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A secret tape made after Columbine shows the NRA's evolution on school shootings

Nov 9, 2021
Originally published on November 10, 2021 7:10 am

Soon after the Columbine High School shooting in 1999, senior leaders of the National Rifle Association huddled on a conference call to consider canceling their annual convention, scheduled just days later and a few miles away.

Thirteen people lay dead at a high school in Colorado. More than 20 were injured. Images of students running from the school were looped on TV. The NRA strategists on the call sounded shaken and panicked as they pondered their next step into what would become an era of routine and horrific mass school shootings.

And in those private moments, the NRA considered a strikingly more sympathetic posture toward mass shootings than the uncompromising stance it has taken publicly in the decades since, even considering a $1 million fund to care for the victims.

NPR has obtained more than 2 1/2 hours of recordings of those private meetings after the Columbine shooting, which offer unique insight into the NRA's deliberations in the wake of this crisis — and how it has struggled to develop what has become its standard response to school shootings ever since.

"Everything we do here has a downside," NRA official Kayne Robinson says on the tapes. "Don't anybody kid yourself about this great macho thing of going down there and showing our chest and showing how damn tough we are. ... We are in deep s*** on this deal. ... And so anything we do here is going to be a matter of trying to decide the best of a whole bunch of very, very bad choices."

The tapes of the NRA discussions were recorded secretly by a participant and shared on the condition that the participant's name not be divulged. NPR has taken steps to verify the tapes' authenticity, including by confirming the identities of those speaking on the tapes with two sources and comparing the voices on the calls with publicly available audio.

In addition to mapping out their national strategy, NRA leaders can also be heard describing the organization's more activist members in surprisingly harsh terms, deriding them as "hillbillies" and "fruitcakes" who might go off script after Columbine and embarrass them.

And they dismiss conservative politicians and gun industry representatives as largely inconsequential players, saying they will do whatever the NRA proposes. Members of Congress, one participant says, have asked the NRA to "secretly provide them with talking points."

Asked for comment, a current NRA spokesperson said, "It is disappointing that anyone would promote an editorial agenda against the NRA by using shadowy sources and 'mystery tapes' in order to conjure up the tragic events of over 20 years ago."

The Columbine shooting in Littleton, Colo., was at the time the deadliest school shooting since the late 1960s, threatening to provide a tragic backdrop to the NRA's previously scheduled annual convention in Denver. Billboards advertising a "World Class Guns & Gear Expo" already peppered the city. Meanwhile, hate mail began arriving at the NRA's offices.

A school bus in 1999 passes a billboard advertising the NRA's annual meeting in Denver, previously scheduled to take place just 10 days after the shooting at Columbine High School.
Kevin Moloney / Getty Images

One day after the shootings, the NRA's top executives, officials, lobbyists and public relations strategists all scrambled on to a conference call to deal with the crisis. Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre is on the line, as is longtime NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer and advertising strategist Angus McQueen, among others. The dilemma they face is apparent in their conversations.

"At that same period where they're going to be burying these children, we're going to be having media ... trying to run through the exhibit hall, looking at kids fondling firearms, which is going to be a horrible, horrible, horrible juxtaposition," says NRA lobbyist Jim Baker on the conference call.

"I got to tell you, we got to think this thing through, because if we tuck tail and run, we're going to be accepting responsibility for what happened out there," says NRA official Jim Land.

"That's one very good argument, Jim," replies PR consultant Tony Makris. "On the other side, if you don't appear to be deferential in honoring the dead, you end up being a tremendous s***head who wouldn't tuck tail and run, you know? So it's a double-edged sword."

The NRA's public relations gurus weren't just worried about the propriety of the gun show, either. Parties and banquets were planned — even an appearance by a comedian. They struggled with whether to cancel the convention entirely, proceed with a pared-down event or just go ahead as planned.

The NRA considered other options as well, as illustrated by this exchange:

NRA OFFICIAL KAYNE ROBINSON: Is there something concrete that we can offer? Not because guns are responsible, but because we care about these people? Is there anything? ... Does that look crass or ...

NRA LOBBYIST JIM BAKER: You mean the legislative?

ROBINSON: No, I'm talking about something concrete ... 

PR CONSULTANT TONY MAKRIS: Like a victims fund ...

