In his National Rifle Association biography, Wayne LaPierre boasts of his prowess as “a skilled hunter”.
But a newly surfaced video of the gruesome 2013 killing of an endangered savanna elephant in Botswana has revealed a different truth: the gun group’s longtime leader and self-styled role model for big-game hunters is a lousy shot.
Footage of the incident from the Okavango Delta shows the NRA executive vice-president in safari clothing and accompanied by guides, firing three shots at the wounded animal from barely five yards away, with none of them finding the right place to finish it off.
The dying elephant is heard gurgling and struggling for breath, after LaPierre’s initial shot had felled it but failed to kill it.
“I’m not sure where you’re shooting,” a guide tells him, before another man is ordered in to finish off the animal with a single shot.
Later in the clip, published on Tuesday by the Trace, a non-profit journalism outlet that focuses on gun-control news and is affiliated to the New Yorker, LaPierre’s wife Susan is seen killing another elephant.
The couple’s team of safari guides have tracked it down for her and set up a makeshift tripod, while telling her precisely where to aim, unbeknown to the older bull elephant, who stands placidly amid the grasses with a group of other elephants.
After killing it with a shot to the head then a shot to the chest, both shots more accurate than her husband’s, both from close range, she whoops that “that was amazing”, she feels “great” and she jumps around hugging the guides.
Mrs LaPierre then cuts off the elephant’s tail with a knife, smiling broadly and declaring: “Victory!” as she holds her trophy aloft for the camera.
“That’s my elephant tail,” she proclaims. “Way cool!”
According to the Trace, the images of the legal hunt, recorded for an unaired episode of the NRA-sponsored Under Wild Skies television program intended to elevate the organization’s profile and popularity among hunters, were hidden for more than eight years because the organization feared “a public relations fiasco”.
In the video, LaPierre claims the elephant “had me out of gas there for a while” after a two-hour chase.
The show’s host, Tony Makris, initially praises the NRA chief executive: “You hit it right where you should have hit it. He dropped like a stone. Well done, Wayne,” he says.
But after inspecting the carcass he says: “I’m not sure where you hit it.” LaPierre concedes: “Well, I wouldn’t say it’s a perfect shot.”
The episode is another blow to the troubled NRA, once a powerful political voice for gun rights, but whose influence has waned amid a backlash to a series of mass shootings across the US and the new Democratic administration in the White House.
In January, it filed for bankruptcy, five months after New York’s attorney general, Letitia James, filed a lawsuit seeking its dissolution and alleging the group siphoned tens of millions of dollars for lavish personal trips for its leaders, including eight trips to the Bahamas on private jets in five years for LaPierre and his family.
The NRA did not respond to the Guardian’s request for comment, but in a statement to the Washington Post, spokesperson Andrew Arulanandam defended LaPierre’s hunting trip to Botswana, which he said was conducted “in accordance with all rules and regulations”.
“The video offers an incomplete portrayal of the experience and fails to express the many ways this activity benefits the local community and habitat,” he said.
Last month, the Guardian reported International Union for the Conservation of Nature figures that showed poaching and the “silent killer” of human-driven habitat loss had caused sharp declines in numbers of African elephants, with forest elephant numbers falling by 86% in the past 31 years and savanna elephants by about 60% in the past half-century.
The NRA video drew immediate criticism from the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity.
“Savanna elephants were just declared endangered by international experts, and these intelligent beings certainly shouldn’t be used as paper targets by an inept marksman,” Tanya Sanerib, the group’s international legal director, said in a statement.
“It’s sickening to see LaPierre’s brutal, clumsy slaughter of this beautiful creature. We’re in the midst of a poaching epidemic, and rich trophy hunters like the NRA chief are blasting away at elephants while the international community calls for stiffer penalties for poachers. What message does that send?”
Gun reform activists were also outraged. “In which @NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre manages to alienate both hunters and gun owners because not only is this inhumane, but he’s a horrible shot,” Shannon Watts, founder of the group Moms Demand Action, said in a tweet.