How the fear-mongering, paranoia-stoking executive director of the Gun Owners of America remade the modern gun movement
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.
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.
"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."
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.
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.
During the years of the NRA's slow careen left in search of Rockefeller money, Larry Pratt was making a name for himself in a movement where the Rockefeller name was synonymous with liberal Republicanism — and nearly synonymous with the Devil himself. In 1970, the 28-year-old Pratt became executive director of the American Conservative Union, founded six years prior by William F. Buckley to carry forward the flame of Barry Goldwater's failed presidential campaign. It was in this capacity that Pratt attended the 1972 GOP Republican Convention in Miami Beach, where he joined fellow conservatives in battles over Nixon's reelection platform. In Miami, Pratt forged a friendship with another young religious conservative on the make, Paul Weyrich. The two men were so similar, politically and physically, that they looked like a mirror image when they were talking to each other. At the time, Weyrich was raising funds for what would soon become the ultra-conservative Heritage Foundation. One of the men in Weyrich's growing network was H.L. Richardson, a frustrated NRA board member, California State Senator, and member of the far-right John Birch Society. Weyrich introduced Pratt and Richardson, who became fast friends.
In 1975, Richardson founded Gun Owners of America on the model of his first group, Gun Owners of California, established earlier that year to (successfully) oppose a state handgun ban and (less successfully) the extension of ownership waiting periods from five to 15 days. That year also saw the establishment of one of the country's first national gun control groups, the National Council to Control Handguns. Richardson wanted a full-time lobbyist near Washington and tapped Pratt to lead the group's Northern Virginia office. In the fight against gun control, GOA would pick up the slack created by NRA drift.
"In 1975, we were the first folks on the street looking at races and the lobbying side," says Tim Macy, GOA's vice chairman. "There was a lot of talk about gun legislation, in California and nationally. When we started, the NRA did not have a political arm."
Pratt had grown up in suburban Indiana and was relatively new to guns when he took GOA's helm. He'd purchased his first firearm during the 1968 riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King. "There were some racial difficulties," Pratt later recalled. "I heard on the radio that the police weren't sure they could control the rioters coming north on 16th Street, so I went out and bought a shotgun."
In his adult arrival to the world of guns, Pratt resembled another rising star emerging from the 1960s conservative firmament, one who would go on to rival Pratt's influence in national gun politics. In 1971, Alan Gottlieb, a 24-year-old organizer for Young Americans for Freedom (another Buckley-founded group) founded the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms. Gottlieb nurtured the group on two key resources: mailing lists, and seed money from William Loeb, the conservative publisher of the Manchester Union Leader. Like GOA's founder Richardson, Loeb sat on the NRA board. Sidelined by the liberal majority, he'd spent recent years fuming over the group's direction and was eager to help nurture a new player.
Loeb and Richardson weren't the only conservatives on the NRA board, but it took a dramatic member insurgency for them to wrest power from the liberals. At the group's 1977 annual meeting in Cincinnati, hundreds of rank-and-file from around the country staged what has become known in gun culture lore as "The Cincinnati Revolt." During a long night of speeches and politicking, the membership voted in a new board drawn from the NRA's fledgling lobbying division, the Institute for Legislative Action (NRA-ILA), and changed the by-laws in favor of strong political engagement and tighter member control. By morning, the NRA was controlled by a group of rough-edged conservatives committed to fierce political engagement. The NRA returned to Washington to find it was no longer the only gun game in town. There were now two young upstarts on the scene, Alan Gottlieb and Larry Pratt. Since Gottlieb was based in Seattle, and focused his work on direct mail, education and the courts, this left Pratt and the Gun Owners of America as the leading alternative to the NRA.
In the many legislative battle to come — handgun bans, armor-piercing bullets, background checks — the NRA would have to contend with GOA and its leader, who was neither temperamentally nor politically inclined to yield to an establishment power that had collaborated on the 1934 and 1968 gun control bills. The NRA may have undergone a radical course correction, but it was still a large institution with a deep sense of entitlement and turf.
"They've always wanted to be the only kid on the block," says Alan Gottlieb. "The NRA didn't appreciate the growth of a gun rights movement, because a movement is much harder to control. What started in the mid-1970s with my group and GOA has flowered. Now there is all this pressure from the local and state grassroots level that the NRA has to deal with."
