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Inside the Gun Lobby

The National Rifle Association

House Judiciary Committee, Gun-Control, Paul Brown, Virginia Sears, Betty Ann Dittemore, Kenneth Kramer

Members Of House Judiciary Committee Listen To Witness At Gun-Control Hearings Tuesday.; The legislators are, from left: Reps. Paul Brown, Virginia Sears, Betty Ann Dittemore and Kenneth Kramer, January 22nd 1975.

Duane Howell/The Denver Post/Getty

After each assassination, from John Kennedy to John Lennon, there has been a public outcry for gun control. And each time, new membership cards have come firing in to the National Rifle Association. Since 1960, membership has jumped from 250,000 to 1.8 million. It appears that the gun-control issue is the best thing that’s ever happened to the NRA. I suggested this to their chief lobbyist, Neal Knox.

“No question about it.”

If it wasn’t for you guys in the liberal press, the NRA would’ve closed up shop a long time ago. You guys like to have a big, bad villain. So presto, you make the NRA into a big, bad villain. To me, it isn’t a villain at all. It’s a paper tiger.”
— an aide to Senator Edward M. Kennedy

From the Civil War statue at Scott Circle in Washington D.C. you can see the rise of gray-blue marble and tinted glass. The chrome calligraphy across its face reads THE NATIONAL RIFLE ASSOCIATION. In the basement there are soundproof target ranges. On the ground floor is a museum open to the public. The exhibits are kept under glass. Teddy Roosevelt’s Winchester, a matched pair of percussion pistols, Erle Stanley Gardner’s single-action Colt — they are masterpieces from history, objects of love.

Upstairs are the computers. Bank upon bank of computers. From them spit Mailgrams by the thousands, names and addresses peering urgently from windowed envelopes, and inside a plea from Neal Knox: Write! Write your congressman. Tell him you are watching. Don’t let him screw around with your right to bear arms!

On a bright March morning, I signed the logbook for the security guard and took an elevator up to the seventh floor. Neal Knox waved me into his ample office — the kind a chairman of the board would have — but somehow he didn’t look like he belonged there. He looked rumpled, rough-edged, the way old newspapermen sometimes do. “I gave some of the best years of my life to newspapers,” he said. He had been the founding editor of Gun Week and the editor and publisher of two gun magazines.

“Sit down.” His face was relaxed, a little puffy at the edges. Knox is an expert marksman, a two-time winner of national bench-rest rifle championships. While Knox is the man most responsible for modernizing the NRA, changing it from an association of sporting shooters into an often effective political weapon, he also remembers growing up in a time when the average boy learned how to whittle, how to play ball and how to fire a gun. In the early days of the organization, the typical NRA member lived far from the urban combat zones. He was a hunter. He shot rifles and shotguns. The new NRA member is likely to be a terrified city man with a pistol in a holster slung over his bedpost at night. He often joins to help Neal Knox scare the hell out of a few politicians.

In 1975, the NRA’s board of directors created a lobbying arm, the Institute for Legislative Action, and Knox became its executive director in early 1978. He intended to stay three months. He’s been there three years. He had no idea he would be so good at it.

As one of his first acts, Knox sent out questionnaires to the membership. “I wanted to confirm what I’ve always believed: that ninety-nine percent of our members are opposed to gun control.”

“How’d the other one percent get in?” I wondered.

“They’re the infiltrators,” he said, smiling. “Some of Kennedy’s people signed up so they could get on our mailing list.”

Information from this and other questionnaires went into computers or is on file. Are you a Democrat? A Republican? In which congressional district do you live? How prominent are you — the biggest car dealer in Omaha, say? Are you willing to write a post card or letter? And so on. (Says Charlie Orasin, an antigun lobbyist: “The NRA has compiled more information about gun owners than the government ever would.”)

For their fifteen dollars in annual dues, NRA members receive a subscription to their choice of two slick magazines: American Hunter and American Rifleman. They also receive a monthly newsletter, and in times of legislative crisis, a Mailgram or letter.

“Ever been to Massachusetts?” Knox asked. “How much clout do you think the NRA has in Massachusetts?”

According to the polls, sixty-two percent of all Americans want tougher gun laws, a figure that’s certainly higher in Massachusetts. But Knox had a story to tell. In a statewide referendum in 1976, Massachusetts voters were given a chance to say yes to a ban of all handguns. Two out of three said no. Knox beamed. “Pollsters make people feel guilty,” he said. “In their hearts, most people are not in favor of gun control.”

