A COUPLE of years after his 15-year-old son, Daniel, was killed in the Columbine High School shooting in April 1999, Tom Mauser bumped into Wayne LaPierre, chief executive of the National Rifle Association, at a charity event. It was a lucky meeting for Mauser. In the months after the massacre, in which 12 students and a teacher died, LaPierre had been seminal in lobbying against a congressional bill that would have closed the gun show loophole that allows firearms to be sold by private sellers without any background checks. It was exploited by the Columbine killers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, to buy their weapons.
After the bill collapsed, Mauser had written to the NRA asking why it had opposed a safeguard to prevent future tragedies. "I wrote, 'Do you have any idea what it's like to go through this, to lose your son in that way'?" Mauser says.
He was surprised by the NRA's response. Or lack of it. So he raised the matter with LaPierre when he met him, and LaPierre, being the polite and affable character he is widely said to be, promised to find out what had happened to the letter. Months passed, and still Mauser received no reply, so in 2002 he presented a copy of the same letter to the Washington offices of the NRA and picketed outside the front door.
The NRA called the police and Mauser was arrested. He repeated the action in 2005, and was arrested again. "It became clear to me, LaPierre would rather have me arrested than talk to me, reply to my letter or even acknowledge me as a human being," he says.
In the 21 years he has been at the helm of the NRA, LaPierre has had to deal with plenty of Columbines: Virginia Tech, Tucson, Aurora - the list goes on. And on each occasion he has responded with the same lobbying - some say bullying - to prevent any political tightening of gun controls, mixed with a blanket refusal to respond to criticism.
This time, though, it's different. The tactic of not responding that Mauser experienced after Columbine could not hold after Newtown, where 20 young children and six teachers were killed in the Sandy Hook elementary school.
On December 21, a week after Adam Lanza began his rampage, LaPierre was finally forced to speak. But he showed no sign of compromise. He repeated a mantra he has recited after several mass shootings. "The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun," he said.
Newtown represents the most perilous moment for LaPierre. Since he took on the job of the NRA's executive vice-president in 1991, he has helped grow the association into the corporate powerhouse that it now is.
LaPierre is not a true "gun man" in the classic mould. He neither comes from a military background nor from the rural heartlands that generate much of the NRA's core membership. He is a professional bureaucrat. He was brought up in Roanoke, Virginia, and received a master's degree in government from Boston College. His passion is not guns, but the machinations of power. A brief stint as the legislative aide to a Virginia Democratic politician brought him into contact with the NRA, which he joined in 1978. He rose up the ranks as a regional lobbyist, then to Capitol Hill, and from there into the job as the association's chief administrator.
When he was given the top job, the joke at the NRA was that he didn't know one end of a gun from another. But LaPierre quickly accommodated himself to the more aggressive wing of the gun movement that held sway. On occasion, he even went further than the most extreme of his members, driving the pro-gun movement to the right. His propensity for colourful language could get him into trouble. In 1995, he put his name to an NRA fund-raising leaflet that depicted federal law-enforcement agents as "jack-booted thugs", adding that "in Clinton's administration, if you have a badge, you have the government's go-ahead to harass, intimidate, even murder law-abiding citizens".
A few weeks later, Timothy McVeigh, a former NRA member, carried out the Oklahoma City bombing, killing 168 people, including many federal agents. LaPierre was forced to issue a grovelling apology, and in the fallout, former president George Bush snr resigned from the association and several gun manufacturers broke off relations.
LaPierre has maintained opposition to any legislative steps to introduce greater safety into the US gun market. Richard Feldman, a former senior member of the NRA who now heads the Independent Firearm Owners Association, remembers how LaPierre came at him when he tried to introduce child safety locks to all guns after the 1998 shooting spree at an Oregon high school in which Philip "Kip" Kinkel, 15, killed two students and injured 25. LaPierre launched a campaign to discredit the case for child locks and argued it would expose single mothers to greater risk of burglary.
Feldman says: "We did it because the lack of safety locks was giving gun ownership a bad name, but still the NRA didn't like it. That was a silly fight for them to engage in."
After every gun rampage, LaPierre has adopted the same posture. First, he maintains several days or weeks of silence; then, when the initial shock and anger has subsided, he mobilises the full resources of the NRA to resist any moves towards gun controls.
The pattern has been much on display during Barack Obama's first four years in office. After the 2011 Tucson shooting that killed six and left the Congress member Gabby Giffords critically injured, LaPierre refused even to meet Obama. "Why should I sit down with a group of people that have spent a lifetime trying to destroy the Second Amendment in the US?" he said.
Three days after the Aurora cinema shooting in July, in which 12 people were killed, LaPierre put out a letter that sought to raise money from the disaster. He warned gun enthusiasts that should Obama be re-elected, "nothing less than the future of our country and our freedom will be at stake".
Such intransigence has tested the loyalty even of supporters. Bill Badger is a retired US army colonel who, though not an NRA member, has been a lifelong supporter. But he became convinced of the need for reform on January 8, 2011. He was attending a rally called by Giffords when the suspected killer, Jared Lee Loughner, opened fire, shooting Badger in the head. Badger's military training came into its own, and despite being hit he managed to grab the shooter as he tried to reload and threw him to the ground. Loughner was armed with a handgun with a 33-round magazine.
Badger believes that if a ban on magazines larger than 10 rounds had been in place, Loughner would have been overpowered more quickly. When Badger went to make the case for a ban on extended clips and assault rifles to LaPierre, he was told the NRA chief was too busy to meet him.
LaPierre has thrown down the gauntlet to Obama, who has promised to use all his powers to force change. This will be the NRA chief's ultimate battle, and whether or not he wins will have deep implications for all Americans.