When the NRA re-launched its lobbying machine in 1977, it attempted to accommodate Pratt's presence in D.C. by developing a good-cop, bad-cop routine.
"Where the NRA played an 'inside game', the GOA was about confrontational politics, more stick, less carrot," says Jeff Knox, director of the Firearms Coalition and a prominent gun journalist whose father, Neal Knox, headed the NRA's lobbying arm between 1978 and 1982. "When dad was at ILA, he saw the GOA as an extension of his tool box. They were useful to him when he could point to a GOA mailing and tell [politicians], 'See, we're being reasonable, and if you don't want us to go there, then you need to deal with us, or you're going to have to deal with them.' The relationship between the NRA and GOA has been a weird one over the years, at different times flourishing and failing. Now [they're] dramatically butting heads." (The NRA did not respond to requests for comment.)
The most recent clash between GOA and the NRA occurred last winter, over the latter's initial, qualified support for a bipartisan Senate bill that would have shored up the country's background check system, while also relaxing restrictions on interstate gun sales. The gun community was split on the measure sponsored by Senators Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), with even some purist leaders like Gottlieb calling the bill "more gains than anything." But Pratt has never seen victory in anything that required giving an inch — especially an inch involving handing information to the federal government. The GOA sent out mailers claiming, "If your private gun transaction is covered by Toomey-Schumer-Manchin (and virtually all will be) . . . you can assume you will be part of a national gun registry."
This was a lie. The text of the bill not only reiterated existing laws against the compiling of a national gun database, it went so far as to threaten a jail sentence of "up to 15 years" for breaking them. But the lie worked. There is a consensus that a grassroots backlash against the bill, sparked and sustained by GOA and other purist groups, forced the NRA to drop its support for the bill, helping doom it at the last hour.
Jeff Knox says the GOA played an important role, but that it was part of a swarm of limited power. "Something like 34 groups came together prior to the April vote on Manchin-Toomey. We did have an impact on NRA's decision. But the bottom line is that all of us could swarm Congress, but if [NRA-ILA Executive Director Chris] Cox walked in and gave a wink and a nod, they'd go against us. NRA is the big dog. They are the ones with the direct, immediate clout, they have the politicians' ears. That's why we have to be members [of NRA] and keep them on the straight and narrow."
According to Knox, Pratt's biggest strength is being "right on top of what's going on. The GOA is just faster. The NRA is hidebound and not on top of the news cycle at all. It takes them a week to respond to new information. After Newtown they waited too long, then delivered a tepid response. GOA sees the threats that others often miss."
GOA has used similarly aggressive and dishonest tactics at the state level to defeat bills it does not like. In New Hampshire this winter, a group called Pro-Gun New Hampshireis backing a state bill that would create pathways for restoring gun rights to people disqualified by federal laws related to mental health problems. From his perch in Springfield, Pratt saw the bill as too weak, and attacked. Soon thousands of New Hampshire voters received anti-bill mailers with the words, "See a shrink, lose your guns" printed in red ink on the envelope. The letter attacked local groups supporting the bill as "anti-gun" — a funeral-serious charge in gun circles usually reserved for likes of Chuck Schumer.
Pro-Gun New Hampshire did not appreciate the epitaph, or Pratt's meddling, which it described as either ignorant or mendacious.
"Pratt sent out this B.S. propaganda that falsely claimed the bill will disqualify gun buyers if they see a shrink," says the group's vice president, Sam Cohen. "GOA and groups like it want to promote themselves as the premiere guardian of your rights. They feel in a competitive position with each other to be the 'no compromise' group and get members. It's particularly egregious in this case because if you carefully read the law, you know they're wrong."
III. The Schism
GOA's role in undermining Manchin-Toomey led to a burst of media attention around the group. The New York Times visited GOA's Springfield office to investigate what it called "the upstart group" that "pushes harder than the N.R.A." A two-sentence biographical paragraph described Pratt as having "long been active in Republican politics," including brief stints as a Delegate in the Virginia legislature and a co-chair of Pat Buchanan's 1996 presidential campaign.