But the issue in Massachusetts essentially became confiscation of all handguns, not just regulation, and the progun lobby outspent the supporters of the referendum by ten to one. The NRA was a major contributor to the war chest.

Up on Capitol Hill, in a warren of cubbyholes and offices, legislative aides were telling me about handgun control: “It’ll never happen, never in a million years.” Tip O’Neill, the most powerful Democrat on the Hill, said not to expect it this year, which is the same as saying never, given that this was the morning after the Reagan shooting. O’Neill was busy counseling a group of freshman congressmen so they wouldn’t sound naive on the subject.

After 1968 — the year of the assassins — a plan was cooked up by some do-gooders. Ted Kennedy would appear on the Senate floor dressed in black. He would raise a metal dish in the air and rattle it — plink, plink — and finally set it on the table to reveal bullets like those that killed his brothers. Then he would give a speech, or maybe he wouldn’t have to, maybe the “plink, plink” would be enough, and hands would move to foreheads and tears would well up and a gun law would be enacted, yes, by God, before the last Kennedy lay dead and there was another bullet in the dish. Kennedy does have courage — courage to sometimes play the fool — but this was a melodrama he couldn’t see himself acting in, and he didn’t. He has worked consistently, however, for handgun legislation, often through amendments to other senators’ bills. Needing fifty-one yeas, he got eleven in 1972, twenty-one in 1974 and thirty-one later the same day.

This was in the period immediately after Watergate, when liberals were having their way on abortion and a half-dozen other controversial issues. But on guns, they were divided. Frank Church had voted against the 1968 Gun Control Act. Church had been best pals with John Kennedy — it was JFK who helped get him elected in 1962, bringing him into the Oval Office and dressing him up as a foreign-policy adviser to impress the folks back home. And Church was a most liberal senator. But Church is from Idaho, and Idaho is a hunting state, a gun state.

Thomas Eagleton was, for a short time in 1972, one-half of the most liberal presidential ticket of our time. Eagleton is from Missouri, another gun state, and he consistently voted with the NRA.

Birch Bayh is from Indiana and voted with Kennedy on gun control. On one occasion, he sponsored a bill of his own that was nearly enacted. But the mail from his constituents ran heavy toward guns, and Bayh started going with the mail. Last year he was up for reelection, and a few months into the campaign, he met with the NRA. Apparently an understanding was reached: Bayh would use the judiciary subcommittee he headed to hold hearings concerning alleged government abuses of power against gun owners and dealers; he would also attach his name to a bill to repeal the 1968 Gun Control Act. In return, the NRA remained neutral in the senator’s race.

Thomas Dodd was another activist working on behalf of handgun control, and on at least two occasions he brought a piece of legislation close to passage. But always, it would fall just short. It baffled his aides that Dodd could be so cavalier — sometimes downright discourteous — toward senators who might have voted with him. It was almost as if he were intentionally yanking the legs out from under his own legislation. That’s the way it seemed to Robert Sherrill, who wrote about it in his book, The Saturday Night Special. Dodd’s home state was Connecticut, which is also home to Colt Industries and Sturm, Ruger and Company, two of our largest handgun makers.

The exact number of handguns manufactured in the U.S. each year is not easy to come by. But the information was obtained from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms by Henry Bashkin, a semiretired government economist and volunteer at Handgun Control, who filed suit under the Freedom of Information Act. As of 1977, Smith & Wesson was far and away the biggest of the big, manufacturing 672,419 handguns, or 36.1 percent of the market. Smith & Wesson is part of the Bangor Punta group, which includes the Piper Aircraft company and a cotton-processing plant. Sturm, Ruger was next with 344, 955 guns, or 18.5 percent of the market. Colt followed with 15.9 percent, RG Industries with 4.3 percent, and Firearms Import & Export with 3.8 percent. Twenty-odd companies divide the remaining thirty percent of the market. It’s the big number, the total number of handguns manufactured each year, that has the most meaning: in 1977, that figure was 1.9 million. It is safe to assume that that number now exceeds 2.3 million per year. By Bashkin’s reckoning, the cumulative total of handguns owned by Americans is approaching 55 million, or one handgun for every adult male in the country. Handguns are a $250 million-a-year industry, and that does not include ammunition or such accessories as holsters and silencers. Nor do these figures include shotguns and rifles.

