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The Zealot: Larry Pratt Is the Gun Lobby's Secret Weapon

How the fear-mongering, paranoia-stoking executive director of the Gun Owners of America remade the modern gun movement

Larry Pratt
Christopher Gregory/"New York Times"/Redux
July 14, 2014 9:00 AM ET

One morning during the winter weeks after the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012, the gun lobbyist Larry Pratt made the short drive from his offices in Springfield, Virginia, to the Arlington headquarters of the Leadership Institute, a training center for young conservatives. Pratt and the Institute's founder, Morton Blackwell, share a history in conservative activism going back four decades, and Pratt had spoken there many times, providing legislative updates on the politics of guns. Today, there seemed to be a jauntiness to the oddly boyish-faced 71-year old, who'd found himself at the center of a national media story just beginning to fade. He opened with a joke.

"Piers Morgan sends his regrets he won't be able to attend," Pratt deadpanned. 

The audience chuckled at the reference. On December 18th, 2012, four days after Adam Lanza's killing spree, the CNN host had invited Pratt to debate gun control, as most major networks have over the years. When Pratt stated that gun-free school zones — and, by extension, gun control advocates like Piers Morgan — were to blame for the tragedy in Newtown, Morgan stuttered and seethed. "You're an unbelievably stupid man, aren't you?" said the host.

America's Gun Violence Epidemic

Pratt's critics have called him many things over the years: extreme, radical, pernicious, creepy, dogged, effective. But no one who's studied his multi-faceted career could describe him as stupid. On CNN, Pratt was smart enough not to tell Piers Morgan what he really thinks about the Second Amendment. Because what he really thinks resonates deeply with the theocratic tenets of Christian Reconstructionism, which holds that American government should be ordered according to events and dictates found in the Old and New Testaments. Nor is Pratt so stupid as to use his regular access to mainstream media to promote the "active measures" he believes American gun owners will one day be forced to unleash on a secular federal government. In his 1999 essay, "What does the Bible Say About Gun Control?" Pratt writes, "If Christ is not our King, we shall have a dictator to rule over us, just as Samuel warned."

Pratt doesn't talk like this when being interviewed by The New York Times or answering questions on C-SPAN. Instead, he uses the more familiar language of ensuring public safety and respecting constitutional rights. He has employed this two-track communications operation with admirable efficacy and consistency since launching Gun Owners of America as the Beltway's first "no-compromise" gun-rights lobbying group in 1976. Over 40 years, Pratt has blazed the path and built the model for a gun-rights movement that has transformed the landscape of American gun politics.

Today, Pratt, who declined to be interviewed for this piece, holds the power to derail and delay gun legislation enjoying broad public support, and quickly inject falsehoods and amplify paranoia among a growing network of gun activists. With the rise of the Tea Party scene, Pratt has discovered new constituencies and new platforms for spreading his message of a Biblically mandated rollback of all gun regulation. He has also found new champions in the forms of his favorite senators: Rand Paul and Ted Cruz. He believes this November offers a chance to further grow the "Second Amendment Absolutist" bloc in Congress.

Larry Pratt addresses about 500 demonstrators during a rally in support of the Second Amendment in Washington, DC.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

"Look forward to 2014 as a time when we get involved as never before," Pratt told an audience at the Leadership Institute. "Look for those candidates that deserve our support. The Rand Pauls. The Ted Cruzes. The Steve Stockmans of the House and try to multiply their number. The RINOS [Republicans in Name Only] need to be humiliated. They need to be driven out of public life."

By Pratt's design, today's gun movement has little room for RINOS, but accommodates extremists and sometimes adopts their language. As the director of an organization claiming 300,000 members, Pratt understands the gun movement's role as that of a heavily armed guard, holding a cautionary gun to the head of America's would-be dictators.