As with Pratt's frequent appearances on cable television over the years, no mention was made by the Times of his fringe political and religious beliefs, or the dark corners of American gun culture and rightwing politics to which these beliefs have led over the years. But these links between mainstream and fringe have long been at the core of his role in rightwing politics.
"Larry Pratt has served over the years as an extremely important bridge between the more rabid parts of the gun rights movement and the radical right," says Heidi Beirich, director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center. "The fact that he's been linked to so many different extremists for so long — including Klansman and Christian Identity leaders — together with his roaming around on the militia circuit for God knows how long — it should put him beyond the pale."
Pratt's political journey through America's neo-Nazi and insurrectionist subcultures began in an unlikely setting. It was in the leafy suburbs of northern Virginia, home to some of the country's wealthiest zip codes, that Pratt settled with his wife Priscilla in the 1970s, and where he remains. It is here that he raised four children, and, once upon a time, sought to launch a political career on the other side of the lobbying desk.
In the months leading up to the 1977 "Revolt in Cincinnati," Pratt, then 34, announced an insurgent candidacy to represent the suburbs of southern Fairfax County in the Virginia House of Delegates. Pratt was part of a slate of conservatives seeking to knock off the moderate Republicans that dominated the local party. Typical of this old guard was five-term Republican Warren E. Barry, who supported a proposed national ban on the cheap revolvers known as "Saturday Night Specials." In announcing his candidacy, The Washington Post described Pratt as "a Washington representative for Gun Owners of America and an Amway distributor."
Pratt lost the local race, but could comfort himself with a growing national reputation. Early the following year, the Post featured Pratt in a piece on "The New Right Network" that gathered weekly at the Capitol Hill Club to debate strategy and hatch initiatives. Among more than a dozen names listed in the paper's group profile, Pratt is one of the last still active in public life. Sometimes these initiatives impacted gun rights; other times, Pratt found a gun angle to justify using GOA resources. In 1979, he devised a plan, in cooperation with the American Legislative Exchange Council, which he helped found, to throw up constitutional roadblocks to D.C. statehood. "The amendment would bring in two senators who would probably be minority, and would definitely be liberal on gun control," Pratt said.
Pratt again contested a seat in the House of Delegates in 1979. Boosted by financing from his friend Jerry Falwell, the Lynchburg evangelist, and ties to what the Post called "Joseph Coors' Heritage Foundation," Pratt outspent other candidates nearly two to one. He won in a local GOP tide. But his colleagues in Richmond had never seen his breed of Republican before. "Larry was part of a small group of far-right ideologues who thought it was apostasy to vote for an MLK holiday," remembers Wiley Mitchell, Republican floor leader in the Virginia Senate from 1976 to 1988. "He was strongly opposed to women's rights. He was against everything."
Pratt proved a divisive and an ineffectual politician. Seven of eight bills Pratt introduced his first year were defeated, including a ban on nude images on motor vehicles. (If passed, the law would have required modifying the Virginia state seal, anticipating by decades the order by Pratt's friend John Ashcroft to cover the breast of a statue in the Department of Justice.) His one victory concerned a housekeeping procedural change. The national media noticed him just once, when he declared a war on bongs and fought to ban the sale of drug paraphernalia in Virginia.
The bong battle failed to win him many friends. On the eve of losing his reelection bid, a Norfolk Virginian-Pilot poll ranked Pratt "the least effective member of the House of Delegates."
Elsewhere in the country, more conservative districts than Fairfax were electing social and religious conservatives like Pratt. What's more, GOA, which Pratt claimed at the time was approaching 100,000 members, was in a position to help them. The year Ronald Reagan moved into the White House, Pratt told reporters his PAC was spending almost $1 million annually in support of pro-gun candidates. Closer to home, Pratt's friends were taking over the reigns of government. The August 1981 issue of Life magazine included Pratt among the ten most influential "Young Turks of the Radical Right." The spread featured a photo of Pratt cradling his first gun, the 12 gauge purchased during the 1968 riots, like a baby.
The defining gun battle of Reagan's first term didn't involve gunshot, but a new breed of armor-piercing bullet. It was a fight that would pit the GOA against the NRA, and in the process illuminate the radical anti-statism at the heart of Pratt's worldview.