In 1978, an editorial writer for the Dayton Daily News wrote that the NRA was a front for the gun industry. (He also wrote that the NRA “happily encourages murders and robberies.” For that, the NRA sued the Dayton paper for libel. The NRA lost the suit, but may appeal.) Knox was very definite about the NRA’s independence from the gun makers. “We don’t take orders from either the politicians or the manufacturers.”

According to their 1978 tax return, the NRA does have an impressive portfolio — $3.5 million in General Motors commercial paper, $3.7 million in corporate bonds, another $6 million in stock (K Mart, Campbell Soup, Mobil Oil, Kraft, Motorola). The NRA may not be as wealthy as Smith & Wesson, but they’re not doing badly — $46.7 million in assets, according to their annual report for 1979.

Where does it come from? According to that same report, they took in $21.4 million in revenue. Of that, dividends and interest from stock accounted for $2.4 million. Another $2.8 million was advertising revenue from the NRA’s three magazines. In this way, the NRA does get a subsidy of sorts from the gun industry. It is not a brown-bag drop in the middle of the night, but thumbing through the magazines, you see page after page of slick, four-color spiels from Smith & Wesson and Colt and the rest of the gang.

“All these numbers, they get confusing,” Knox says, winking. “There is only one important number, and that’s the number of our members.” Indeed, of the $21.4 million, three-quarters came from its membership in the form of dues and contributions. (Send us those dollars before the government steals your gun!)

Besides philosophy, people join the NRA for the prizes and good deals. For decades, NRA members had the exclusive privilege of purchasing surplus army rifles at half-price. More than a million weapons, such as Springfield rifles and M1 carbines, were sold in this way, and thousands of folks joined the organization to get the deal. There was a stir when it was discovered that several followers of Malcolm X may have joined to purchase weapons, but the practice did not end until 1979, when the National Coalition to Ban Handguns won a lawsuit to stop it. This year, the NRA offers the prospective member a new inducement: The NRA Freedom Sweepstakes! Take a shot at winning a four-wheel drive Jeep Cherokee or an American Double Eagle gold piece or a solid silver commemorative belt buckle! For current members: recruit five new ones and you get five chances to win. Simply by joining, you also get a thirty-percent discount from Avis.

Knox is not especially happy with the giveaways. He prefers to believe that people join the NRA for what it does.

What Knox wants most from this Congress is to gut the 1968 Gun Control Act. That law makes illegal most sales of mail-order guns, prohibits sales to minors, convicted felons, mental incompetents and persons with a history of drug addiction, and bans the import of so-called Saturday night specials. Neal Knox hates the 1968 law. Though it was passed before his own time in Washington, it represents to him the only real political defeat the NRA has suffered on the Hill. The 1968 act is his obsession.

In the last Congress, repeal had over fifty sponsors in the Senate and a chance for passage in the House, but Ted Kennedy, as chairman of the Judiciary Committee, pigeonholed the bill. Considering the makeup of the new Congress, and with Strom Thurmond now sitting as chairman of that committee, repeal seemed a foregone conclusion. But John Lennon’s murder and the attack on President Reagan, coupled with the Republican leadership’s emphasis on the economic program, may delay its consideration in this session.

The repeal bill is authored by two of Knox’s closest allies, Senators James McClure (R-Idaho) and Harold Volkmer (D-Missouri). Perhaps Knox’s best political ally is Representative John Ashbrook, the Republican from Ohio who ran for president in 1972 because he thought Richard Nixon was going soft on liberals. Ashbrook is one of seventy-five directors on the NRA’s ruling board.

Politicians fall into three groups on the gun issue. There are hard-core believers on both sides. But the majority of congressmen would appear to belong to a third group — those who don’t want to get involved. Or, rather, those who don’t want to be put on the NRA’s hit list. At NRA headquarters, some speak of “knocking off our enemies,” and while they don’t mean with literal bullets, there are a lot of congressmen who go out of their way to stay out of the line of fire.

