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Quick draw: How the NRA's LaPierre keeps his enemies guessing

By Tom Foreman, CNN
updated 7:47 PM EST, Thu January 31, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre has been a strong advocate for gun owners
  • He's also known as a brash, heavyweight brawler who rarely backs down from a fight
  • He testified at a Senate hearing on gun violence Wednesday

Can there be a solution to America's gun problems? Anderson Cooper looks at both sides of the debate in "Guns Under Fire: an AC360º Town Hall Special," Thursday at 8 p.m. ET on CNN. It will re-air at 10 p.m. ET.

Washington (CNN) -- Wayne LaPierre is not a large man. He does not move with the easy assurance of a skilled fighter. His head sits low on his neck, and he seems to turn from the shoulders.

His swept-back, graying hair and rimless glasses make him look like a Central Casting accountant who sleeps with a tie on. Yet, in Washington, LaPierre is a heavyweight of the first degree, a brawler who can make even brave politicians toss in the towel at the first sign of a scuffle.

The longtime executive vice president and public face of the National Rifle Association faced some of his toughest critics on Capitol Hill Wednesday -- including California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, author of the updated bill hoping to again ban military-style assault rifles -- as he testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee at a hearing titled "What Should America Do About Gun Violence?"

He argued that government should focus on enforcing existing gun laws rather than drafting new ones.

"Law-abiding gun owners will not accept blame for the acts of violent or deranged criminals, nor do we believe that government should dictate what we can lawfully own and use to protect our families," he told lawmakers.

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The tough champion of the Second Amendment has been taking heat since the NRA came out strongly in favor of armed security in every public school in America, days after the deadly shooting in Newtown, Connecticut.

But that's what makes LaPierre so formidable: his unflinching willingness to say aloud what many foes consider outrageous.

"Why is the idea of a gun good when it is used to protect the president of our country or the police, but bad when it is used to protect our children in our schools?"

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That was the head of the National Rifle Association speaking to a room packed with cameras and reporters a week after the Newtown school shooting. He was pushing the idea of armed guards in every school.

Critics howled. A headline in New York proclaimed "Gun Nut!" while another called him the "Craziest Man on Earth."

But LaPierre did not even blink, going on "Meet the Press" to say, "If it's crazy to call for armed officers in our schools to protect our children, then call me crazy." For many of his supporters, that had the ring of common sense, and that's what makes Washington nervous.

LaPierre has been the leader of the NRA for more than 20 years, turning it into a political juggernaut. The group boasts more than 4 million members capable of pouring money into political races at the drop of a hat.

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More importantly, NRA fans have proved that they can be relied on to show up at the polls and savage any candidate, Democratic or Republican, who strays from the doctrine of the Second Amendment, as they see it.

And LaPierre is the man who commands that political wrath, frequently by unleashing a torrent of scathing accusations against those who would oppose him.

A few examples:

• In a 1995 fundraising letter, he referred to federal agents enforcing gun laws as "jack booted thugs."

• After 1999's Columbine High School massacre, he complained that gun owners in general, and NRA members in particular, were being unfairly portrayed as "... somehow a reckless, societal, pathogen; a mighty, extremist empire opposed to safety, caution and reason. That is a cruel and dangerous lie."

• In 2000, he suggested that President Bill Clinton was allowing gun deaths to pile up to spur anti-gun sentiment among voters.

• When Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords was shot, LaPierre noted that the gunfire came close to a school, a designated "gun free" zone, and again he ripped into gun opponents. "That didn't make any difference. Their laws didn't work. Their lies don't ring true. And if Tucson tells us anything at all, it tells us this: government failed."

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Make no mistake: There is no indication that LaPierre is a loose cannon or someone who does not mind his words. To the contrary, they are chosen with the precision of a marksman.

Even if his opponents hate to admit it, he follows an unswervingly clear course with his statements; always attacking, never ceding even an inch, and relentlessly portraying those who would infringe on gun rights as radicals.

And he wins. Year after year, for all the bluster around gun issues, the NRA has emerged victorious, galvanizing millions of Americans who feel that government too often overreaches and intrudes upon individual freedoms.

Simply put, it is the language of motivation. And when it comes to guns, no one speaks it like Wayne LaPierre.

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