"The Second Amendment is not for hunting, it's not even for self-defense," Pratt explained in his Leadership Institute talk. Rather, it is "for restraining tyrannical tendencies in government. Especially those in the liberal, tyrannical end of the spectrum. There is some restraint, and even if the voters of Brooklyn don't hold them back, it may be there are other ways that their impulses are somewhat restrained. That's the whole idea of the Second Amendment." He reiterated the point this March during an interview with conservative talk show host Bill Cunningham. Speaking of a New York Congresswoman who had expressed fear that one of Pratt's members wanted to shoot her, Pratt said, "You know, I'm kind of glad that's in the back of their minds. Hopefully they'll behave."

And if they don't? When speaking before smaller, conservative audiences, Pratt explains that it is necessary to both generate an undercurrent of fear and muster the organization and will to defeat the dictator prophesized in the Book of Samuel. When asked during a 2010 Q&A session, "Do we have the will to stand up to the government when they trample our rights?" Pratt replied, "That is an exceptionally important point to raise. We can have all the guns in the world, and if we don't have the will to use them [against the government], then they are useless."

This is the language found etched along the gun-movement's aqueduct into the dark crosscurrents of the militia movement and the radical right. It is written in Pratt's voice, because he has personally overseen engineering and construction of this aqueduct while building the larger gun-rights movement. This movement, considered as a whole, is not as conservative as Pratt. It is increasingly flavored with Libertarian ideas and language, building on outreach efforts designed to deflect attention from socially conservative politics that command ever fewer Americans. But it is no less zealous than Pratt on the question of gun reform. The gun-rights movement is distinct from, and often at odds with, the official gun "lobby" that is dominated by the National Rifle Association and its industry allies. The NRA remains the 500-pound gorilla of gun politics, with a budget and membership that dwarfs all other gun groups combined. But it is now surrounded, most heavily on its right, by a growing cluster of so-called "Second Amendment Absolutist" groups, from influential state-level activist networks like the Arizona Citizens Defense League, to ascendant fundraising dynamos like Dudley Brown's National Association for Gun Rights.

Among the most pedigreed of these purist outfits is Pratt's Gun Owners of America.

"The NRA describes itself as a religion, and Larry Pratt is the snake handler," says Tom Diaz, a former analyst at the Violence Policy Center, a Washington-based gun control group, and author of two books on the gun lobby. "The NRA debates using arguable premises of the American system: What is the meaning of the Second Amendment, of self-defense? Pratt unconnects from all that, and appeals to the least informed, most paranoid people." In parallel with his frequent national media appearances, Pratt aggressively pursues smaller radio audiences to peddle conspiracy theories and recycled John Birch Society propaganda from the 1960s. In recent years he has argued that the Aurora, Colorado, mass shooting was an inside job and that the Justice Department was pursuing charges against George Zimmerman to stir up racial animosity, trigger social chaos, and "build their own communist society."

As the gun-rights movement grows into and with the new century, Pratt is seen as a dinosaur, yet one who still commands respect. "Larry's a hardcore throwback and a bit of a weirdo — a black helicopter and Trilateral Commission kind of guy — but he has a certain brand and a name he's been around forever," says a staffer in the office of a veteran GOP senator. Indeed, few figures have had a greater impact in the development of the pro-gun movement. Purist groups created on his "no compromise" model now lead the charges in the courts and the states to block new gun-control legislation and chip away at those that exist. Most make the NRA look moderate by comparison.

"The NRA is concerned about its right flank on purity from people like Larry," says Richard Feldman, a former gun industry lobbyist and president of the Independent Firearms Owners Association. "He has said things I thought were crazy at the time, but turned out to be right. Activists respect him for getting things done."Adds Josh Sugarmann of the Violence Policy Center: "When NRA members stamp their feet over some rumored compromise, Pratt's who they go to. When he says make the calls, the calls are made, and it has influence on the Hill."