At the top of the enemies list is Ted Kennedy. The NRA spent at least $230,000 in the 1980 presidential primaries to keep him from winning the Democratic nomination. That is almost five times as much as the NRA spent — for or against — any single candidate in the House and Senate races. Another pol high up on the list is Representative Peter Rodino, (D-New Jersey), who sponsored a bill identical to Kennedy’s. Around seventy-five (out of 435) representatives can be counted on to vote for handgun regulation. The entire Black Caucus, for instance, votes as a bloc on this issue, their constituents being the primary victims of handgun crimes. Representative Bill Lehman, a Democrat, represents Miami, the new murder capital of America. As the level of violence has increased there, so has the number of gun owners. More than 50,000 handguns were purchased in Miami last year. Lehman favors the Kennedy-Rodino bill, and will probably see his name high on the NRA hit list in 1982. There aren’t many Republicans on the list, but Representatives Bill Green of New York and Pete McCloskey of California are two of them. Both were friends of another congressman, the late Allard Lowenstein, the victim of a handgun murder in 1980. At the funeral, McCloskey promised to work for handgun control “in Al’s memory.”

Emotion has often been the impetus for those in the antigun lobby. Another friend of Lowenstein’s, Don Fraher, is the legislative director for Handgun Control, the largest of the antigun groups. Lois Hess, who has worked with the same group, got involved after her son was shot and killed by an ex-convict. Handgun Control was formed in 1974, but didn’t achieve much prominence until the arrival of Pete Shields. Shields is a hunter who owns three shotguns. He had a college-age son, Nick, who was slain while on a trip to San Francisco in 1974, the twenty-third victim of the Zebra killers. The murder weapon was a .32-caliber Beretta. Its first owner had been an upstanding citizen, but the gun had gone through seven other owners. Shields was mad and sick, emotions that turned into resolve. He gave up a $40,000 marketing job at Du Pont in Delaware and moved into Handgun Control’s hole-in-the-wall offices in Washington. Now he’s the chairman.

On Capitol Hill, right across from the Supreme Court, there is a set of meager offices belonging to another antigun lobby, the National Coalition to Ban Handguns (NCBH). It was founded in 1974 with a grant from the United Methodist Church. Its director is Michael Beard, a professional lobbyist. Of the two groups, Beard’s tends to be more aggressive and more militant. He is working to see that handguns are restricted to police, military, properly secured gun clubs and, with some exceptions, collectors. Shields’ group favors a ban on Saturday-night specials and tighter controls on other handguns. The NCBH targets a lot of its budget for state and local lobbying, while Handgun Control has concentrated on national legislation. Both groups are equally hated. Death threats and hate mail come in weekly. Sometimes it’s used toilet paper, or a brick wrapped in brown paper with postage due — a way of depleting what little money they have. Both operate on an annual budget of about $1 million, but since Lennon’s death, contributions have increased dramatically.

Three months into 1981, the membership of Handgun Control had pushed over 100,000, up by twenty-five percent following the Lennon murder. The membership of NCBH was up to 85,000. But even when both groups are combined, the NRA still has almost ten times as many members.

Last year was the first time the antigun lobby invested money in political races. While the NRA spent $1.5 million in last year’s political races, Handgun Control spent only $75,000 in three races. They got the results they hoped for in one. Representative Bill Royer, a California Republican, went down to defeat. This was personally satisfying to Shields because the NRA had helped put Royer into office in a special election the year before.

The NRA now has two rivals for members and money — both of which have sprung up from the far right. The Gun Owners of America (GOA) was founded in 1975 by H.L. Richardson, a California state senator and current NRA director. Unlike the NRA, which continues to finance gun-safety courses and target competitions, the GOA has taken upon itself only one mission: to put money into elections, either for or against a candidate. In the 1980 campaigns, it spent $1.3 million, which was about eighty percent of its budget. Based in Sacramento, California, it has almost no lobbying effort on the Hill.

The Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms (CCRKBA) has taken a different approach. Of the $2 million it’s raised in the past two years, only $15,000 has been spent on political races. The rest has gone for a TV documentary and a broad range of propaganda. There is one full-time CCRKBA lobbyist in Washington: John Snyder, a former editor with one of the NRA magazines. He left, he says, because the NRA was not “hard-hitting enough.” By way of example, one Christmas he sent everyone on the Hill a card with a picture of Santa Claus holding a gun.

CCRKBA’s founder is another maverick NRA member, Alan Gottlieb. He runs the organization from offices in Bellevue, Washington. Gottlieb, however, is not a one-issue crusader. Using CCRKBA as a model, he has begun to raise money for a number of right-wing causes (anti-SALT, anti-ERA, anti-Panama Canal treaty). Because of his aggressive fund-raising tactics, there is bad blood between him and the NRA leadership. Said antigun lobbyist Sam Fields: “Knox doesn’t like me much, but I can walk into an NRA convention. Gottlieb can’t. They’d shoot him.”

