WASHINGTON Victims of the massacre in Newtown, Conn., had just been laid to rest when Wayne LaPierre, the chief executive of the National Rifle Association, met with his board of directors in early January.
A national tide of grief had prompted new attacks on his group and a White House push for more gun control measures, while LaPierre who had called for armed guards in every school was pilloried as a "gun nut" on the cover of the New York Post.
"I don't know why the NRA or the Second Amendment and lawful gun owners have to somehow end up in a story every time some crazy person goes off and kills children," he complained to Cleta Mitchell, a board member, who says LaPierre was "horrified" by the deaths and "insanely angry" that he and the NRA were being blamed.
"These people are out to get us and the Second Amendment," she recalls him telling the board, "and we're not going to let them."
Now, as the Senate takes up gun control measures, the no-compromise strategy LaPierre has honed over his 35 years with the association is facing its most difficult test in decades.
Lawmakers may defy LaPierre by extending background checks on some gun purchases, which the NRA opposes. But since that grim January planning meeting, LaPierre has prevented what he and his group feared most: bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.
Though LaPierre has long been on the public stage, he provokes perhaps more debate than ever about who exactly he is.
Supporters see him as a steadfast Second Amendment purist; critics cast him as a paranoid figure who believes, as he said last year, in "a massive Obama conspiracy" to seize the nation's firearms or as a cynical mouthpiece who is paid nearly $1 million a year to warn of crackdowns and crises he knows will never come.
"Wayne reminds me of the clowns at the circus," one of his most vocal detractors, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy of Connecticut, said after his state passed new gun control laws this month. "They get the most attention. That's what he's paid to do."
Once so bookish that he was known for his copious note-taking and so clumsy with a gun that colleagues laughed at his shooting, LaPierre, 64, helped invent the modern NRA and transformed himself along with it into a right-wing folk hero and a reliable source of polarizing statements.
Liberals search for explanations as to how a man who is no one's idea of a highly polished spokesman can be so effective, and they accuse LaPierre of buying influence with campaign cash and intimidating lawmakers by "scoring," or issuing public report cards, on how they vote. But what his critics often overlook is the iron relationship LaPierre has forged with many NRA members.
Year after year, he is on the road, traveling to gun shows and hotel ballroom fundraisers, where he dispenses affirmation and absolution, telling firearms enthusiasts that their NRA ties have nothing to do with violence and everything to do with freedom.
NRA members admire LaPierre, who declined to be interviewed for this article, as "a guy who will never fold," said Grover Norquist, the anti-tax crusader who is another board member.
"We are so used to electing politicians who go to Washington, D.C., and trim their sails and trade favors and do things they say they would never do," Norquist said. "If you are going to ask people to write $25 checks, you have to signal to people, 'I'm not folding; don't you think about folding.' And him not folding reminds everybody that we haven't given up."
'They call us crazy'
Three months and a day after the Newtown massacre, LaPierre, dressed in his trademark business suit and starched white shirt, arrived with a security detail at a convention hall overlooking the Potomac for the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, a gathering of thousands of activists sponsored, in part, by the NRA.
From the earliest days after the shooting, LaPierre had been working to counter any legislative impact: sowing concerns about background checks, which in the late 1990s he supported; introducing his "National School Shield" plan to arm teachers, administrators and other school personnel; and making sure his base felt protected as the national trauma sank in.
But on stage that day, LaPierre kept going back to himself. He was introduced by a slick video montage produced by his organization of television commentary that made him out to be a member of the lunatic fringe, with pundits proclaiming him "whacked" and "the lobbyist for mass murderers," which he used as the starting point for a 30-minute speech about how his opponents are really the irrational ones.
"They call us crazy, but no one no other organization in the world has spent more millions over more decades to keep Americans safe," LaPierre said, referring to the association's gun safety efforts.
And he had nothing but ridicule for Vice President Joe Biden, who had recently advised women to go outside and fire "two blasts" from a shotgun into the air if they heard an intruder.
"Honestly," LaPierre asked, "have they lost their minds over at the White House?"
The association's skilled lobbying arm, the direct-mail hailstorms that help influence elections, the women's council, the television network, the sports stars and celebrities (including rock musician Ted Nugent and actor Tom Selleck) who sit on its board are all, to some degree, the handiwork of LaPierre. Outreach to minorities has also been a LaPierre priority, said Roy Innis, the national chairman of the Congress of Racial Equality, who serves on the NRA board.
On LaPierre's watch, gun rights have expanded across the country; 41 states now issue permits to carry concealed weapons "in large part because of Wayne's leadership," the association's website boasts.
"He has built a membership and advocacy organization that is the model for other nonprofit organizations, liberal and conservative alike," said Anthony D. Romero, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, an occasional ally of the NRA.
With the Senate scheduled to begin voting on gun control measures this week, the question in Washington is not only which restrictions will pass. It is also whether LaPierre, having done more to expand gun rights than perhaps any other official in NRA history, can keep winning now that the Newtown massacre has changed the national debate.
Already, two NRA allies Sens. Patrick J. Toomey, R-Pa., and Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va. have broken with LaPierre to sponsor legislation extending background checks, which a bipartisan group of senators has embraced.
"The NRA didn't lose many fights in the old days, and they don't lose many fights now," said Charlie Cook, editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. "But circumstances have changed."
LaPierre is being uncomfortably squeezed: from the right by organizations like Gun Owners of America, whose members regard themselves as even more ardent defenders of the Second Amendment, and from the left by new opponents like Gabrielle Giffords, the former congresswoman, a shooting victim and Glock owner, who says her goal is common-sense gun laws.
Gun control advocates are moving to cast LaPierre and his organization which once used the slogan "I am the NRA" to show its reach across American society as extreme and out of sync even with its own members.
A New York Times/CBS News survey in January found that 68 percent of households with NRA members support background checks on all potential gun buyers; some sales, including those at gun shows, are now exempt.
All of that raises a question about LaPierre's leadership: Has the take-no-prisoners, never-say-die approach that endears him to his base also made him an alienating figure to Americans?
"The question for the NRA is whether eventually he appeals to only so narrow a segment of the population that he consigns himself to irrelevance," said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., a gun control advocate. "And I believe he is fast approaching that point of almost making a caricature of himself."