A report from NPR lets us listen in on hours of private NRA meetings held in the wake of the 1999 Columbine shooting.
Mass shootings have become depressingly and disturbingly common in the United States in the last 20 years. But in April 1999, they were a world-shaking event. The mass killing that occurred at Columbine High School in Colorado, in which two students killed 10 of their fellow classmates and themselves, forced America to reconsider its relationship with guns, with media, with the culture developing within schools.
One of the organizations that found itself in the middle of that reckoning was the National Rifle Association, the largest arm of the gun lobby. In the years since, the NRA has been a source of animosity and antagonism following mass shootings, often using the events to agitate for looser gun control laws in the name of self-defense. But new tapes unearthed by NPR recorded during secret meetings held by NRA officials following the Columbine shooting reveal that the organization wasn’t always so stuck in its hardcore views — though it was certainly concerned that its membership would be.
The tapes, recorded by a participant who was granted anonymity, are of the gun rights group kicking around ideas on how to respond to the mass shooting. At one point, NRA official Jim Land reveals what would ultimately become the organization’s way of responding to mass shootings: “If we tuck tail and run, we’re going to be accepting responsibility for what happened out there,” he reportedly says on the call. One member suggested creating a fund for the victims. Others thought the group should cancel their convention, which was set to be held in Colorado just days after the shooting — something they ultimately opted against, fearing that canceling the convention would result in the NRA looking weak.
Perhaps most revealing, though, is how the NRA’s top executives talked about the organization’s own members. According to NPR, the tapes reveal officials in the organization referring to the NRA’s most ardent supporters as “hillbillies” and “fruitcakes.” They worried that if they canceled their convention and failed to control the messaging, then the group’s most extreme members would become the loudest voices in the room, while more moderate members would stay away. “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,” Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s current CEO and longtime coward, reportedly said on the call.
NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer — recently in the news for a failed lawsuit that claimed an email she received containing pictures of gunshot wounds as part of an effort to convince her to support stricter gun control measures was cyberstalking and harassment — also made some disparaging comments about the organization’s membership. “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,” she said on the tape, per NPR.
The NRA responded to NPR’s request for comment by saying 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.” An NRA spokesperson further called NPR’s story a “hit piece” but did not offer any more specific comment on the allegations.
In recent years, the NRA has hemorrhaged members, lost money, and found itself in major legal trouble. The tapes might hold a hint as to why: Some of NRA leadership seems to hate the group’s most fervent loyalists. Even as they have served as an effective obstructionists against any form of gun control in the two-plus decades since Columbine, LaPierre and others at the top of the organization seem to deride the folks who pay their exorbitant salaries. It’s the worst people you can imagine being shitty to each other while also actively harming the general public.