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NPR Obtains Tapes of NRA Discussions After Columbine

Top officials wrestle with whether to respond with defiance or sympathy
By Newser Editors,  Newser Staff
Posted Nov 9, 2021 1:32 PM CST
NPR Obtains Tapes of NRA Discussions After Columbine
The scene on April 20, 1999, at Columbine High School.   (AP Photo/Kevin Higley, File)

School shootings were relatively rare when the Columbine massacre unfolded in 1999, and NPR has obtained two-plus hours of recordings of NRA officials struggling to decide how to respond. The issue was especially dicey because the group's convention was due to take place days later just a few miles away in Denver. Should they scrap it? Ultimately, those who argued the organization would look weak if it did won the day, though the event was scaled down. The group also settled on a relatively defiant approach in its response to the shooting (as voiced by Charlton Heston at the subsequent convention), setting the template that remains largely in place to this day. Highlights:

  • One side: "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 on the conference call.

  • Other side: "That's one very good argument, Jim," responds 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." Much of the conversation revolves around these two competing views.
  • Victims' fund? At one point, NRA official Kayne Robinson floats the idea of creating a victims' fund of $1 million, though Makris responds that such a fund could be "twisted" by the media to suggest the NRA feels responsible.
  • Prevailing view: NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer argues that the convention must go on. If not, "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."
  • Nuts and fruitcakes: Current Executive VP Wayne LaPierre is heard on the call referring to extreme NRA members as "nuts" and worrying they will show up at the convention and give the group a bad image. "Made that point earlier," says Makris. "I agree. The fruitcakes are going to show up."
  • New reveal: The transcripts reveal for the first time that the NRA lost about 500,000 members after the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995, which targeted the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. A week before the attack, the group had referred to the ATF as "jackbooted government thugs."
  • Heston's message: At the convention, Heston went after the media and accused the NRA's critics of trying to politicize a tragedy. "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," he said. "The dirty secret of this day and age is that political gain and media ratings all too often bloom on fresh graves."
  • NRA response: "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," says a spokesperson.
Read the full story and listen to excerpts here.
(More NRA stories.)

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