WASHINGTON -- "We had to change the subject," said David Keene, as if making an obvious, unobjectionable point.
We were sitting at the back table of his favorite Italian restaurant. Keene, the 67-year-old president of the National Rifle Association, exuded a satisfied calm. His thick white hair was combed in Jack Kennedy fashion. He wore horn-rimmed glasses and a red V-neck sweater with his sports coat and tie, and he spoke in a soothing baritone. He looked and sounded like a college professor.
But what he said wasn't academic -- or obvious and unobjectionable. In fact, his statement might have struck many American voters as cynical, politically cutthroat and even outrageous.
For I had asked him whether he or the NRA regretted its first responses to the mass murder of children by a killer with an assault weapon at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
The answer was "no."
Not long after the December 2012 shooting, Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the NRA, had said that the only way to prevent more Sandy Hooks was to place armed guards in every school. The NRA had posted a web ad calling President Barack Obama an "elitist hypocrite" because Secret Service agents are posted outside his daughters' school. More recently, the NRA has pushed its case via robocalls throughout Connecticut, including Newtown, ostensibly to fight a tide of new gun control measures pending in the state Legislature.
Keene told me that the NRA had no regrets or second thoughts and that gun control advocates had seized on the Newtown tragedy to pursue their own unconstitutional political agenda.
"We had to try to get some balance into the conversation," he said. "And we are in better shape now than our critics and even some within our ranks believed possible when this battle started."
That seems to be true. Bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines -- two of the most popular and talked-about reforms -- are probably non-starters in Congress and may not even get a vote. An expansion of background checks for gun sales, the core of a Senate bill to be debated in April, is by no means certain to pass the upper chamber, where some in the GOP minority are threatening to filibuster it. The Republican-controlled House of Representatives is likely to kill it, if it gets that far.
Keene's presence in the NRA inner circle is a measure of how divisive and political the gun debate is today.
In the years before Columbine, Aurora and Newtown became synonymous with gun violence, the National Rifle Association chose hunters and sportsmen to hold what was regarded as a ceremonial post. "They had Charlton Heston, of course, but the presidents tended to be guys from Montana or Wyoming who knew very little about politics or Washington or the media," said Craig Shirley, a political consultant and leading historian of the conservative movement.
All of that changed in 2011, when the NRA chose Keene, a longtime board member at the gun rights group, for the two-year presidential assignment. He has a lifelong pedigree in conservative and Republican politics and has lived in Washington since the Nixon administration. As a student at the University of Wisconsin, he was president of the Young Americans for Freedom. He worked for Richard Nixon and his vice president, Spiro Agnew, and later in Ronald Reagan's 1980 campaign. As longtime head of the American Conservative Union, Keene helped turn CPAC -- the Conservative Political Action Conference -- into the Sundance Festival of the GOP.
"He's the NRA's first political president," said Shirley.
(Keene's career also has been marked by trouble and controversy. In a sad irony given his current role, his son David was sentenced to 10 years in prison for firing a gun during a road rage incident a decade ago. More recently, Keene's former wife, Diana Hubbard Carr, pleaded guilty to embezzling funds from the American Conservative Union.)
In his two years as NRA president, Keene has helped complete the organization's transition. The NRA used to positioned itself as a nonpartisan piece of rugged Americana. Now it is frankly part and parcel of the Republican Party and the conservative establishment. Democrats such as Rep. John Dingell of Michigan and Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada consider themselves friends of the NRA, but their party as a whole is being pushed in the other direction by President Obama and nominally former Democrat Michael Bloomberg, mayor of New York.
Keene, LaPierre and others worked to put gun rights front and center during the 2012 GOP primaries (Mitt Romney lamely bragged about hunting "varmints") and in congressional and local races.
The NRA and the GOP have lost ground, of course. After Newtown, surveys show that nine in 10 voters favor "universal" background checks. But the NRA remains a fearsomely focused force on the Hill, and in late March GOP Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas -- two stars of the conservative movement -- vowed to block even a background check measure from coming to a vote.
