‘Wayne’s World’: Trial against longtime head of NRA Wayne LaPierre begins in New York

Eleven years ago, Wayne LaPierre, the CEO of the National Rifle Association (NRA), delivered a speech elevating the gun advocacy nonprofit after 20 elementary school children were shot and killed in Newtown, Connecticut.

That day, Mr LaPierre stood on a stage in a sophisticated dark suit and did what his lawyer said he believed one of his duties was as the executive vice president: talk to people to enlist their support for the NRA.

“The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” Mr LaPierre said.

His words shocked those in mourning but resonated with gun rights advocates, just as they had over the two decades that Mr LaPierrebecame the face of the organisation.

But Monday afternoon, the recently resigned Mr LaPierre sat in a plain blue suit adjacent to a twelve-person jury in a New York courtroom, awaiting opening arguments in New York Attorney General Letitia James’s trial against him and two other former or current NRA executives.

This time, Mr LaPierre just listened as Sarah Rogers, a lawyer representing the gun advocacy group, argued, “The NRA is not Wayne LaPierre.”

The position and power Mr LaPierre held for 32 years are under the microscope in the case of alleged corruption – brought by Ms James in 2020.

The New York attorney general alleges that for years, Mr LaPierre “routinely abused his authority” to conceal payments or reimbursements from the organisation for luxury trips taken on private jets, yachts or black-car service, expensive gifts for friends, employees or vendors, private security, lavish meals and more.

Ms James alleges that Mr LaPierre maintained power by retaining employees regardless of experience or skills that he believed would aid him in controlling the organisation – this includes his current co-defendants, former CFO Wilson “Woody” Phillips and general counsel John Frazer.

It also included a former defendant, former chief of staff Joshua Powell, who reached a settlement agreement with the AG last week. 

Ms James said in her complaint.

In total, the allegations paint Mr LaPierre as an autocratic executive who kept a leash around those in high-up positions in order to get what he wanted – something Monica Connell, an assistant attorney general, summed up by calling Mr LaPierre “the king of the NRA”

“The NRA allowed Wayne LaPierre … to operate the NRA as ‘Wayne’s World’ for decades,” Ms Connell said during opening arguments on Monday.

For years, stories about power struggles between former executives and Mr LaPierre have circulated the news cycles. Infighting between NRA leaders in 2019 revealed there was an alleged coup to try and oust Mr LaPierre.

But when members of the NRA were asked whether or not they were confident in Mr LaPierre’s leadership, they “overwhelmingly” voted ‘yes’.

Wayne LaPierre, National Rifle Association, addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference held in the Hyatt Regency on February 28, 2021 in Orlando, Florida

Mr LaPierre, who is largely credited with amplifying the pro-gun movement in the US, had spent a great deal of his time at the NRA helping diffuse tension between mass shootings and firearms.

Aside from his comments about the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012, he also pointed the finger at a 2017 Las Vegas shooter’s access to bump stocks and accused Democrats of exploiting the Parkland school shooting for political gain.

Undoubtedly, Mr LaPierre’s commitment to the NRA helped elevate its status to what it’s as known today.

But the organisation has also faced some blows over the last few years – membership dropped from nearly six million in 2018 to under five million in 2021. Between 2020 and 2021 the organisation’s revenue also faced a dip of more than $50m.

New York Attorney General Letitia James

NRA general counsel John Frazer arrives to a courthouse in New York, Monday, 8 January 2024

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