ROBINSON: Yeah, we create a victims fund, and we, uh, we give the victims a million dollars or something like that, uh. ... Does that look bad, or does it look uh ...

MAKRIS: Well, I mean, that can be twisted too. I mean, why ... why are you giving money? You feel responsible?

BAKER: No. ... Well, you're — true. It can be twisted, but we feel sympathetic and ...

NRA SPOKESPERSON BILL POWERS: Respectful.

The strategists ultimately decided that canceling their convention would deny them a platform to respond to criticism and also that a cancellation would be an opportunity for attacks by the national media.

Hammer, a longtime NRA lobbyist who once served as its president, weighs in with an unyielding view. She tells LaPierre that even if they don't lose money, they would lose face if they canceled.

"You have to go forward," she says. "For NRA to scrap this and the amount of money that we have spent ..."

"We have meeting insurance," LaPierre replies.

"Screw the insurance," says Hammer. "The message that it will send is that even the NRA was brought to its knees, and the media will have a field day with it."

Hammer and LaPierre are also among the NRA officials who can be heard disparaging some of the group's membership. In the aftermath of the shooting, McQueen reasons that "normal" members would stay away from the site of the tragedy — leaving only the group's most extreme members as attendees. "The hair on the back of my neck stood up" when this thought occurred to her, Hammer says.

It's a recurrent internal problem with the NRA — often its most radical members are also the most passionate, dedicated and outspoken. The NRA exists in part to advocate for legislation and, often, to make compromises to see bills pass into law. But a hard-line faction in the NRA is uninterested in those compromises — or any position other than the most expansive view of the Second Amendment.

Wayne LaPierre, the executive vice president of the NRA, is seen here in a photo taken just weeks after the 1999 Columbine shooting. He can be heard on the recordings obtained by NPR calling some NRA supporters "nuts."
Mario Tama / AFP via Getty Images

"You know, the other problem is holding a member meeting without an exhibit hall. The people you are most likely to get in that member meeting without an exhibit hall are the nuts," says LaPierre.

"Made that point earlier. I agree," says Makris. "The fruitcakes are going to show up."

Says Hammer: "If you pull down the exhibit hall, that's not going to leave anything for the media except the members meeting, and you're going to have the wackos ... with all kinds of crazy resolutions, with all kinds of, of dressing like a bunch of hillbillies and idiots. And, and it's gonna, it's gonna be the worst thing you can imagine."

The tapes also show that the NRA was shaken by the negative press following the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, which targeted the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms and other federal agencies. A week before that bombing, the NRA put out a fundraising letter calling the ATF "jackbooted government thugs," and after the bombing, LaPierre had defended this rhetoric.

In the ensuing firestorm, former Republican President George H.W. Bush publicly resigned as an NRA member in protest. This led to an exodus of some half a million members — a number that has never been reported prior to now.

"What we're trying to avoid here, I think, is what happened after the Oklahoma City bombing," says PR adviser McQueen. "When we lost control of a situation and the result was a half a million members, the president of the United States bailing out on us and a firestorm of negative media that if you went back and looked at, it was probably in the hundreds of millions of dollars in opposition to us and our point of view."

"And I think this will be worse," responds Baker.

Baker can also be heard telling others not to worry about the stance of the firearms industry. While some critics of the NRA claim that the organization is beholden to the firearms industry, NRA leaders on the call claimed the opposite — that the industry was ready and willing to follow their lead. Like in this exchange:

MAKRIS: Jim, let me ask you a question. ... What's the industry going to do?

BAKER: I think the industry will do whatever we ask them to do.

LAPIERRE: Do you think they have a preference, Jim? Is there anybody we ought to be talking to?

BAKER: I talked to Delfay this morning, and he said they stand ready to help us orchestrate whatever we want to do. They're just waiting to know.

Robert Delfay was the head of an industry trade group.

They discuss the role of Republican politicians in the Columbine fallout as well and say they too are looking to the NRA for guidance.

"We got a call from Congressman Tancredo, who is ... as good as they get, and he's nervous as a cat on a hot tin roof," says Baker.

LaPierre claims that Senate Majority Whip Don Nickles, R-Okla., had secretly asked him for talking points to use after the shooting.

"I was talking to Nickles' office this morning, and what they told me is they're planning on sending them all to school[s] because what they wanted us to do was secretly provide them with talking points," LaPierre says.