"Wayne and I had both warned that if the president were to win a second term," Keene said, "it would be but a matter of time before he launched an assault on private firearms ownership. And that is what has happened."
"Gun control advocates were ready," Keene argued. "Newtown gave them the chance to do just that. They launched their current anti-gun campaign even before the kids and teachers who died in that tragedy had been buried. [Democratic] Senator [Dianne] Feinstein [of California], who had her new assault weapons bill in a drawer, pulled it out. The president and vice president went after guns. Their question was not 'What can we do to prevent gun crime or mass murders?' but 'What can we do about guns?'"
Keene has helped plan and carry out the response to those efforts since December. The idea is to amp up gun rights support by stoking populist resentment of the supposedly "elitist" gun control advocates, to threaten members of Congress with campaign-year retaliation if they stray from the NRA-approved line, and to push for school security and mental health measures to show the organization's concern.
Keene's roots are libertarian, but his arguments tend to be more political and legal than philosophical.
"Gallup and other pollsters began to find that most Americans blamed not guns, but the lack of school security, a dysfunctional mental health care system and a culture of violence more than guns," he said.
"Still, to most people, the idea of something like a universal background check sounds logical, and it therefore has public support," he conceded. "The problems lie in interpretation and execution. Should it apply to relatives, neighbors, friends or just to people who buy guns at a gun show? Should it be legal for a firearms owner to lend a shotgun to his neighbor when they go out to the duck blind or allow his nephew to use a .22 to shoot at tin cans?"
Inside the NRA and on its web page, the rhetoric is heated and apocalyptic, and almost any proposed gun regulation is treated as the first step toward a government that will "take up the guns" from law-abiding citizens.
Keene shrewdly focuses on mechanics.
"If it were possible to provide an essentially instantaneous background check not just for purchases from licensed dealers or private parties at gun shows but for others, that didn't impose an unreasonable burden on their right to exercise their Second Amendment rights, that would be one thing," he said. "But many of the current restrictions and proposals for universal background checks would impose just such unreasonable burdens on that fundamental right."
At lunch and in later follow-ups by email, I asked Keene about assault weapons and other matters:
I get guns and handguns. I get that the Constitution says the right to bear arms shall not be "infringed." But it is not the right to bear ANY kind of arms, is it?
No, the Second Amendment does not extend to a private right to own bazookas, rocket launchers or RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades]. When the Constitution was written, the authors were concerned with making sure citizens would always have the right to own personal arms (long arms and sidearms).
It didn't extend to cannons then, or to ballistic missiles today. The Supreme Court recognized this distinction in the [District of Columbia v.] Heller case (in 2008), which is why severe restrictions on the private ownership of fully automatic firearms imposed in the thirties are seen as legitimate. The Court said the test was whether arms in the hands of the civilian population are widely owned and commonly used for legitimate purposes.
It is the explicit language of the Court in its Heller decision that forces me to the conclusion that a ban on semi-automatic long arms such as Senator Feinstein supports will not meet constitutional muster if enacted. There are today more than 4.5 million AR-15s in private hands. They are the most used firearm in training and competitive shooting. They are widely used by hunters (particularly for varmint hunting) and are often the firearm of choice for women seeking a long arm for home protection because of their ease of handling and light recoil.
So the NRA's educational and PR initiatives in effect make banning such weapons all the more difficult because they are becoming more "widely owned and commonly used for legitimate purposes."
We are developing several programs designed to reach beyond our base support because firearms are so much more popular today than they were a decade ago, that far more women, minorities and young people are getting involved in the shooting sports. We're trying to reach them not simply to talk about gun rights, but to let them know of the many enjoyable activities in which they might want to engage.
Where do you see all of this headed?
I have said consistently that gun owners and the NRA are going to lose a battle or two as we have in the past. But we aren't going to lose the war. Moreover, we aren't going away. We have sometimes taken a decade or more to roll back obnoxious restrictions or pass legislation we believe enhances gun rights, but we have never rolled over or given up.
This story appears in Issue 43 of our weekly iPad magazine, Huffington, in the iTunes App store, available Friday, April 5.