IV. Judgment Days
In January of 1982, NBC broadcast a prime-time news special titled, "Cop-Killer Bullets." It described the rise of a new breed of handgun bullets made from metals capable of penetrating the common Kevlar police vest. Other media reports followed, and soon an ex-cop and New York congressman named Mario Biaggi had introduced a bill banning a wide range of armor-piercing ammunition. The gun politics fight that followed reveals how the NRA sought to protect its image from purist groups like GOA, while also maintaining its "inside game" on the Hill.
After Biaggi introduced his bill, the NRA sent out a fundraising letter calling it "backdoor national gun control" and promised to oppose all "inanimate object controls." Behind closed doors, it did the opposite, and began working with Texas Congressman Jack Brooks, a Democrat like Biaggi, to draft another bill that more narrowly targeted handgun ammo, leaving hunting and competitive shooting bullets unaffected (in contrast to the original House bill). The Brooks bill and a sister bill in the Senate, with quiet NRA support, quickly gained bipartisan traction and the backing of the Reagan administration.
The gun movement was livid. Gottlieb's Citizens Committee, Pratt's Gun Owners of America, and Neal Knox's Firearms Coalition swung into action to derail the compromise bill. They produced mailers and accusations about the "betrayal" of the spirit of Cincinnati. The noise on its right may have been annoying, but it allowed the NRA to play good-cop. In October 1985, the NRA wrote letters to Congressmen reminding them that "Gun Owners of America is generating postcards in opposition to [the House and Senate bills] both of which are supported by the National Rifle Association." In December, a revised version of Biaggi's bill passed the House. In March, it cleared the Senate with 97 votes.
In casting his lone nay vote, Steve Symms, a conservative Republican senator from Idaho, thanked Pratt by name for alerting him to the law's infidelity to the Second Amendment.
Pratt had more success influencing the McClure-Volkmer bill, the signature gun-legislation of the Reagan era. Known as the Firearm Owners Protection Act, it relaxed many of the provisions of the 1968 Act regulating the sale and purchase of firearms. It also outlawed the creation of a federal gun registry. The GOA worked closely with Democratic Rep. Harold Volkmer from Missouri on the final version of the Senate bill introduced in early 1985. The final bill voted on the next year was a mixed bag from the perspective of purists. Though it loosened many regulations, it not only codified the 1934 Act's regulations on automatic fire machine guns, it went further and forbade the sale of machine guns produced after 1986.
Pratt was a delegate to the 1980 Republican convention and knew figures in and around the new administration. But having a conservative in the White House did not lessen his hatred and distrust of the federal government. Early in Reagan's term, Pratt wrote a fundraiser mailing warning against school-trip visits to the ATF building, where children were given honorary badges and told to be law-abiding citizens. The ATF, Pratt wrote, was "encouraging them to spy on their parents and neighbors. Tomorrow while you're at work these kids could be sneaking around your property [trying to] find out more about your hunting rifle or gun collection . . . [then] sending a SECRET report to the government." Nor did Pratt's ties to the administration stop him from turning his fire on individuals working in the Oval Office. When Reagan advisor Mike Deaver blocked the president from accepting a gift from Gun Owners of America in the form of a Colt Peacemaker revolver, Pratt organized a letter-writing campaign. "Friends, President Reagan does not need people like Mike Deaver on his staff," Pratt wrote to GOA members. "I want to flood the White House with postcards over this outrage. Deaver must go!"
Along with his gun work, Pratt was involved during the Reagan years in a wide range of social and foreign policy issues. He was a member of the Council for National Policy, a think tank bringing together leading conservative figures to generate policy for the new administration. In 1980, he founded the Committee to Protect the Family Foundation, which raised money for anti-gay campaigns and assisted the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue with legal defenses. In 1986, during the depths of the AIDS crisis, Pratt bought ads around the country highlighting a D.C. law forbidding health insurance companies from denying coverage and raising rates for people who test positive for HIV. "We don't think AIDS should have civil rights," Pratt told the Los Angeles Times. "The law is a dangerous and outrageous precedent for other wacko legislators to follow. [Those who support it should be] held accountable for voting to support homosexual privileges."
The following year, Pratt called for the quarantine of people suffering from AIDS. "Our judges coddle criminals instead of caring for the victims of crime," he wrote in a Family Foundation fundraising letter. "They've chased God out of our schools, defended abortions…and now they are trying to infect us and kill us with strange and horrible diseases."
