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Chapter two: Revolt at Cincinnati

During the turbulence of the 1960s, the two contrasting faces of the NRA came into focus: the smiling, benevolent sportsman and the fevered, angry Second Amendment fundamentalist. NRA Executive Vice President Maxwell Rich represented the first face. The second belonged to a large, imposing man with a shaved head who looked like a cross between Mr. Clean and a .45 slug—Harlon Bronson Carter. Carter was unyielding in his opposition to gun controls. In 1975, as head of the NRA's newly formed lobbying arm, the Institute for Legislative Action (ILA), he was asked if he would "rather allow those convicted violent felons, mentally deranged people, violently addicted to narcotics people to have guns, rather than to have the screening process for the honest people like yourselves?" Such a sacrifice, Carter responded, was "a price we pay for freedom."1 And it is Carter who defined the modern-day NRA.

The NRA had been a part of Carter's life since he joined it in 1930 at the age of 16. In 1951, he was elected to the board of directors, served as its vice president from 1963 to 1965, president from 1965 to 1967 and became a member of the executive council (a lifetime position) in 1967. For most of this time Carter served in the U.S. Border Patrol, eventually rising to its head in 1950 at the age of 37. In 1961 he was named commissioner of the Southwest Region for the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). Carter retired from government in 1970. Three years later, agents investigating corruption in the INS confronted him with various allegations, including the charge that when he left his position, 40,000 to 50,000 rounds of government ammunition had left with him. Carter eventually testified before a federal grand jury in San Diego, where he denied any knowledge of the missing government ammo. No charges were filed.

At NRA headquarters, when Harlon Carter spoke, people listened. In a July 1972 address to the NRA's executive committee—held during debate over the Bayh Saturday Night Special bill—Carter voiced his fears that the NRA was losing sight of its true mission. In outlining his concerns, he spelled out the political philosophy that would eventually dominate the organization.

Carter's speech centered on NRA Executive Vice President Rich's endorsement of a Saturday Night Special ban. "My Lord," said Carter, "he has been Pilated and crucified repeatedly on an unfortunate choice of words, and I sympathize with his position.2 (These "unfortunate" words had also been part of an NRA press release that had supported the Bayh bill in principle.) Continued Carter:

Now someone says to me..., "Yes, but we took positions back five or six years ago, and we made statements some years ago," and he pointed out to me that I had made a statement one time relating to pot metal pistols. I did. But these people now have introduced confiscatory gun bills; they confirm a belated conviction that some of us have held for some time which are what this ultimate goal is, which is to prohibit the private ownership of firearms in this country. [As a result] . . . any position we took back at that time is no good, it is not valid, and it is simply not relevant to the problem that we face today. The latest news release from NRA embraces a disastrous concept... that evil is imputed to the sale and delivery, the possession of a certain kind of firearm, entirely apart from the good or evil intent of the man who uses it and/or (2) the legitimate use of a handgun is limited to sporting use.3

The same characteristics that made Saturday Night Specials easy targets for restriction—their low quality and ease of concealment—were, according to Carter, positive attributes. Said Carter: "I can produce actual cases that the cheap handgun that snaps in . . . [a police] officer's face instead of firing has saved many, many lives, and the question arises: What are we trying to do? Upgrade the quality of handguns in the hands of our criminals?"4

Palm-sized Derringer handguns, which would also come under the Bayh bill, he argued, were uniquely suited to the small hands of children for self-defense. Said Carter:

There was a little boy... and it was real cold and he had his hands in his overcoat. He had one of these little old derringers, and four bushy guys ambled up in an arrogant manner. He stopped them, and three of them were very nice and decent, and one of them said, "What would you do if I told you I had a pistol and I was going to kill you?" And he says, "I would kill you, you son-of-a-bunch." These little guns have a very noble and a very important place and we should make our position clear."5

The seeds of discontent planted by Carter in 1972 bore fruit in 1977 at the annual meeting in Cincinnati, Ohio. Prior to Cincinnati, friction had grown between two segments in the NRA: the Old Guard and the New Guard. The Old Guard consisted of the then-current NRA leadership and their supporters. Although they defended and promoted handguns for self-defense (the "homely old shotgun," however, was touted as the best home-defense firearm), their primary firearms interest was recreational: marksmanship, hunting and safety training. Their concerns over gun control were limited to its effects on traditional sporting activities. To the Second Amendment fundamentalists of the New Guard, stopping gun control was paramount. To this vocal minority, gun ownership was no longer a recreational issue, but a political one. They viewed the NRA as the last bulwark against a government and newly formed gun control movement that wanted nothing less than the banning of all guns.