Within the progun movement, the NRA is starting to look practically liberal. There is, for another example, a rifle and pistol club that reportedly rewards vigilantism. In 1980, a man with an unlicensed pistol collected $400, at $200 a head, for killing two intruders.

In 1970, at general stores and school auditoriums, the hill people of western Maryland hollered for Joseph Tydings to go home. Tydings was their U.S. senator, campaigning for reelection, but the hunters were told he wanted to take away their duck guns. They read this in brochures, on bumper stickers, in full-page newspaper ads, and heard it on radio commercials. All Tydings had proposed was a law requiring gun buyers to be able to show that they weren’t ex-felons, juveniles or mental cases.

Certainly he thought he knew what he was doing when he took up the fight for gun control. He believed the polls, which said two out of three voters favored his stand. A one-inch-high headline marched across a Washington Post page: TYDINGS IS WILLING TO STAKE ELECTION ON MD. GUN STAND. Tydings was young and popular and good-looking in the rugged-boy way of his friend, the martyred Bobby Kennedy. Tydings had been a cop’s prosecutor, he had been a crusader, and he was the incumbent. But he lost. In March 1971, he dragged himself before an audience of college students: “Just watch how many congressmen introduce registration this year.”

Would Tydings have lost anyway? When Tydings ran, he was a senator under siege, and not just by the gun owners. Vice President Spiro Agnew was hot to see him beaten. There had been a falling-out between Tydings and the Democratic machine in Baltimore. The liberals were unhappy because he’d deferred to no-knock police tactics. And a Life magazine article, later proved false, had accused him of conflict-of-interest problems. After losing in 1970, Tydings tried once more in 1976. He modified his stance on registration and held a press conference at a rifle range. He slipped on a hunting jacket and fired a few rounds for the TV cameras. He lost again.

In Missouri, the brochures and bumper stickers and ads from the NRA were all in support of Senator Thomas Eagleton’s reelection in 1980, despite the fact that he was one of the Democratic senators most hated by the New Right. “Sure we came in for some flak,” Knox said. “The other man running was a good gun man and a good conservative, but what kind of guy would I be if I’d left Tom high and dry? I’m the kind of guy who sticks by his friends.” Eagleton got $26,444 in aid. Only $5950 of it was direct. So as not to embarrass the senator’s liberal supporters, the rest went to pro-Eagleton groups that were technically independent. According to Knox, the NRA made the difference in Eagleton’s victory against the Reagan tide.

Eagleton has taken the side of the NRA ever since coming to the Hill in 1969. But that is not the same as being gung-ho. Talking to his aides, I got the feeling the senator is a little troubled at having Neal Knox for a friend. “What if it was the other way around?” I asked. “What if the other side was flooding him with letters and pumping him full of bucks?”

“That would be another story,” said one aide. “I’d be willing to bet you’d see a change of heart.”

Could Eagleton have done as well without the NRA’s money? In Missouri, and particularly in St Louis, there is a large Catholic population. Millions of Catholics in other states defected to Republican candidates in 1980, but in Missouri they held out for Eagleton. He is hard-core against abortion. Take away his Catholic supporters and Eagleton would be an ex-senator. Take away Neal Knox and, well, who can say?

Before Knox’s reign, the NRA’s record was less than impressive. In the 1974 congressional elections, there was not a single loser among the front-line sponsors of handgun control, while twenty-seven pro-NRA congressmen were defeated. Yet even in his selection of political targets, Neal Knox has been hit or miss. In 1980 the NRA made an all-out effort in six U.S. Senate races. Four candidates won, two lost.

And there is the case of Congressman Abner Mikva. He was a man Knox wanted very badly. Of everyone on the Hill, he had hammered hardest for handgun control, harder even than Kennedy. Then in 1979, President Carter appointed Mikva to a federal judgeship, pending Senate approval. Knox went into action. Witnesses were flown in to testify against Mikva. More than a quarter-million Mailgrams and letters were sent out in just one batch. Reporters were loaded up with material addressing Mikva’s deficiencies. In a sense, Knox was successful. It was almost unprecedented that a congressman, bright and honorable, a veteran of the Hill, should get as many negative votes as he did. Even Frank Church, with whom Mikva had stood shoulder to shoulder in the antiwar days, voted against his old friend. But when all the votes were counted, Mikva was voted in by fifty-eight to thirty-one.