Pratt's activities didn't stop at the U.S. border. Throughout the 1980s, Pratt added the last missing element to his extensive portfolio of conservative causes: foreign policy.
Pratt did more than support Reagan's arms build-up. He assumed a major role in a global operation assisting in the brutal, sometimes extralegal, execution of Reagan's "full-court press" against leftist forces in Central America and beyond. Under the direction of his friend Pat Buchanan, Pratt served as secretary for the privately run Council for Inter-American Security, or CIS. Ostensibly a think tank advocating an "activist" hemispheric foreign policy, the CIS in fact engaged in propaganda and intelligence gathering in the service of U.S. client states.
Sometimes this made a scramble of Pratt's anti-statist ideology. When it came to the ATF, he saw an American Stasi. But he was happy to help the FBI build files on activists. During Pratt's tenure, the CIS collaborated with the Bureau in tracking undocumented Salvadoran refugees living in the U.S. In his book, Break-ins, Death Threats and the FBI: The Covert War Against the Central America Movement, Ross Gelbspan documented the joint CIS-FBI effort to identify and deport political refugees back to El Salvador. The Political Asylum Project of the American Civil Liberties Union estimates that of the 154 people sent back between 1983 and 1984, over 100 were either killed or disappeared.
The CIS was part of a larger network of rightwing Cold War groups that launched Pratt well beyond his public orbit of religious conservatives focused on guns, taxes, and abortion. One CIS allied organization was the Unification Church-funded World Anti-Communist League (WACL) a notorious Who's Who federation of neo-Nazis, war criminals, and rightwing terror outfits. A Washington Post reporter who observed the League's 1979 conference counted "former Nazi SS officers, two neo-fascists from Italy reportedly wanted for terrorist acts, [and] members of Alpha 66, a right-wing Cuban exile group." (The reporter didn't know it at the time, but one of the attendees he quoted, Sam Dickson, was a white power activist and Atlanta-based Klan attorney.) The chair of WACL's US branch was Roger Pearson, a former Heritage Foundation hire of Pratt's friend Paul Weyrich. After revelations of Pearson's neo-Nazi activities, he stepped down, replaced by Elmore D. Greaves, a former organizer with the segregationist Citizens Councils.
During the 1980s and early Nineties, it was difficult to look at Pratt's network without tripping over a WACL connection. Pratt was also active in the United States Taxpayers Party, led by WACL member Howard Phillips. WACL ties carried over into a transitional phase of Pratt's activism: His work hyping Hispanic immigration and bilingual education as national security threats. In the mid-Eighties, Pratt launched another organization, English First, as a project within his Family Foundation to wage a racially charged war against bilingual education. He got help from Anthony Bouscaren, a CIS advisor who also sat on the board of WACL. Bouscaren's publishing credits included numerous articles in the neo-Nazi Roger Pearson's Journal for Social, Political and Economic Studies. This didn't stop more than a dozen GOP legislators, including Dick Armey, from joining the board.
It was during his involvement in Central American policy and supporting counterinsurgencies around the world that Pratt made multiple trips to Guatemala to observe rural "Civil Defense Patrols." Contemporary human rights observers (and two subsequent Truth Commissions) consider them "death squads" for their role in killing and torturing civilians. But Pratt found much to admire. He combined observations from these visits with similarly impressed notes on the Civilian Home Defense Forces, vigilante patrols in Ferdinand Marcos' Philippines, for a slim book published by the Gun Owners Foundation in 1990, Armed People Victorious. In it, he praises the leadership of Efrain Rios Montt, the country's military leader during 1982 and 1983 who greatly expanded the civil defense patrols. Twenty years later, Guatemalan judges would find Montt guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity. One Amnesty International Report from Montt's tenure detailed massacres in 60 Indian villages over a three-month period, leaving more than 2,500 dead. As late as 2001, Pratt was publically praising Montt as a "powerful Christian leader." In the concluding chapter of Armed People Victorious, titled "Bringing the Lessons Home," Pratt writes:
The War on Drugs can be won the same way the guerilla insurgencies were pushed back in Guatemala and the Philippines… The history of the United States for years before and after the founding of the Republic was the history of an armed people with functioning militias involved in civil defense… While the United States has forgotten its successes in this area, other countries have rediscovered them. It is time that the United States return to reliance on an armed people. There is no acceptable alternative.