The events at Cincinnati have an almost legendary quality among NRA true believers. In battles over the NRA's direction, combatants are quick to lay claim to the true spirit of Cincinnati, which has come to mean member empowerment and a fierce dedication to absolute gun rights. In the same way that politicians of both parties evoke the legacy of JFK, so it is with NRA factions and the Cincinnati Revolt. The only complete history of the event is Revolt at Cincinnati, a 52-page tract by Gun Week editor Joseph Tartaro. Cincinnati, says Tartaro, was

a classic confrontational situation..... not unlike the schism between the American colonists and the Crown in 1775.... [T]he alienated members were fully aware that conflict within the pro-gun movement could be dangerous. But they saw the prospect of an NRA increasingly concerned and spending money on conservation as even more dangerous."6

The New Guard accused the incumbent leadership of abandoning its dedication to the Second Amendment for a newfound devotion to conservation and environmentalism. Although the Institute for Legislative Action had been founded in 1975 at the behest of Representative (and NRA board member) John Dingell, Democrat of Michigan, the leaders of the New Guard felt that the leadership had placed severe financial and political restraints on it. Other examples of weakness and betrayal cited by the New Guard included the unwillingness of the NRA to participate in the 1970 Citizens Against Tydings (CAT) campaign to defeat procontrol Senator Joseph Tydings, Democrat of Maryland, and a statement in the NRA Fact Book on Firearms Control characterizing the Second Amendment as being "of limited practical utility" as an argument against gun controls.

Events that occurred in 1976 led the New Guard to conclude that the organization was actively being destroyed from within by the Old Guard leadership. Chief among these was a decision by the Old Guard to move the NRA's headquarters from Washington, D.C., to Colorado Springs, Colorado, where the NRA would build a "World Sports Center" to house itself and other organizations involved in sports and the outdoors. The New Guard viewed the decision to sell the NRA's eight-story granite and marble office building at 1600 Rhode Island Avenue not as an escape from Washington's crime and high cost of living, but as an abandonment of politics.

These concerns were bolstered when a copy of the NRA-commissioned ORAM Report was leaked. The report was a private fund-raising study for a planned 37,000-acre NRA recreational center in New Mexico. The project had been approved by the board in 1973 and originally named the National Shooting Center. Initially portrayed as a hunter's Xanadu, by 1976 it had been renamed the National Outdoor Center amid cries from the New Guard that its shooting focus had been diminished.

The report concluded that to obtain the $30 million needed for the center the "NRA must attract to its cause powerful leadership and financial support that is today either repelled or put off by NRA's image as the leader in the fight against gun control."7 The study found that "the current media image of the NRA destroys its ability to raise money from foundations, especially the large ones such as Rockefeller, Ford and Mellon."8 The very mention of the name Rockefeller raised the hackles of Trilateral Commission conspiracy theorists always on the lookout for One-Worlders.

Fears of an imploding NRA were magnified when approximately 80 staff members were fired or given early retirement in November 1976 in preparation for the move to Colorado. Leadership characterized the move as "streamlining," but it soon became known as "The Weekend Massacre." Among those whose departure was announced was Institute for Legislative Action head Harlon Carter.

As a result of these events and others, the Federation for NRA was born—an independent, ad hoc committee of disgruntled NRA members and staff. Its leader was NRA Life Member Neal Knox, a tobacco-chewing ex-newspaperman and editor of Rifle and Handloader magazines. Others involved in the initial planning stages included: Carter; his replacement, Robert Kukla; and Gun Week's Tartaro. Their goal was nothing less than a coup that would oust the Old Guard leadership and place control of the organization in the hands of the members. The months leading up to the May 1977 convention were filled with attacks on the NRA in various segments of the gun press, many of them written by Knox.

