Listen: “We give the victims a million dollars”
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.”
Listen: “Even the NRA was brought to its knees”
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.
“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.”
Listen: “You’re going to have the wackos”
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.”
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.