How gun rights radicals took over the NRA

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

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

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

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

"Before Cincinnati, you had a bunch of people who wanted to turn the NRA into a sports publishing organisation and get rid of guns," one of the rebels, John Aquilino, said, speaking by phone from Brownsville, Texas.

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

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

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

The key word: "sportsmen."

In 1972, a federal agency charged with enforcing the gun laws came into being: the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Legislators raged against the terror of cheap handguns known as Saturday-night specials. It was in that environment that Neal Knox rose to prominence.

Clifford Neal Knox, born in Oklahoma, raised in Texas, a graduate of Abilene Christian College, started as a newspaper reporter and editor before founding, at the age of 30, Gun Week magazine. He wanted to roll back gun laws, even the ones that restricted the sale of machine guns.

In the second half of the 1970s, the NRA faced a crossroads. Would it remain an establishment institution, partnering with such mainstream entities as the Ford Foundation and focusing on shooting competitions? Or would it roll up its sleeves and fight hammer and tongs against the gun-control advocates?

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

"Because of the political direction the NRA was taking, they weren't being invited to parties and their wives were not happy," says Jeff Knox, Neal Knox's son and director of the Firearms Coalition which fights for the Second Amendment and against laws restricting guns or ammunition.

In Cincinnati, Knox read the group's demands, 15 of them, including one that would give the members of the NRA the right to pick the executive vice-president, rather than letting the NRA's board decide. The coup took hours to accomplish. By 3.30am the NRA had a whole new look. Gone were the old guard officers, such as the ousted executive vice-president Maxwell Rich, and into his place was an ideological soul mate of Knox's, Harlon Carter.

Carter's pugnacious approach, which rankled the old guard, was captured in a letter he wrote to the entire NRA membership to discuss the fight in Congress over gun control: "We can win it on a simple concept - no compromise. No gun legislation."

During the next few years, NRA membership tripled. With the presidential election of Reagan, the energised activists went on the offensive, hoping to roll back the 1968 gun-control laws and, in the process, abolish the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

After years of lobbying by the NRA, Congress passed the Firearm Owners Protection Act of 1986, which, among other gun-friendly provisions, eased restrictions on interstate sales of firearms and expressly prohibited the federal government from creating a database of gun ownership. The NRA endorsed the act even though it included a last-minute amendment pushed by gun-control advocates that further tightened the restrictions on machine guns.

That clause led hard-liners such as Knox to fear that the NRA had gone wobbly.

The NRA made a comeback in part because of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act. The gun-control effort, named for White House press secretary James Brady, who was wounded in the 1981 assassination attempt on Reagan, called for a seven-day waiting period on gun purchases and a background check on the buyer.

"What if there had been a Brady Bill 150 years ago? What if they had to wait seven days to get their rifles to come to the Alamo and fight?" an NRA vice-president, Robert Corbin, shouted to loud applause at the annual meeting in 1991 in San Antonio, according to The Washington Post's account. "What you're seeing now is the NRA on the way back," he said at the time.

The organisation had a new executive vice-president, as well: Wayne LaPierre, who knew the organisation inside out from years in the lobbying shop. LaPierre held the NRA media conference after the Sandy Hook shooting in Connecticut, in which he argued for armed guards in schools.

A retired ATF bureau official who is now a criminal justice professor at California State University at Sacramento, William Vizzard, said the NRA was not trying to be like other Washington organisation seeking to influence legislation. "The NRA is a populist lobby," he said.

"They get support when people are mad and stirred up. They want the attention. They're not interested in fixing things. They want to stir things up, and the more they stir things up, the more members they get and the more money they make. What do they gain by compromising? Nothing."

The Washington Post

This story How gun rights radicals took over the NRA first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.