In a May 1977 Rifleman editorial titled "Our Strength is In Unity," Rich responded to the "half-truths, innuendo, and statements out of context" being levied by the Federation. The controversy, he promised, stemmed from

a few writers in the gun press..... pushing a shallow, biased and unfounded attack on the National Rifle Association. Our highest priority is safeguarding the right of gun ownership and the future of shooting sports. This is the single fiber that binds us together—and to give it muscle, we need the unity and strength of our members—all members.9

Rich's plea was too little too late. On the night of May 21, 1977, more than 2,000 NRA members met in the Cincinnati Convention-Exposition Center in a session that lasted until nearly 4 a.m. "Perspiration," wrote Tartaro, "flowed like wine."10

Armed with walkie-talkies and bull homs, the orangecapped members of the Federation were "loaded for parliamentary bear." By the end of the evening the Old Guard was ousted and bylaw changes were enacted empowering the membership to elect the NRA executive vice president, who previously had been chosen by the board. To the cheers of the crowd, Carter was elected the new leader of the NRA. Other bylaw changes included: making defense of the Second Amendment paramount; increasing funding power for the Institute for Legislative Action, which was placed under the control of the executive vice president; greater member participation in the board nomination process; a moratorium on development of the New Mexico property; a reversal of the decision to move to Colorado; and a requirement that all future bylaw changes be approved by membership vote. As the NRA's new leader, Carter promised:

Beginning in this place and at this hour, this period in NRA history is finished. There will be no more civil war in the National Rifle Association. . . . You, the membership, are entitled to have an NRA that is responsive to your wishes. You cannot be denied, my beloved friends; you are the NRA, not I. . . . [Y]ou are all we have. You're America's greatest people, my friends, don't ever forget that you are.11

Carter soon appointed co-conspirator Neal Knox the new head of ILA. Knox personified the new NRA's "no-compromise" approach. Knox's vision was that of an NRA that would go on the offensive and roll back the Gun Control Act of 1968, crushing those who got in its way. As Knox often paraphrased: it was good to be loved, it was better to be feared. Knox moved quickly to fulfill his mandate. Idaho Republican Senator Jim McClure and Missouri Democratic Representative Harold Volkmer soon filed a bill that would in effect gut the Gun Control Act of 1968. The McClure-Volkmer firearms decontrol bill would be the NRA's flagship piece of legislation until its passage in 1986. At the same time Knox launched a concerted campaign to discredit the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), the govemment agency charged with enforcing federal firearms laws.

Carter too knew what he wanted—members and money. He envisioned an NRA army so large and strong that no politician would dare defy it. Under his reign, the NRA began a merchandising program which continues to this day, that needed only Ed McMahon to make it complete. Special insurance, contests, member-get-a-member giveaways, and an avalanche of belt buckles, hats, key chains, patches and coffee mugs gave the NRA's direct mail the feel of a carnival huckster run amok. Carter beckoned Americans to join what he called "The New NRA," an organization that "gives you so many valuable new shooter and hunter benefits that old-timers like myself can hardly recognize it!"

NRA membership was no longer a patriotic duty. It was a bargain. For $15 a year members got not only a year-long subscription to American Hunter or American Rifleman magazines, but free gun liability insurance, theft insurance and, in an offer rather unique in non-profits, accidental death and dismemberment insurance. And that wasn't all.

There was cancer insurance. In a letter promoting the NRA's insurance program, Carter warned that "in the five minutes it might take you to read this letter, more than 6 new cases of Cancer will be diagnosed!" A listing of cancer's seven warning signals included changes "in bowel or bladder habits" and "nagging cough or hoarseness." (Not everyone shared Carter's enthusiasm. A 1980 congressional study characterized most cancer insurance, riddled with fine print and low benefit-to-premium ratios, as a "ripoff." Consumer Reports labels such dread disease insurance one of the two worst buys in health insurance.)

There was group hospital insurance. "Exclusive NRA Features" in the program included paying double for hospital confinement due to a firearms injury and the "Special Added Benefit" that if a firearm accident resulted in the death of an insured NRA member an additional $1,000 payment would be made to the estate of the deceased.

