"Wayne is a Washington-type person," says John Aquilino, a former NRA spokesman who worked with LaPierre. "He is best characterized as an absent-minded professor."
A professor, that is, with a million-dollar megaphone and a well-honed ability to dish apocalyptic warnings about a tyrannical government angling to grab people's firearms.
"It's about banning your guns ... PERIOD!" LaPierre wrote in a January email to the NRA's 4 million-plus members.
For decades, LaPierre, 63, has been serving up heated us-vs.-them rhetoric to rally the NRA faithful. Usually it works; sometimes it backfires.
There was his 1995 reference to federal law enforcement agents as "jack-booted government thugs." (He later apologized.)
And his 2000 declaration that President Bill Clinton was "willing to accept a certain level of killing to further his political agenda." (No apology.)
And his 2002 complaint that tougher airport screenings after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks signaled that "I guess it's OK to wand-rape someone's daughter in public."
A week after the December school shooting in Newtown, Conn., LaPierre gave a fiery speech calling for armed guards in every school. He blamed violence on a culture that celebrates gory video games and "blood-soaked slasher films" and rewards killers with fame.
"Gun nut!" the New York Post screamed on its front page.
"The most revolting, tone-deaf statement I've ever seen," tweeted then-Rep. Chris Murphy, now a Democratic senator from Connecticut.
"Call me crazy," LaPierre retorted on NBC's "Meet the Press." "I think the American people think it's crazy not to do it," referring to armed school guards.
In fact, a Washington Post/ABC News poll conducted in January found that 55 percent of Americans said they would support a law "placing an armed guard in every school in the country."
In the weeks since Newtown, LaPierre has been the ever-present public face of gun-rights forces, shuttling between speeches, hearing rooms and TV studios to forcefully reject proposals for tighter gun controls as misguided ideas that will do nothing to stop criminals and everything to tangle law-abiding citizens in a bureaucratic nightmare.
Jimmy Carter was president when LaPierre first went to work for the NRA in 1977, and for the past 22 years LaPierre has been the organization's executive vice president, steering it through a transformation from a clubby marksmanship group into a political movement adept at beating back efforts to tighten firearms regulations.
Along the way, says Josh Sugarman, head of the pro-gun-control Violence Policy Center, LaPierre's tenure has been marked by a willingness to push the envelope with over-the-top language that casts the government as the enemy and stokes "fear-driven paranoia."
LaPierre has been richly rewarded for his efforts: NRA tax returns show he earned $835,000 in salary and $126,000 in other compensation in 2010.
For all of LaPierre's tough talk, friends and former colleagues describe a soft-spoken man who's a little scattered.
Aquilino, the former NRA spokesman, remembers his former colleague oversleeping and missing a golf outing with Vice President Dan Quayle. Leaving a trail of dropped notebooks and papers on the path from his office to a cab. Sitting head in hands in an airport terminal, unable to remember what flight he was booked on.
Aquilino says he once asked LaPierre what he wanted to do eventually and was told, "To tell the truth, I'd like to run an ice cream parlor in Maine."
How does all of that square with LaPierre's combative reputation?
"It's all done on purpose," says Grover Norquist, an anti-tax crusader and member of the NRA's board. "It's hard to say: 'The Second Amendment's in danger' and say it in a shy, soft-spoken way."
Or, as LaPierre himself put it in a 2000 interview: "When I used less strong words for the last three years, everyone dozed off."
No one snoozed in 1995 when LaPierre signed an NRA fundraising letter that accused the Clinton administration of empowering police to "murder law-abiding citizens" at will and described the ban on semi-automatic weapons as a law giving "jack-booted government thugs more power to take away our constitutional rights, break in our doors, seize our guns, destroy our property, and even injure or kill us."
Even some NRA members were aghast. Former President George W. Bush very publicly quit the group. LaPierre at first defended the letter then offered a qualified apology.
He'd slipped over the line from hard-nosed to incendiary in an episode that will always brand him.
By those standards, his words have been generally more measured since. But when LaPierre speaks, those who watch him wonder what undercurrents he's tapping.
The NRA's website describes LaPierre as "a skilled hunter, from Chesapeake waterfowl to African Cape buffalo." Online, there are lots of suit-and-tie photos of LaPierre, and a couple of hunting shots, including a picture of him next to a downed buffalo in Botswana.
The NRA declined to make LaPierre available for an interview or to answer questions about him.
But former colleagues say LaPierre did not show great interest in shooting. And they're hard pressed to recall any LaPierre hobbies beyond devouring nonfiction. LaPierre is married but does not have children.
"There was an opportunity for him to learn about firearms, and he certainly knows about them," says Tanya Metaksa, who hired LaPierre at the NRA and later worked under him. "But he's more the intellectual in his understanding of the history of the issue and the philosophical underpinnings of what it means to uphold the Second Amendment."
LaPierre's path to the top of the NRA began with an interest in politics, not guns.
Richmond attorney Tom Lisk grew up across the street from LaPierre in Roanoke, Va., and remembers him as an avid bowler, passionate about hockey and politics. As a teenager, LaPierre would take his young neighbor along to the bowling alley on Saturday mornings, and he'd hang out at Lisk's house to talk government with Lisk's father, who was on the city council.
The NRA executive who's worked against many a Democratic presidential candidate over the years actually cut his teeth working for Democrat George McGovern's campaign in Roanoke back in 1972, when LaPierre was 22. LaPierre, who has a bachelor's degree from Siena College in Loudonville, N.Y., and a master's from Boston College, got a job early on as an aide to Vic Thomas, a pro-gun Democratic state legislator in Virginia. He worked on gun legislation for Thomas, and that led to his hiring by the NRA in 1978.
Lisk, whom LaPierre later recommended for an NRA job, remembers LaPierre as "a person that people gravitated toward" at the organization.
"Wayne wanted to be liked," says Lisk, noting that he'd send out for ice cream as the group's lobbyists met to decide which candidates would get campaign contributions.
Richard Feldman, who worked with LaPierre at the NRA but later had a falling out and now runs the Independent Firearm Owners Association, says LaPierre's success as a lobbyist came in part from never saying "no" to those he might need.
"Wayne's approach would be, 'That's a good idea. Yeah, I'm with you on that,'" says Feldman. "Meanwhile, he's doing everything around your back to kill it."
After a surprisingly long run as the NRA's executive vice president, surviving insider plots along the way, LaPierre remains the hero to many a gun lover and villain to opponents.
The sharpened battle lines since Newtown have made it easier for LaPierre to pitch his uncompromising message that gun owners must band together to fight liberal elites out to take their firearms.
LaPierre has been here before.
When he went before the Senate Judiciary Committee last month, one of the questioners was Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., his longtime nemesis on the subject of banning assault weapons.
Feinstein welcomed the witnesses and made a point of saying, "Even you, Mr. LaPierre. It's good to see you again. I guess we tangled, what was it, 18 years ago? You look pretty good, actually."