, Grand Theft Auto, Mortal Kombat, and Splatterhouse.” The first game was from 2011, but the rest were from 1997, 1995, and 1988—and the last two didn’t even give their characters any guns. LaPierre queued up a crude first-person shooter on the TV screens behind him. “Here’s one, it’s called ‘Kindergarten Killers.’ It’s been online for 10 years. How come my research staff can find it, and all of yours couldn’t?” Hadn’t he just said that the NRA was holding off on comments until it knew Adam Lanza’s story? Where’d this video game stuff come from?

It was a swipe at the media. LaPierre, when he’s more on his game, is good at that sort of thing. But as projection goes, it’s awfully lazy. LaPierre insisted that media’s “corporate owners and their stockholders” benefit from violent sleaze, then proposed a massacre-prevention plan that would ramp up sales for the industry that funds the NRA. “Before Congress reconvenes,” he said, “before we engage in any lengthy debate over legislation, regulation, or anything else, as soon as our kids return to school after the holiday break, we need to have every single school in America immediately deploy a protection program proven to work and by that I mean armed security.” This security could be drawn from the ranks of “active, retired police, active, Reserve, and retired military, security professionals, certified firefighters, security professionals, rescue personnel, an extraordinary corps of patriotic, trained, qualified citizens.”

The idea was equal parts silly and brilliant. LaPierre’s hardest-fought media battles came in 1999 and 2000, in the aftermath of the massacre at Columbine High School. That school was guarded by armed sheriff’s deputies, who were unable to stop the massacre. But LaPierre had to have seen this week’s Gallup poll, which asked Americans for their views on a few massacre-prevention ideas. Sixty-three percent of Americans were open to a new assault weapons ban. But 64 percent wanted “at least one person” at every school to be armed, and 87 percent were open to more “police presence” at schools. As buffoonish as he looked and sounded, LaPierre was getting a captive media to talk about a popular, unexplored, gun industry-friendly master plan. He’ll get to say it again this Sunday on Meet the Press.

LaPierre’s comments were online in full before the event had ended. He introduced former DEA Director Asa Hutchison as the man who’d lead the “National Model School Shield Program,” with a budget provided by the NRA, before this eventual guns-in-schools plan could be paid for by the feds. Then he vanished behind a velvet curtain, acknowledging shouted questions with a wave and a “Thank you very much!” The NRA couldn’t be silent anymore, but it could sure try to control the press.

“This is the beginning of a serious conversation,” said Keene. “We won’t be taking questions today.”

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