Finally, there was supplemental accidental death insurance. Warning that "an Accidental Death occurs every five minutes in the United States!" the American Sportsman Accidental Death & Dismemberment Group Insurance Plan offered NRA members "Double Death Benefits" while hunting, trapping or fishing.

Carter's insurance programs continue to this day. A 1991 cancer mailing warns:

If you are reading my letter in a room with two other people... odds are one of you will get cancer sooner or later. What if it's you? Sure, thanks to the success of advanced cancer treatment far more lives are being saved than ever before. But treatment can be so expensive, sometimes you can sooner make full recovery from cancer than recover your financial independence. NRA people are proud, grassroots Americans who have trouble imagining themselves a burden to others.

Carter's member-get-a-member mailings heaped lavish praise on recipients and promised prizes for those willing to bring new members into the fold. The NRA's Member Honor Roll offered "really sharp looking caps that ... may become real collectors [sic] items some day" for those who enlisted new inductees. Along with the special commemorative cap, which featured a patch announcing "NRA, Proud, Strong, United," came gold stars in recognition of the number of members recruited, the top honor being five stars.

In its "Champion of the Second Amendment" promo, Carter promised members:

You are truly a Champion of our Second Amendment Rights. I want to acknowledge your Championship status and I would like every gunowner, non-gunowner, member and non-member of NRA to know just how important and respected you are by the Board of Directors and staff of your National Rifle Association of America. Webster's dictionary describes a Champion as . . . "a person who fights for a cause . . . winning . . . excelling over all others." That is you!

New-member prizes included window decals, key chains and a custom 24-ounce NRA beer stein. Those who signed up 20 members received all these prizes, plus a wall plaque with the champion's name engraved in brass.

And it worked. NRA membership skyrocketed to the point where it was gaining 30,000 new members a month. The only problem was that many of Carter's new army were devoted more to the NRA's trinkets than to the organization itself. Many joined merely for the window decal and the prized hunter-orange baseball cap-and then left. These one-shot, "orange-hat" members, as they were known to the NRA staff, numbered in the hundreds of thousands each year. Says former NRA lobbyist David Conover, "They're like the guys who buy the Oakland Raiders jackets. They buy it for the image."

In spite of its growing numbers, it was an embattled NRA that met in Denver for its annual meeting in 1981. The 1980 murder of John Lennon and the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan earlier in the year had once again brought calls for increased gun controls.

Addressing the membership, Carter extolled the organization's success and warned of the dangers ahead:

Almost four years ago today, I was elected . . . to set a firm legislative course . . . to resist ominous gun law proposals [aimed] at those who commit no crime. Four years ago there were 940,000 members. Now there are 1,900,000. The budget has increased 50 percent. There must be membership. There must be millions like you. We must trip our enemies and help our friends in the political arena. We must build the NRA into such a strong force, no politician in America will dare intrude on our rights. You know, sadly, why President Reagan isn't here. But you heard President Reagan himself advocate no restriction on those who commit no crimes. . . . [He] rejected the maudlin enticements of the press to say something in favor of gun control while he lay wounded by one little man's bullet. 12

Knox's analysis of the assassination attempt was less subtle. He warned the meeting attendees:

Once again we meet when the wolves of the press are howling for the blood of the National Rifle Association. What was the motive of the man who shot President Reagan... his motive was to commit a heinous act which the press would play up and bring him to the attention of a pretty little girl. Now that pretty little girl was in a movie in which a person was wanting to assassinate a President. But that pretty little girl, in the movie, prevented it from happening.... Look at what the press provided. They provided the motive. 13

The Denver meeting marked the last real attempt by the Old Guard to regain control of the organization. Since 1977, the ousted faction, which still had strong representation on the board, had launched various assaults on Carter. Eager to protect its victory, no conspiracy theory was too bizarre for the Federation for NRA, which reappeared locust-like at each annual meeting to defend its reforms. A rumor at the 1978 Salt Lake meeting was that NRA Mormons—bitter over the ouster of fellow Mormon Maxwell Rich—were going to unite to defeat Carter. Federation newspapers and samizdats warning of board maneuvers and power plays by the Old Guard were standard ingredients of post-1977 meetings.