Concern about the deteriorating will of the NRA’s “Old Guard” was what originally brought Knox to Washington. For the most part, the Old Guard contains retired military men, as the whole of the NRA once did. The NRA came into being in 1871. General Ambrose Burnside and the other founders were Civil War veterans, and it was their feeling that the city boys of the Union scarcely deserved their medals, they were such lousy shots. The Prussian marksmen had just put to rout the legions of Napoleon III, and Burnside felt our boys could use some target practice. In those days, Americans were apparently not as aware of the necessity for good marksmanship as the NRA has since made them. In any event, the NRA boys were out shooting at cans by themselves for a while. From 1892 to 1900, they even had to suspend operations.

Then came the gun laws. In the old days, Wyatt Earp unholstered you at town’s edge and kept your six-shooter till you left. That worked wherever the sheriff was tough enough to make it work. When the century turned, the sheriffs became cops, and a new breed of outlaws came along, carrying Tommy guns in viola cases. These new killings were horrible spray-everybody affairs, and after several dozen of them, Tommy guns were made illegal. It wasn’t as if the NRA had sympathy for Al Capone and his crowd, yet all the talk about gun laws made them uneasy. As mighty a legend as J. Edgar Hoover believed that firearms should be restricted.

Over the years, as tends to happen in large organizations, the leadership of the NRA split into factions. The Old Guard held the power through a majority on the board of directors, but at the same time they were growing lax about political action and gave a little slack on their traditionally rigid interpretation of the Second Amendment. General Franklin Orth, war hero, was the chief executive officer when John Kennedy was slain. He thought it would be patriotic and proper for Congress to restrict the sale of mail-order guns so that future Oswalds would not have such easy access. Orth said as much at a congressional hearing and almost lost his job to opponents inside his own organization.

Orth was succeeded in 1970 by Major General Maxwell Rich, whose vision of the NRA was not much different from that of the original founders. Boys should be taught to shoot, and the empty spaces in the country should be preserved for hunters. He had no particular love of computers or high-powered politics or even of Washington D.C. In fact, Rich proposed selling the NRA building and moving headquarters to Colorado. He thought the NRA should get back to its roots, concentrate on save-the-wilderness projects and shoot-’em-up sporting events.

At this proposal, several members of his own staff rebelled. “He was trying to roll back the clock when the rest of the world was going modern,” said one. The dissident staffers began holding secret meetings. They organized themselves into a group called the Federation, and the rebellion came into the open. At four o’clock on the afternoon of November 8th, 1976, the Old Guard pink-slipped a quarter of the staff, eighty-four people, many of them rebels.

The feuding finally came to a head the following May at the annual NRA convention in Cincinnati. Under Rich, the Old Guard still controlled the board of directors, which appeared ready to approve the sale and move west. But the Federation concentrated its efforts on the 225,000 Life Members — those who had paid a $200 fee and who, under the bylaws, hold the ultimate power in the NRA. With Knox as one of its leaders, the Federation made good use of gun publications and mailings, and arrived in Cincinnati with its act together. The Old Guard did not. The upshot was that the Life Members vetoed the sale. Harlon Carter, the former chief of the U.S. Border Patrol, was selected to replace General Rich as chief executive officer, and Knox became the chief lobbyist seven months later. The convention became known as “the Cincinnati coup.”

Knox and Carter set up the Firearms Civil Rights Legal Defense Fund, a kind of public defenders’ office for gun people. NRA lawyers now have several lawsuits going against the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF). It is lore that BATF agents operate much as the Drug Enforcement Agency, and making heroes out of their victims is not so hard to do. Sometime later this year the NRA will release a film, It Can’t Happen Here!, that it has produced itself. “It’s about the inevitable results of gun laws: the abuse of the rights of ordinary citizens.”

Paul and Billie Hayes will be two of the heroes in the movie. An older couple on the verge of retirement, Mr. and Mrs. Hayes ran a country store and gun shop in New Mexico. They allegedly sold guns to an undercover BATF agent posing as an out-of-state resident. The couple were entrapped, the violations were technicalities, and according to Knox, the court fight has robbed them of their savings. To hear him tell it, they sound like Ma and Pa Kettle.