The NRA ultimately decided to hold its convention in Denver after the shootings, albeit vastly scaled down in size. It was met by thousands of protesters.

And inside, then-NRA President Charlton Heston delivered the defiant message that its leaders had planned out in their private calls — a message very similar to the group's position on mass shootings today: The national media is not to be trusted, and any conversation about guns and the NRA after mass shootings is an untoward politicization of the issue.

"Why us? Because their story needs a villain. They want us to play the heavy in their drama of packaged grief, to provide riveting programming to run between commercials for cars and cat food," Heston said at the time to applause. "The dirty secret of this day and age is that political gain and media ratings all too often bloom on fresh graves."

Charlton Heston, then the NRA's president, delivered a defiant message at the organization's 1999 meeting: "Why us? Because their story needs a villain. They want us to play the heavy in their drama of packaged grief."
Kevin Moloney / Getty Images

Over the next two decades, this unapologetic message would come to define the NRA's tone in the wake of mass shootings at American schools. After 32 people were killed at Virginia Tech in 2007: "This is a time for people to grieve, to mourn, and to heal. This is not a time for political discussions or public policy debates." After the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School: "The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun." And after the 2018 shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla., the NRA's spokesperson said bluntly, "Many in legacy media love mass shootings."

NPR reached out to the NRA and provided it with transcripts of the audio we used in this story. To protect our source and in keeping with prior practice, we did not provide the tape. An NRA spokesperson called the story a "hit piece" and complained that the NRA was denied the tape.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The Columbine High School shooting back in 1999 killed 13 people in a Colorado high school. Two teenagers were responsible. In the hours and days that followed, leaders of the National Rifle Association huddled in private to debate how to react. And today we want to play for you never-before-heard recordings of those meetings. Here's the NRA's top official Wayne LaPierre and lobbyist Marion Hammer discussing whether to cancel their annual meeting, scheduled only days later in nearby Denver.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WAYNE LAPIERRE: We have meeting insurance.

MARION HAMMER: Screw the insurance. The message that it will send is that even the NRA was brought to its knees, and the media will have a field day with it.

CHANG: NPR has obtained more than two and a half hours of tapes like this, and they reveal that the NRA contemplated taking a vastly different public position than the uncompromising stance that they've come to be known for after mass shootings. NPR investigative correspondent Tim Mak obtained those tapes, and he joins us now. Hey, Tim.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Hey there.

CHANG: So tell us. How did you get these tapes in the first place?

MAK: So they were recorded some 22 years ago by a participant on the call who provided it to NPR, and we've taken steps to verify the identities of those on the call. What you can hear in these tapes is the deliberations about what to do about the annual meeting and the problem of having it so close to the site of the Columbine shootings. About a dozen of the NRA's top executives, officials, lobbyists and PR strategists are all scrambling onto this conference call. You have Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre who's there. And longtime ad man Angus McQueen is, too. Marion Hammer, the former NRA president, joins the line. They kind of sound shaken. Here's the NRA's top lobbyist at the time, Jim Baker.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JIM BAKER: This is the same concern, obviously, that everybody has - is that at the same period where they're going to be burying these children, we're going to be having media within 10 miles of our convention center, the world's media trying to run through the exhibit hall, looking at kids fondling firearms, which is going to be a horrible, horrible, horrible juxtaposition.

MAK: It's clear to the participants on the call that this is the biggest crisis the NRA has faced in years.

CHANG: It's fascinating. What are some of the possible responses that they're coming up with on this phone call?

MAK: So they've got a few options. They can cancel the convention entirely. They can kind of pare it down. And they're also wondering if there's any action they can take. Can they contribute money to the victims, for example? Here's NRA official Kayne Robinson.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KAYNE ROBINSON: If there's something concrete that we can offer - not because guns are responsible but because we care about these people - is there anything - does that look crass, or...

MAK: And so they even discuss giving money.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TONY MAKRIS: Like a victims fund or...

ROBINSON: We can create a victims fund, and we give the victims a million dollars or something like that. Does that look bad, or does it look...

MAKRIS: Well, I mean, that can be twisted, too. I mean, why are you giving money - you feel responsible?

ROBINSON: Well, true, it could be twisted. But we feel sympathetic and respectful.

MAK: So I don't know if you can hear that there. He says respectful.