In Denver the Old Guard hoped to enact a bylaws change that would return election of the executive vice president to the board. They lost the vote by a nearly two-to-one margin. Then, in a surprise move that would seal their fate, Carter demanded that his annual term be expanded to five years. The membership, recognizing that such a demand contradicted the spirit of the Cincinnati reforms, refused. Carter threatened to quit, and the extended term was approved unanimously. Yet it wasn't job security that drove Carter to make his power grab, but a violent episode from his adolescence that he had no interest in rehashing each year.

On March 3, 1931, in Laredo, Texas, the 17-year-old Carter shot and killed 15-year-old Ramón Casiano. Carter arrived home from school that day to find his mother upset. Three Hispanic youths had been loitering outside the family home, and Carter's mother felt that the trio might have knowledge about the theft of the family car three weeks earlier. Carter told his mother that he would find the boys and see if they would come back to talk to her. When he left, he took a shotgun with him. According to the testimony of 12-year-old Salvador Pefia, he, Casiano and two other Hispanic youths were returning from swimming when they ran into Carter, who asked them to follow him up to his house.

Casiano, the oldest of the boys, told Carter he couldn't make them go with him. He then took out a knife and asked Carter if he wanted to fight him. The two argued, and Carter aimed the shotgun at Casiano's chest. Casiano told Carter not to do it, and pushed the shotgun aside with his hand. He then took a step back and began laughing. Carter then shot and killed him.

In court, Carter's lawyers pleaded self-defense, arguing that he had merely meant to disable the arm that held the knife. At the trial, the judge—recognizing that by demanding that the youths come with him at gunpoint Carter had essentially attempted to kidnap them—instructed the jury:

There is no evidence that defendant had any lawful authority to require deceased to go to his house for questioning, and if defendant was trying to make deceased go there for that purpose at the time of the killing, he was acting without authority of law, and the law of self-defense does not apply.14

Carter was convicted of murder without malice aforethought and sentenced to serve a maximum of three years in prison. Carter's lawyers appealed, and a higher court reversed the conviction, citing the failure of the judge "to submit to the jury appropriate instructions upon the law of self-defense."15 The charges were eventually dropped. The story was reported during the 1981 convention by Carter's hometown paper, the Laredo Times. When confronted by one newspaper with the story, Carter initially denied that he was the same man. He then alleged that the prosecutor was the judge's son (he wasn't) and that the shooting had taken place on the Carter family's property (it hadn't).16 Five years after the shooting, Carter joined the U.S. Border Patrol. As a result, some of his enemies snidely noted years later, he could now shoot Mexicans legally.

To fulfill his vision of a powerful, respected NRA composed of tens of millions of members, Carter needed to expand beyond the organization's historic base of white, male gun owners. This could not be done, however, until he counteracted the popular image of the organization as an army of gun-toting rednecks. Carter wanted a warmer, fuzzier NRA that would win the hearts, minds and pocketbooks of middle America. So in early 1982 the "I'm the NRA" "image correction campaign" was launched. The goal of the campaign (the original theme of which was "I am the Gun Lobby") was to present firearms in a non-threatening manner and portray gun owners as a diverse group that reflected the best of America. The ads, which appeared in such high profile magazines as Time, Better Homes and Gardens, Business Week, Esquire, Life, McCall's, Boys' Life and Sports Illustrated, featured blacks, whites, men, women, children, the handicapped and celebrities. Among the celebrities were such NRA stalwarts as Chuck Yeager. For any who doubted Yeager's dedication to firearms, his self-titled autobiography quickly settled the question. Recounting the death of his two-year-old sister Doris Ann, Yeager wrote:

Shortly before Christmas, when l was four-and-a-half and [brother] Roy was six, we were sitting on the floor in the room playing with Dad's 12-gauge shotgun. Roy found some shells and loaded the gun; he accidentally fired and the baby was killed. I suppose some parents would've locked away any guns following such a tragedy, but Dad didn't. Shortly after the funeral, he sat down with Roy and me. "Boys," he said, "I want to show you how to safely handle firearms."17

Other celebrities who would proclaim "I'm the NRA" included Tennessee Ernie Ford, Roy Rogers and Washington Redskins running back John Riggins. (Riggins' involvement with the NRA came to an abrupt end in 1985, when, at a gala dinner, he admonished Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O'Connor, telling her, "Come on, Sandy baby, loosen up, You're too tight." Riggins then passed out on the floor.)