Having defeated communism abroad, might not similar tactics work against enemies within? After the election of Bill Clinton, a significant chunk of gun culture would begin wondering the same thing — and about enemies more diverse than drug dealers. Just as he did during the social and foreign policy clashes of the Cold War, Larry Pratt would make sure he was right in the middle of things.
V. Storms of Fire
In February of 1991, a reclusive Idaho man named Randy Weaver failed to appear at trial on charges of selling sawed-off shotguns to undercover ATF agents. His absence in court surprised no one familiar with the case. Weaver and his family had moved to the wooded mountains of Ruby Ridge to get as far as possible from the government they hated. That, and to advance what the large local population of neo-Nazis and white supremacists called the "Northwest Territorial Imperative" to carve out a racially pure state in the Pacific Northwest. Weaver believed the feds had set him up to use him against his friends in the Aryan Nations, an extremist group based in nearby Hayden Lake. Weaver's response to the repeated summons was blunt: "Whether we live or whether we die, we will not obey your lawless government."
Not much happened for more than a year. Then, on the afternoon of August 21st, 1992, a group of armed federal marshals approached Weaver's cabin. A forest gunfight ensued in which Weaver's wife, young son, and a federal marshal were killed.
The bloodshed and the armed standoff that followed catalyzed groups across the far right into action. This activity would soon produce a national militia movement for which Ruby Ridge functioned as a modern-day Alamo. The most important event in this development was a three-day meeting convened in October 1992 by Christian Identity leader Pete Peters. Christian Identity maintains that Aryans are the true Jews, that blacks are a pre-Adamic subhuman species, and that a race war is coming, after which whites will establish a "Christian government." These were the baseline ideas uniting the 150 far-right leaders who answered Peters' call to action at a YMCA hall in Estes Park, Colorado. Among those present was Larry Pratt. According to media reports, Pratt railed against the 14th Amendment and delivered one of his favorite lines: "The Second Amendment ain't about duck hunting."
According to Leonard Zeskind's report from the conference, published in a November 1995 Rolling Stone story, Pratt's fellow speakers consisted mostly of extremists with little mainstream profile or Washington connections, people like Aryan Nations leader Richard Butler and Texas Klansman Louis Beam. Pratt represented a link between these worlds and the rightward edge of the conservative establishment. Pratt's presence, wrote Zeskind, "signaled the transformation of the gun lobby. Organizations like GOA or even the National Rifle Association, which were devoted to the single issue of firearms, would become the leading edge of a far right, multi-issue assault on government institutions and democratic rights. The gun lobby would be at the center of a web of right-wing warriors."
If so, they had ample opportunity to discuss this strategy. According to Richard Feldman's gun-lobby memoir, Ricochet, Pratt was part of an elite tri-annual meeting during the late Eighties and early Nineties held in D.C.'s Park Terrace Hotel. The so-called "quilting bees," writes Feldman, "were frank (no-notes-taken), free-ranging discussions of gun politics and industry trends" that brought together Pratt, Alan Gottlieb, gun-writer Joe Tartaro, Neal Knox, and the NRA brass. "We wanted to know where each group stood on an issue — so all of us could keep moving in the same general direction and avoid being sideswiped in legislative conflicts."
The NRA and GOA may have been moving in the same general direction, but the larger group never followed Pratt to the outer fringes of the right. When ATF agent Robert Rodriguez infiltrated the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, it was a GOA video that David Koresh played for him. According to a Treasury Department report cited by Zeskind, the video "portrayed ATF as an evil agency that threatened the liberty of U.S. citizens." This view of the agency hardened when the ATF led a siege of the compound in April of 1993 that killed 76.