Larry Pratt speaks at a pro-gun rally organised by the 'Restore the Constitution' movement in Virginia park near Washington D.C.
Sipa via AP Images

This influence has only recently caught the attention of media that have generally focused on the NRA and ignored the growth of groups like Pratt's. When Gun Owners of America helped lead the gun-rights charge against an expansion of background checks, the New York Times discovered this "influential force" capable of both "freezing" and "empowering" senators. This influence may help to explain the reluctance of elected officials and their staffs to discuss Pratt's lobbying operation. When contacted, several current and former members of Congress and congressional staffers from both parties declined to comment on the experience of being on the receiving end of GOA's lobbying fire. The list of those who shied away from talking included nine senators and congressman, such as Republican Senators Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, as well as Democratic Senators Jon Tester and Mark Begich.  

Pratt enters his fifth decade of gun activism with ambitious plans for this influence. At an age when many lobbyists are considering retiring, Pratt is working through GOA's PAC, his membership, his allies, and a small team of fellow lobbyists to do what he's been trying to do since the 1970s: defeat any Republican who does not share his absolutist understanding of Second Amendment freedom. And it is nothing if not absolute: GOA agitates against background checks, waiting periods, and fines for straw purchases (guns purchased legally for resale on the black market).

In his crusade to rollback every gun law on the books, Pratt likes his allies unalloyed with records and habits of compromise. Many of Pratt's current targets in the primaries enjoy high or perfect ratings from the NRA. Some of them, like Mitch McConnell, have long enjoyed "B" or higher grades from the GOA. But only perfect grades like Rand Paul's "A+" are truly acceptable in Pratt's purist world. Unlike the NRA's system, GOA counts votes on any bill that tangentially touches on gun rights as a "gun vote." Sometimes no vote is required at all to arouse Pratt's displeasure, merely inaction. In explaining GOA's support for Mitch McConnell's challenger, Matt Bevin, the group cites the senator's failure to vigorously oppose The Affordable Care Act.

"Obamacare is allowing the medical profession to use information that people give their doctor against them, to take their guns," says Tim Macy, vice chairman of GOA. "McConnell hasn't stopped it so far, and he's been in a position to help stop it."

For much of today's gun movement, the NRA's more myopic rating system has never had much credibility. To understand why, it's necessary to go back in time to the era of GOA's founding, and imagine that the NRA has announced plans to sell it's D.C.-area offices, abandon politics, move to New Mexico, and re-open as a crunchy nonprofit devoted to conservation and hiking.

What sounds like a piece of alternate-history science fiction is the starting point for understanding the rise of Larry Pratt and the current configuration of forces in the gun debate.

II. Genesis

Among the many social convulsions of the 1960s was a public opinion turn in favor of gun control. The legislative expression of this turn, the 1968 Gun Control Act, established today's regulatory framework for firearms, including a federal licensing system for dealers. It was the first major gun law since Prohibition-era violence and the advent of the "getaway car" transformed crime and led to the 1934 National Firearms Act, which brought machine guns, short-barreled rifles, and silencers under strict government regulation. Another federal law soon followed: the National Firearms Act of 1938, which required the licensing of interstate gun dealers.

In both the thirties and 1968, the NRA either accepted or collaborated in the writing and passing of the law. For the group's hardline members, this was one compromise too many. Lyndon Johnson's signing of the Gun Control Act deepened a longstanding fissure inside the organization that widened into a full breach five years later. In 1973, the NRA board put its finger in the air and determined that its future depended on pivoting away from guns and toward conservation and outdoor sports. Plans were put in motion to sell its D.C. headquarters, relocate to Colorado Springs, and build a "National Outdoor Center" in New Mexico, where backpacking, hiking and wilderness survival classes would be taught alongside shooting sports. To help figure out how to finance the overhaul, the NRA commissioned the liberal New York consultant Harold Oram, whose clients included Greenpeace, McGovern for President, and the New York Civil Liberties Union. Oram's report, issued in the summer of 1976, concluded that raising the $30 million needed for the NRA's Outdoor Center would require de-emphasizing its past opposition to gun control and avoiding all mention of gun politics in NRA publications. If it renounced its past and promised to stay out of politics, Oram advised, foundations like Rockefeller, then and now a major source of non-profit grants, could be counted on for financing.

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