Gun Control Resurgent

Following the 1981 meetings in Denver, the NRA found itself battling a newly resurgent gun control movement. In June that year Morton Grove, Illinois, became the first American municipality to ban the sale and private possession of handguns. Exceptions to the law included police, military personnel while on active duty, private security guards, licensed gun collectors and target shooters who kept and used their handguns at licensed gun clubs. San Francisco, site of the 1978 assassinations of Mayor George Moscone and City Supervisor Harvey Milk, enacted a ban the next year. (The San Francisco ban was later overturned on the grounds that because of the comprehensive nature of California's handgun laws, the state had occupied the field of handgun regulation, preempting any local ordinances.)

Soon after the Morton Grove ban, the NRA filed suit in federal court arguing that the law violated the Second Amendment. In 1982 a U.S. appeals court found that "because the Second Amendment is not applicable to Morton Grove and because the possession of handguns by individuals is not part of the right to keep and bear arms, [the Morton Grove ordinance] does not violate the Second Amendment." The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case, letting the decision stand. And although the Illinois state constitution guarantees the individual right to keep and bear arms, the Illinois Supreme Court found that the ban was a proper use of police power to protect the public safety.

Morton Grove offered a new direction for the handgun control movement. NRA money and intimidation could bottle up federal gun control laws, but its influence was limited in local communities. NRA efforts to influence local city politics would be seen as a David and Goliath situation, the Washington monolith beating up on the small town. This led to a key shift in the NRA's political strategy. The organization soon began a concerted effort to enact statewide firearms preemptions that would forbid local communities from passing firearms laws stricter than state regulations. In moving to deny local communities the right to pass gun control laws, the NRA made it clear, local officials charged, that "freedom" was a relative term. Utilizing its field staff, affiliated gun clubs and members, the NRA was remarkably successful. Before enactment of the Morton Grove law, only three states had passed or confirmed through litigation total preemptions. By 1991 the number had reached 41.

After an initial flurry of activity, local bans never seemed to catch fire beyond the Chicago suburbs. In California, however, the groundwork was being laid for what gun control advocates envisioned as the decisive battle that would change the course of gun control in America. And it did—but not the way the movement had expected.

California's Proposition 15 was a complicated statewide referendum that would in essence ban the sale and possession of new handguns while allowing previously owned handguns to be registered and kept by their owners. This handgun "freeze" resembled a similar law passed in the District of Columbia in 1976. After its announcement, supporters quickly gathered nearly 600,000 signatures, assuring that the measure would be on the ballot in November. Initial public opinion polls showed that the measure had a substantial edge of support. They also revealed that the public did not support banning handguns. Prop 15's success depended on the ability of its supporters to differentiate between a "freeze" and a "ban." The NRA's goal was to make sure that there was no difference in the public's mind.

The NRA recognized that if a handgun freeze passed in the bellwether state of California it could set the pattern for similar laws across the country. Faced with Armageddon, the NRA brought in Republican political consultant George Young to run the campaign and whip the squabbling tribe of pro-gun organizations into shape. Non-NRA pro-gun groups pushed to frame the debate in terms of Second Amendment freedoms and the need for a heavily armed civilian population to protect against government oppression. Young read them the riot act: the focus of the campaign was to be self-defense and fear of crime.

Millions of firearms industry and NRA dollars and a series of brilliant Young ads assured that by election day the race was a done deal. One of the most successful TV spots was a commercial featuring an elderly woman—someone's grandmother, perhaps your grandmother—in bed. The sound of breaking glass is heard off screen. She phones the police, but the line is busy. The commercial ended with the doorknob to her bedroom door slowly turning.