In militia circles, the siege confirmed the worst suspicions about the federal government. The links between the militia scene and the gun groups had deepened to the point where NRA fundraising letters echoed the language of extremist publications on the radical right. In one 1995 letter, NRA executive vice-president Wayne LaPierre described ATF officers as "jack-booted thugs" in "Nazi bucket helmets." But the NRA stopped short of supporting the Christian Identity lawyer Kirk Lyons, who was representing multiple victims of Waco. Pratt and the GOA had no such compunction and donated tens of thousands of dollars to Lyons's white supremacist organization CAUSE (short for the Aryan bastions of Canada, Australia, the United States, South Africa and Europe), "Not $50,000 — but a lot of money for us," Pratt told Rolling Stone in 1995.
For many, the gun scene's rhetoric of an "evil" and "fascist" government was immediately rendered in more sinister shades when Timothy McVeigh detonated a truck bomb under Oklahoma City's Alfred P. Murrah federal building on April 19, 1995, the second anniversary of the Waco siege. Former president George H.W. Bush spoke for many when he cancelled his NRA membership in the bombing's wake, citing LaPierre's incendiary rhetoric.
On the afternoon of the Oklahoma City bombing, Pratt was in Washington, D.C., demonstrating in front of FBI headquarters for its role in the Waco tragedy. Three days later, Pratt spoke before a gathering of 600 Christian Identity adherents and assorted radicals convened by Pete Peters at the Lodge of the Ozarks in Branson, Missouri. Pratt addressed the "Biblical Mandate to Arm" and seemed to justify McVeigh's act of terror, at the time the bloodiest in American history. According to an account by Michael Reynolds in Playboy, Pratt told the gathered, "The government behaves as a beast. It did in Waco, and we have somebody, whoever it might have been, whatever group it might have been, assuming they can't rely on the Lord to take vengeance."
Pratt's extremist ties and activities only began to garner widespread attention during his brief tenure as a co-chair of Pat Buchanan's 1996 presidential campaign. During Buchanan's surprising surge in New Hampshire, Pratt was forced to step down after his extremist political views and ties came to light. But his friend hardly threw him under the bus. At a GOP debate in Manchester, Buchanan used his closing comments to defend Pratt as "a devout Christian" who was under attack because of his opposition to gun control. "I would urge the gun owners of New Hampshire and America to stand with Larry Pratt and stand with me," he said.
Receiving less attention, then as now, was Pratt's work on Capitol Hill. The Republican class of 1994 brought a new generation of conservatives to town, including the biggest recipient of GOA PAC funds that cycle, Rep. Steve Stockman of Houston. Stockman and Pratt likely knew each other through the militia scene and other common friends on the radical right. Following the election, both Pratt and Stockman addressed a conference convened by the anti-Semitic Liberty Lobby, including a testimonial banquet in honor of its publication, The Spotlight. Mary Jacoby, who covered Congress for Roll Call, remembers Pratt as "almost a shadow Congressman" during this time. "He was always around, essentially running then-Rep. Steve Stockman's office," she says, "and writing anti-gun control legislation."
At the cusp of the George W. Bush era, Pratt decided to publicly address the revelations about his ties to the racist far-right and assorted extremists. In "Letter to a White Separatist," written in 1997 and published in his 2001 essay collection, On the Firing Line, Pratt tells a racist member of Guns of America that it is faith, not race, which makes a Christian in the eyes of God. "The Christian Identity position you espouse depends upon non-biblical ideas that end up contradicting the Scriptures." Pratt goes on to cite the Bible, as well as his travels to Latin American and South Africa, where he met many good Christians of all races, while "their pagan neighbors are still enslaved in all the works of the flesh that Paul describes in Galatians 5. They live side by side and the contrast is readily apparent."
Pratt has on numerous occasions rejected the charge of racism and anti-Semitism. But his habit of drawing "contrasts" (as in the above quote) can belie an idiosyncratic understanding of race. During a January 2014, interview conducted on his syndicated radio show, The Gun Owners News Hour, Pratt expressed his wish that "very happy" black Africans could say to "surly" African-Americans, "Hey, buddy, you got this all wrong, let me explain to you the world really works."
"The African from Africa is a very pro-American person, a very happy person," explained Pratt. "I know several. And they are always just happy with a joke, a pleasant smile on their face. And they clearly don't identify with the surliness that's all too frequently the attitude of their fellow African-Americans here. And they're very conservative politically. The country of Ghana, it's still illegal to commit an abortion, it's illegal to be a homosexual."
