Soon after the Columbine High School shooting in 1999, senior leaders of the National Rifle Association huddled on a conference call to consider canceling their annual convention, scheduled just days later and a few miles away.
Thirteen people lay dead at a high school in Colorado. More than 20 were injured. Images of students running from the school were looped on TV. The NRA strategists on the call sounded shaken and panicked as they pondered their next step into what would become an era of routine and horrific mass school shootings.
And in those private moments, the NRA considered a strikingly more sympathetic posture toward mass shootings than the uncompromising stance it has taken publicly in the decades since, even considering a $1 million fund to care for the victims.
NPR has obtained more than 2 1/2 hours of recordings of those private meetings after the Columbine shooting, which offer unique insight into the NRA's deliberations in the wake of this crisis — and how it has struggled to develop what has become its standard response to school shootings ever since.
"Everything we do here has a downside," NRA official Kayne Robinson says on the tapes. "Don't anybody kid yourself about this great macho thing of going down there and showing our chest and showing how damn tough we are. ... We are in deep s*** on this deal. ... And so anything we do here is going to be a matter of trying to decide the best of a whole bunch of very, very bad choices."
The tapes of the NRA discussions were recorded secretly by a participant and shared on the condition that the participant's name not be divulged. NPR has taken steps to verify the tapes' authenticity, including by confirming the identities of those speaking on the tapes with two sources and comparing the voices on the calls with publicly available audio.
In addition to mapping out their national strategy, NRA leaders can also be heard describing the organization's more activist members in surprisingly harsh terms, deriding them as "hillbillies" and "fruitcakes" who might go off script after Columbine and embarrass them.
And they dismiss conservative politicians and gun industry representatives as largely inconsequential players, saying they will do whatever the NRA proposes. Members of Congress, one participant says, have asked the NRA to "secretly provide them with talking points."
Asked for comment, a current NRA spokesperson said, "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."
The Columbine shooting in Littleton, Colo., was at the time the deadliest school shooting since the late 1960s, threatening to provide a tragic backdrop to the NRA's previously scheduled annual convention in Denver. Billboards advertising a "World Class Guns & Gear Expo" already peppered the city. Meanwhile, hate mail began arriving at the NRA's offices.
One day after the shootings, the NRA's top executives, officials, lobbyists and public relations strategists all scrambled on to a conference call to deal with the crisis. Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre is on the line, as is longtime NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer and advertising strategist Angus McQueen, among others. The dilemma they face is apparent in their conversations.
"At that same period where they're going to be burying these children, we're going to be having media ... trying to run through the exhibit hall, looking at kids fondling firearms, which is going to be a horrible, horrible, horrible juxtaposition," says NRA lobbyist Jim Baker on the conference call.
"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.
"That's one very good argument, Jim," replies 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."
The NRA's public relations gurus weren't just worried about the propriety of the gun show, either. Parties and banquets were planned — even an appearance by a comedian. They struggled with whether to cancel the convention entirely, proceed with a pared-down event or just go ahead as planned.
The NRA considered other options as well, as illustrated by this exchange:
NRA OFFICIAL KAYNE ROBINSON: Is there something concrete that we can offer? Not because guns are responsible, but because we care about these people? Is there anything? ... Does that look crass or ...
NRA LOBBYIST JIM BAKER: You mean the legislative?
ROBINSON: No, I'm talking about something concrete ...
PR CONSULTANT TONY MAKRIS: Like a victims fund ...
ROBINSON: Yeah, we create a victims fund, and we, uh, we give the victims a million dollars or something like that, uh. ... Does that look bad, or does it look uh ...
MAKRIS: Well, I mean, that can be twisted too. I mean, why ... why are you giving money? You feel responsible?
BAKER: No. ... Well, you're — true. It can be twisted, but we feel sympathetic and ...
NRA SPOKESPERSON BILL POWERS: Respectful.
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."
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."
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.