How true believers remade the gun lobby

Joel Achenbach, Scott Higham and Sari Horwitz / The Washington Post /

Published Jan 13, 2013 at 04:00AM

Editor's note: This is the first installment in The Washington Post's NRA series. Read the second at bendbulletin.com/extras

WASHINGTON — In gun lore it's known as the Revolt at Cincinnati. On May 21, 1977, and into the morning of May 22, a rump caucus of gun rights radicals took over the annual meeting of the National Rifle Association.

The rebels wore orange-blaze hunting caps. They spoke on walkie-talkies as they worked the floor of the sweltering convention hall. They suspected that the NRA leaders had turned off the air-conditioning in hopes that the rabble-rousers would lose enthusiasm.

The old guard was caught by surprise. The NRA officers sat up front, on a dais, observing their demise. The organization, about a century old already, was thoroughly mainstream and bipartisan, focusing on hunting, conservation and marksmanship. It taught Boy Scouts how to shoot safely. But the world had changed, and everything was more political now. The rebels saw the NRA leaders as elites who lacked the heart and conviction to fight against gun control legislation.

And these leaders were about to cut and run: They had plans to relocate the headquarters from Washington to Colorado.

“Before Cincinnati, you had a bunch of people who wanted to turn the NRA into a sports publishing organization and get rid of guns,” recalls one of the rebels, John Aquilino, speaking by phone from the border city of Brownsville, Texas.

What unfolded that hot night in Cincinnati forever reoriented the NRA. And this was an event with broader national reverberations. The NRA didn't get swept up in the culture wars of the last century so much as it helped invent them — and kept inflaming them. In the process, the NRA overcame tremendous internal tumult and existential crises, developed an astonishing grass-roots operation and became closely aligned with the Republican Party.

Today it is arguably the most powerful lobbying organization in the nation's capital and certainly one of the most feared. There is no single secret to its success, but what liberals loathe about the NRA is a key part of its power. These are the people who say no.

They are absolutist in their interpretation of the Second Amendment. The NRA learned that controversy isn't a problem but rather, in many cases, a solution, a motivator, a recruitment tool, an inspiration.

4 million and counting

Gun control legislation is the NRA's best friend: The organization claims an influx of 100,000 new members in recent weeks in the wake of the elementary school massacre in Newtown, Conn. The NRA, already with about 4 million members, hopes that the new push by Democrats in the White House and Congress to curb gun violence will bring the membership to 5 million.

The group has learned the virtues of being a single-issue organization with a very simple take on that issue. The NRA keeps close track of friends and enemies, takes names and makes lists. In the halls of power, it works quietly behind the scenes. It uses fear when necessary to motivate supporters. The ultimate goal of gun control advocates, the NRA claims, is confiscation and then total disarmament, leading to government tyranny.

“We must declare that there are no shades of gray in American freedom. It's black and white, all or nothing,” Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre said at an NRA annual meeting in 2002, a message that the organization has reiterated at almost every opportunity since. “You're with us or against us.”

The National Rifle Association was founded in 1871 by National Guard and retired Army officers in New York who vowed to “promote rifle practice” and improve marksmanship. The first president, Civil War general Ambrose Burnside, had seen too many Union soldiers who couldn't shoot straight. For generations thereafter, the NRA focused on shooting, hunting and conservation, and no one thought of it as a gun lobby.

The turmoil of the 1960s — assassinations, street violence, riots — spurred Congress to pass the Gun Control Act of 1968, the first major piece of gun legislation since the New Deal. Supporters of gun control originally included California Gov. Ronald Reagan, who worried about the heavily armed Black Panthers.

The NRA didn't like the 1968 law, viewing it as overly restrictive, but also didn't see it as a slide toward tyranny. The top NRA officer, Franklin Orth, wrote in the association's publication American Rifleman that “the measure as a whole appears to be one that the sportsmen of America can live with.”

The key word: “sportsmen.”