CHANG: Yeah.

MAK: So it's the suggestion of a softer tone. But over the hours of tape, you can hear as they settle into this view of the position they must take.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JIM LAND: I got to tell you, we got to think this thing through because if we tuck tail and run, we're going to be accepting responsibility for what happened out there.

MAKRIS: That's one very good argument, Jim, on the other side. If you don't appear to be deferential in honoring the dead, you end up being a tremendous [expletive]head who would tuck tail and run, you know? So it's a double-edged sword.

MAK: So you can hear the two competing tensions there.

CHANG: Such an interesting window into this time. I mean, Tim, you have been covering the NRA for quite some time now. And just listening to these - what? - nearly three hours of tapes, I'm just curious. What else struck you?

MAK: So there's been this longstanding internal problem with the group. Often, its most radical members are also its most passionate and dedicated. So the NRA exists in part to advocate for the legislation. But there have always been hardline gun activists within the organization disinterested in any sort of legislative compromises. And on the tape, you can hear the NRA's leaders referring to these members in less than flattering terms. Here's LaPierre again.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LAPIERRE: You know, the other problem is holding a member meeting without an exhibit hall.

MAKRIS: You know, yeah.

LAPIERRE: The people you are most likely to get in that member meeting without an exhibit hall are the nuts.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: That's right.

MAKRIS: I made that point earlier. I agree.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: But you've got to have...

MAKRIS: The fruitcakes are going to show up.

MAK: They're talking about what's called annual members meeting. It's an unscripted event where the NRA supporters can propose resolutions or make speeches from the floor. And it's clear the NRA's top leaders feared it would get out of control after Columbine. The next bit I want to play comes from Hammer.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HAMMER: If you pull down the exhibit hall, that's not going to leave anything for the media except the members meeting. And you're going to have the wackos with all kinds of crazy resolutions, with all kinds of dressing like a bunch of hillbillies and idiots. And it's going to be the worst thing you can imagine.

MAK: It's really shocking to hear the NRA's officials disparage some of their own members so freely...

CHANG: Yeah.

MAK: ...When they've had no issue in the past taking this faction's money or mobilizing them when it suits their purposes.

CHANG: Sure. The name-calling and laughing is pretty remarkable. I'm curious. Who else did they talk about on this call?

MAK: Well, let's hear what they had to say about the gun industry.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MAKRIS: Jim, let me ask you a question. What are you - what is the industry going to do?

BAKER: I think the industry will do whatever we ask them to do.

LAPIERRE: Do you think they have a preference, Jim? Is there anybody we ought to be talking to?

BAKER: I talked to Delfay this morning, and he said they stand ready to help us orchestrate whatever we want to do. They're just waiting to know.

MAK: Robert Delfay was then the head of a gun industry trade group. Now, some critics accuse the NRA of being beholden to the gun industry. But here in these tapes, the NRA is saying it's the other way around. Now, much like the gun industry, pro-NRA politicians are also looking to the NRA for guidance. Here, LaPierre refers to then-Senate Majority Whip Don Nickles.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LAPIERRE: Well, I'm just - I was talking to Nickles' office this morning, and what they told me is they're planning on sending them all to school 'cause what they wanted us to do was secretly provide them with talking points.

MAK: So just to emphasize here, LaPierre is saying that the Republican leader is asking them to secretly provide them notes on what to say.

CHANG: It is so fascinating to listen to these tapes. What do you think these conversations from more than 20 years ago can tell us about the NRA's actions ever since then?

MAK: Gradually, what we see and what we hear in these tapes is the NRA's playbook emerging just as America's entering this era of school shootings. The NRA is arguing in these tapes that society, not firearms, is the source of the real problem. And their strategy would really also revolve around skepticism of the press and not wanting to show any signs of weakness. You'll remember after the Parkland shootings, when NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch said that, quote, "the legacy media loves mass shootings." And that's a strategy that the NRA has used for decades.

CHANG: That is NPR investigations correspondent Tim Mak. Thank you, Tim.

MAK: Thanks a lot.

CHANG: Now, NPR did reach out to the NRA and provided them with transcripts of the audio that we used in this story. In order to protect our source and in keeping with prior practice, we did not provide the actual tape. An NRA spokesperson called this story a, quote, "hit piece" and complained that they were denied the audio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.