VI. The Reckoning
As GOA gears up for its nineteenth election cycle under Pratt's leadership, it remains relatively small. According to public tax records, its revenues in recent years have ranged between $1.5 million (2006) to slightly below $2.3 million (2009), compared with an NRA budget of $250 million. Most of this money is generated through direct public support (direct mail, internet appeals, etc.). Annual membership dues of $20, meanwhile, usually make up between one-quarter and one-third of the total. This renders implausible Pratt's claims to having 300,000 members. Even accounting for lifetime memberships and student discounts, the 300,000 figure would bring in millions of dollars in dues alone. No doubt what members he does have are enough to make elected officials wary of crossing him, but it's difficult to avoid the conclusion that the size of the activist army under is command is overstated.
GOA expenses have tended to equal revenues, with most money being spent on "Membership Expenses" described on tax documents as funds to "update and inform members on the progress, accomplishments, and future programs of the organization." No one appears to be getting terribly rich off of the GOA operation, including the PAC and Foundation. Only five people are included on the employee list on GOA's 2011 990 form, though that number doesn't include lobbyists like Pratt's son, Erich Pratt. While compensation for the Board has tripled from $65,000 in 2004 to over $200,000 in 2011, Pratt's compensation from GOA ($137,500 in 2011) has dipped a bit in recent years, not including additional income from the Gun Owners Foundation and a residual income ($20,000 in 2011) from the defunct English First.
In membership and resources, GOA lags behind not just the NRA, but also newcomers to the hardline scene like Dudley Brown's National Association of Gun Rights. NAGR claims to offer activists the "best bang for your pro-gun buck." But few in the gun-rights movement agree with this claim. "If you take a look at what NAGR actually does with its money, there isn't a whole lot," says Alan Gottlieb. "I don't see NAGR ever turning bodies out or being anywhere, basically. In all the states we're involved in, if we bump into them one out of every 20 times, I'd say that's a lot. GOA is in more places than NAGR is with less resources." (Brown declined to comment for this story.)
Being there is what matters. Those who do not share Pratt's politics appreciate his work, and appear willing to overlook his ties to extremists. Pratt's former role as a contributing editor at a publication of the anti-Semitic United Sovereigns of America hasn't even seemed to complicate his relationship with Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership. "None of that strained GOA's relationship with JPFO," says L. Neil Smith, a Libertarian member and writer for JPFO. "I myself would also talk to white nationalists and neo-Nazi groups. I talk to liberal groups, but people don't accuse me of being liberal. I wash all that off at home. It's important to talk to anyone who will listen."
"Most gun people don't know his background," says Dan Zimmerman, editor of the blog TheTruthAboutGuns.com. "He's seen in a positive light. He'll go on and spar with Piers Morgan and jump in the lion's den and wave the flag."
But, says Zimmerman, his broader appeal stops at guns.
"The universe of gun owners is far too diverse and far too wide for any organization to take a hardcore stand one way or the other on social issues. It's much more libertarian leaning than conservative leaning. There's crossover, but its much more a leave-me-alone thing than it is better-dead-than-red."
Could that orientation hinder GOA in the new century, if the politics stays the same under the next generation of Pratts?
"I would say, yes, Pratt's conservatism will hinder him," says Robert Farago, publisher of TheTruthAboutGuns.com. "Gun owners are diverse. They go across the spectrum, sexuality, politics, race. There is a new wave of gun owners who are libertarians, not social conservatives at all. The real battle among gun rights groups is for the new people coming in. We're getting a lot more women. Minorities are the future . We have excellent demographic data. The small, more pure groups have the momentum. We call the NRA member an OFWG — Old Fat White Guy."
"The gun rights movement is comprised of every political stripe," says Jeff Knox of the Firearms Coalition. "Women involvement has grown dramatically. One of the most involved activists in California is a post-op transsexual. That's one of the strengths of the movement."
All of which means that the movement Pratt helped found shows signs of moving in directions — tolerant, diverse, secular, gay-friendly — that he sees as evidence of the gun-grabbing dictatorship of Biblical prophecy. It would be a circular irony indeed if, at the end of his long career, Larry Pratt found himself targeting not just the secular federal Leviathan, but also his purist peers in the gun-rights movement he did so much to build.
This story was reported in conjunction with the American Independent Institute.