Changing attitudes

In 1972, a new federal agency charged with enforcing the gun laws came into being: the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Lawmakers raged against the terror of cheap handguns known as Saturday night specials.

It was in that environment that Neal Knox rose to prominence.

Clifford Neal Knox — born in Oklahoma, raised in Texas, a graduate of Abilene Christian College — started out as a newspaper reporter and editor before founding, at the age of 30, Gun Week magazine.

He wanted to roll back gun laws, even the ones that restricted the sale of machine guns. He believed that gun control laws threatened basic American freedoms, that there were malign forces that sought nothing less than total disarmament. There would come a point when Knox would suggest that the assassinations of the 1960s and other horrors might have been part of a gun control plot: “Is it possible that some of those incidents could have been created for the purpose of disarming the people of the free world? With drugs and evil intent, it's possible. Rampant paranoia on my part? Maybe. But there have been far too many coincidences to ignore.” (Shotgun News, 1994)

In the second half of the 1970s, the NRA faced a crossroads. Would it remain an establishment institution, partnering with such mainstream entities as the Ford Foundation and focusing on shooting competitions? Or would it roll up its sleeves and fight hammer and tongs against the gun control advocates? Or flee to the Mountain West? The latter was appealing, and the NRA leadership decided to move the headquarters to Colorado and also spend $30 million to build a recreational facility in New Mexico called the National Outdoor Center.

The moderates felt rejected by both the NRA hard-liners and the Washington elite.

“Because of the political direction the NRA was taking, they weren't being invited to parties and their wives were not happy,” says Jeff Knox, Neal's son and director of the Firearms Coalition, which fights for the Second Amendment and against any laws restricting guns or ammunition. “Dad was on the phone constantly with various people around the country. He had his copy of the NRA bylaws and Robert's Rules, highlighted and marked. My father and a lot of local club leaders and state association guys organized their troops.”

Theirs was a grass-roots movement within the NRA. The solution was to use the membership to make changes. The bylaws of the NRA gave members power on the convention floor to vote for changes in the NRA governing structure.

“We were fighting the federal government on one hand and internal NRA on the other hand,” Aquilino says.

The coup

In Cincinnati, Knox read the group's demands, 15 of them, including one that would give the members of the NRA the right to pick the executive vice president, rather than letting the NRA's board decide. The coup took hours to accomplish. Joe Tartaro, a rebel, remembers the evening as “electric.” The hall's vending machine ran out of sodas.

By 3:30 in the morning, the NRA had a whole new look. Gone were the old guard officers, including Maxwell Rich, the ousted executive vice president. The members replaced him with an ideological soul mate of Knox's named Harlon Carter.

Carter, a longtime NRA board member, had arrived in Washington in 1975 as founding director of a new NRA lobbying unit, the Institute for Legislative Action. His pugnacious approach, which rankled the old guard, was captured in a letter he wrote to the entire NRA membership to discuss the fight in Congress over gun control: “We can win it on a simple concept — No compromise. No gun legislation.”

He had a shaved head (“bullet-headed” was one description) and vaguely resembled Nikita Khrushchev. A former U.S. Border Patrol agent and chief, Carter was an outstanding marksman who racked up scores of national shooting records. (Four years into his tenure, he would acknowledge that, as a 17-year-old, he'd shot and killed another youth, claiming self-defense. He was convicted of murder, but the verdict was overturned on appeal.)

Within months, thanks to Carter, Knox was working in the NRA headquarters, running Carter's old lobbying unit. And Carter made clear in a Washington Post interview that the NRA wouldn't be relocating to Colorado: “This is where the action is,” Carter said.

Over the next few years, NRA membership tripled. With the presidential election of Reagan, the energized activists went on the offensive, hoping to roll back the 1968 gun control laws and, in the process, abolish the ATF.

Aquilino, who became the top NRA spokesman, remembers those days as great fun: “We were a bunch of 25-year-olds, and we created the whole grass-roots lobbying concept.”

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