The BATF version makes them out to be more like Ma and PaBarker. The judge would not allow into evidence a transcript of the agent’s wiretapped conversations with them, says The National Law Journal. As the case stands, Mr. and Mrs. Hayes have been acquitted of criminal charges, and they’ve filed a damage suit against the BATF that’s still pending.

Under other circumstances, liberal groups might be toasting Mr. and Mrs. Hayes at cocktail parties and furnishing them with lawyers. Instead, it’s the patriots of the NRA who are calling federal agents pigs. In an advertisement for It Can’t Happen Here!, there is this line: “If I were to select a jackbooted group of fascists who are perhaps as large a danger to American society as I could pick today, I would pick BATF.” But it gets more confusing than that.

One morning in 1977, Charlie Orasin of Handgun Control met with James Featherstone, then a treasury official with jurisdiction over the BATF. Orasin shared with Featherstone his ideas for a new round of antigun lobbying on the Hill. Soon afterward, Featherstone left the treasury department. He went to work for Neal Knox as the NRA’s general counsel. Orasin could not believe it. “It kind of made me mad,” he said.

You would expect the NRA to be in general agreement with the Police Executive Research Forum. It’s politically logical. But it’s not so. The police group has endorsed handgun control. At a minimum, the police chiefs would like a better method of tracing guns and explosives. They would like to abolish the system that allows two different manufacturers to emboss identical numbers on two different guns. They also want “taggants,” the still-experimental chemical fingerprints that would make it easier to hunt down terrorist bombers. Neal Knox opposes the changes — “unnecessary, and an onerous burden on manufacturers and dealers.”

But not even the cops take a clear stand on gun control. You get the impression that the cop on the beat is in favor of gun control when he’s on duty — when his greatest fear is a drunk driver, an irate husband, a scared burglar, any maniac with a gun. But the same cop may be a card-carrying member of the NRA.

He’ll also be the first to tell you that the laws and regulations on the books don’t work. There are currently some 25,000 regulations at the county, state and federal levels. They are confusing, vague, contradictory and largely unenforceable. In most places in Virginia, it’s legal to go shopping with a gun visibly strapped to your hip or to drive with a gun on your car seat without a permit. In Texas, where John Hinckley began his odyssey to fame, you can buy a gun over the counter without even showing a driver’s license. Hawaii has what is considered a tough law, with a lengthy application form and harsh penalties for offenders. But Mark David Chapman bought his gun in Hawaii and smuggled it out in a suitcase — airline inspectors perform only random inspections of checked luggage.

Bust a guy for having an illegal handgun and the likelihood is he’ll walk. Of 192 gun convictions in New York City, which has a mandatory one-year jail term, sixty-eight defendants got a shortened sentence or probation. New York City Mayor Ed Koch, who was the prime mover behind the stringent law, has made a crusade out of the leniency of the judges. But Koch also concedes that “no matter what our law is here, we can’t be completely effective until we have legislation at the federal level.”

Dissension has perhaps returned to the NRA. Last year, Tanya Metaksa, a top lobbyist, left her job. Sources blame it on the undue influence Democrats have inside the NRA. She claims she parted on good terms to work for Republican candidates. Also, as this was being written, Old Guard moderates were planning a countercoup. What was done to them in Cincinnati, they want to undo this year in Denver at the annual May convention. But Knox and Carter are prepared, and it is doubtful they will lose their power base.

Nor is it likely that the NRA will lose in Congress, this year or next. “But what if?” I asked Knox. “What if a ban on guns should come about? Would you turn yours in?”

“Yes, I suppose so. It would be a sad day.”

Bobby Kennedy had been shot in the head — it came over the PA during the early morning shift in the Michigan factory where we were building automobile generators. The voice on the PA did not seem real. Around me, the faces were bent over the stamping machines. “Dirty nigger-lover!” someone said, under his breath. “Serves the bastard right!” Out of nowhere, a black dude came screaming. He jumped, knees high, elbows akimbo. The foreman was yelling, we were all yelling, because a pistol had magically appeared in the nigger-hater’s hand and the black dude was groping under his apron for his. The nigger-hater pointed and fired, and the bullet made a ringing sound as it ricocheted off the machines. Suddenly, the PA voice sounded real all right and Bobby Kennedy seemed dead, a long time dead. And I thought, Jesus, I’m the only sucker here without a shooter.

In This Article: Coverwall, NRA

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