On November 2, 1982, Prop 15 was overwhelmingly rejected 63 percent to 37 percent. Addressing a victory celebration in Los Angeles, Carter promised that the loss would set back gun control across the nation. "We haven't talked them out of it, but if they try we'll beat them. This is a message, the kind of message that legislators all over the United States will understand, because the people have spoken."18 One of those who received the message was losing democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Bradley. For Prop 15 the NRA had registered more than 300,000 new voters through California gun stores. Few of them were Bradley fans. Bradley lost by little more than 93,000 votes to his opponent, George Deukmejian. Bradley learned his lesson. On a subsequent failed campaign for governor in 1986 he abandoned his anti-handgun stance.

Carter's estimation of Prop 15 was right. The public and press perception was that the gun control movement had had its chance, and blown it. For the next two years the press was loath to cover an issue that had been put before the public and settled. And for many in the movement "ban" had become a four-letter word.


Et Tu, Harlon?

One face notably missing from the Prop 15 victory celebration was ILA head Neal Knox. Knox had been fired after the organization's annual meeting in Philadelphia earlier in the year. The only speaker to be greeted by a standing ovation in Philadelphia, Knox had welcomed the membership with a raised fist, shouting, "Good afternoon, Gun Lobby." Like Carter, Knox was developing his own following.

According to Knox, he was asked to resign by Carter "in the interests of harmony, loyalty and unity."19 The lobbyist's unyielding stance had offended too many on Capitol Hill. Knox viewed himself as the very embodiment of the "nocompromise" edict of Cincinnati. His fear was that Carter, now secure in his five-year term, had become corrupted by power. Knox felt that his ouster sealed Carter's betrayal of the Cincinnati reforms. The New Guard had become the Old Guard. Knox's dismissal marked a shift in the NRA's civil war. No longer would Carter be battling the forces of moderation. The new attacks, led by Knox, would be from those whose views were even more extreme than Carter's own.

Knox's worst fears for the NRA came true with the appointment of his successor, J. Warren Cassidy. Board member Cassidy, 51, was a former Lynn, Massachusetts, mayor and insurance salesman who had led the successful statewide effort to defeat Massachusetts' 1976 handgun ban referendum. Cassidy disdained the blood and guts demeanor of Knox, stating, "There have been lobbyists at the NRA whose zeal has occasionally gotten in the way of their common sense." 20 Said Cassidy:

Harlon's dream, and mine, is for the NRA to extend its influence on public officials and society beyond the gun issue, to make the NRA an even more prominent force in American life. We're an organization of decent, responsible, intelligent citizens, but we weren't respected, and we certainly weren't liked. We suffered from a very poor public image. 21

Whereas Knox knew only power and punishment, Cassidy favored gentler forms of coercion. "You don't swagger into an office and bluster and threaten retribution.... [W]e work with ... [the elected official to] try to bring him along. If that doesn't work, eventually we would try to defeat him."22 Initially, Cassidy spent much of his time on Capitol Hill apologizing for Knox's past behavior.

Under the Federation for NRA banner, Knox quickly launched his second campaign to save the NRA. In attacking Carter, Federation publications charged that he had

amassed all power within NRA, then removed himself from the control of the members through his five year term. He then interfered with NRA Institute's legislative activities in ways that he had promised never to do, Now he uses the resources of NRA to defend his monarchy through mailings to members and unsigned articles in the magazines—claiming that he is preserving democracy in the NRA!

Knox and his supporters cited a laundry list of events to support their charges that Carter, living off the fat of the membership, had grown weak and flabby. Carter had refused to fire the Washington lobbying firm of Timmons & Co. after it was revealed that the firm not only worked for one of the NRA's primary enemies—the American Trial Lawyers Association—but had apparently lobbied against a product liability bill that the NRA endorsed. (Timmons & Co. remains a consultant to the NRA to this day, and still counts among its clients the American Trial Lawyers Association.) In addition, Carter had told Knox to abandon a $700,000 lobbying campaign to block Senate confirmation of NRA antagonist Representative Abner Mikva, Democrat of Illinois, to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. And in March 1982, charged Knox, Carter had told him that the McClure-Volkmer firearms decontrol bill had "no chance" and that Knox should "quit holding our friends' feet to the fire by making them vote on a bill that isn't going anywhere."23

To once again "democratize" the NRA, the Federation proposed bylaw changes at the 1983 annual meeting in Phoenix that included the return of a one-year term for the executive vice president. Most important to Knox was an amendment that would allow members to elect the head of the Institute for Legislative Action. Few doubted who Knox envisioned in the job.

Carter countered this attack with his own ad hoc group, the Committee to Protect the Cincinnati Reforms, and with editorials in the NRA's magazines. At the annual meeting, Committee publications warned of "dissidents" out to "destroy the NRA" and, in turn, cited Carter's achievements: a membership of more than 2.6 million; the California victory; and the "I'm the NRA" campaign. Knox's efforts were easily crushed.

Carter's trump card was the NRA's new best friend, Ronald Reagan. Reagan's willingness to address the NRA wasn't all that surprising. That he involved himself in an organizational power struggle was.

As the Army band played "Hail to the Chief," a White House announcer addressed the audience of 4,000: "Ladies and gentlemen, the president of the United States—and Harlon Carter!" Reasserting his opposition to gun control, Reagan said, "We've both heard the charge that supporting gun owners' rights encourages a violent "shoot-em-up society." Don't they understand that most violent crimes are not committed by decent law-abiding citizens? They're committed by career criminals."24 (The president, of course, wore a bulletproof vest while the Secret Service made sure that the entire law-abiding audience of NRA members was disarmed.) During the speech, Reagan pointedly praised Carter and Cassidy, noting his "great respect for your fine, effective leaders in Washington—Harlon Carter, Warren Cassidy—and your Institute for Legislative Action."25

Although Knox failed in his attempt to return to ILA, he was elected to the board of directors by the membership. Yet even this small victory was short-lived. By January 1984, he had the dubious distinction of being the first director to be voted off the NRA board. The action stemmed from Knox's having lobbied against that congressional session's version of McClure-Volkmer. While the NRA had endorsed the measure, Knox, lobbying as a private citizen, saw it as weak and flawed. At the board meeting, Senator McClure expressed hope that the warring factions could settle their dispute. In castigating Knox for his heresy, ILA head J. Warren Cassidy charged:

In Knox's campaign to discredit ILA and to wreak vengeance upon the organization to which he once swore loyalty, he has spared no effort in contradicting, disputing, and disagreeing with every major move made by us since his firing, and while so doing, has sown dissension, confusion and distrust among friends and allies. 26

Knox, said Cassidy, had chosen "once more to bite the hand that fed him for four long years."27


1. "Report of Proceedings," House of Representatives Subcommittee on Crime, (October 1, 1975) at 1221.

2. Tartaro, Joseph, Revolt at Cincinnati, Hawkeye Publishing, Buffalo (1981) at 7.

3. Ibid. at 6.

4. Ibid. at 5.

5. Ibid. at 8.

6. Ibid. at 19.

7. Ibid. at 21.

8. Ibid. at 22.

9. "Our Strength is In Unity," American Rifleman, (May 1977) at 20.

10. Tartaro, supra, at 34.

11. "Concerned NRA Members Redirect Their Association," American Rifleman, (July 1977) at 16.

12. "Gun Lobby's Aim is True Despite Infighting," San Jose Mercury News, (May 11, 1981).

13. Tartaro, supra, at 48.

14. "Hard-Line Opponent of Gun Laws Wins New Term at Helm of Rifle Association," New York Times, (May 4,1981).

15. Ibid.

16. "Gun Lobby's Aim," supra.

17. Yeager, Chuck, Yeager, Bantam Books, New York (1985) at 5.

18. "Voters Overwhelmingly Reject Handgun Law," Los Angeles Times, (November 3,1982).

19. "Issues in NRA Controversy," Gun Week, (October 8,1982).

20. Ibid.

21. Epstein, Fred, "Aiming to Please," Rolling Stone, (October 12, 1983) at 61.

22. "Rebels in Gun Lobby Say Leaders are Getting Soft on Controls," Washington Post, (May 5, 1983).

23. "What the Federation Bylaws Really Mean," Federation Gazette, (April 22, 1983).

24. "President Reagan Addresses NRA," NCBH Press Release, (May 6, 1983).

25. Epstein, supra, at 61.

26. Minutes of the Meeting of the Board of Directors of the NRA, (January 28-29, 1984) at 86.

27. Ibid. at 87.