By Joel Achenbach, Scott Higham and Sari Horwitz The Washington Post
WASHINGTON — In gun lore it’s known as the Revolt at Cincinnati. On May 21, 1977, and into the morning of May 22, a rump caucus of gun rights radicals took over the annual meeting of the National Rifle Association.
The rebels wore orange-blaze hunting caps. They spoke on walkie-talkies as they worked the floor of the sweltering convention hall. They suspected that the NRA leaders had turned off the air-conditioning in hopes that the rabble-rousers would lose enthusiasm.
The Old Guard was caught by surprise. The NRA officers sat up front, on a dais, observing their demise. The organization, about a century old already, was thoroughly mainstream and bipartisan, focusing on hunting, conservation and marksmanship. It taught Boy Scouts how to shoot safely. But the world had changed, and everything was more political now. The rebels saw the NRA leaders as elites who lacked the heart and conviction to fight against gun-control legislation.
And these leaders were about to cut and run: They had plans to relocate the headquarters from Washington to Colorado.
“Before Cincinnati, you had a bunch of people who wanted to turn the NRA into a sports publishing organization and get rid of guns,” recalls one of the rebels, John Aquilino, speaking by phone from the border city of Brownsville, Texas.
What unfolded that hot night in Cincinnati forever reoriented the NRA. And this was an event with broader national reverberations. The NRA didn’t get swept up in the culture wars of the last century so much as it helped invent them – and kept inflaming them. In the process, the NRA overcame tremendous internal tumult and existential crises, developed an astonishing grass-roots operation and became closely aligned with the Republican Party.
Today it is arguably the most powerful lobbying organization in the nation’s capital and certainly one of the most feared. There is no single secret to its success, but what liberals loathe about the NRA is a key part of its power. These are the people who say no.
They are absolutist in their interpretation of the Second Amendment. The NRA learned that controversy isn’t a problem but rather, in many cases, a solution, a motivator, a recruitment tool, an inspiration.
Gun-control legislation is the NRA’s best friend: The organization claims an influx of 100,000 new members in recent weeks in the wake of the elementary school massacre in Newtown, Conn. The NRA, already with about 4 million members, hopes that the new push by Democrats in the White House and Congress to curb gun violence will bring the membership to 5 million.
The group has learned the virtues of being a single-issue organization with a very simple take on that issue. The NRA keeps close track of friends and enemies, takes names and makes lists. In the halls of power, it works quietly behind the scenes. It uses fear when necessary to motivate supporters. The ultimate goal of gun-control advocates, the NRA claims, is confiscation and then total disarmament, leading to government tyranny.
“We must declare that there are no shades of gray in American freedom. It’s black and white, all or nothing,” Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre said at an NRA annual meeting in 2002, a message that the organization has reiterated at almost every opportunity since.
“You’re with us or against us.”
The National Rifle Association was founded in 1871 by National Guard and retired Army officers in New York who vowed to “promote rifle practice” and improve marksmanship. The first president, Civil War general Ambrose Burnside, had seen too many Union soldiers who couldn’t shoot straight. For generations thereafter, the NRA focused on shooting, hunting and conservation, and no one thought of it as a gun lobby.
The turmoil of the 1960s – assassinations, street violence, riots – spurred Congress to pass the Gun Control Act of 1968, the first major piece of gun legislation since the New Deal. Supporters of gun control originally included California Gov. Ronald Reagan, who worried about the heavily armed Black Panthers.
The NRA didn’t like the 1968 law, viewing it as overly restrictive, but also didn’t see it as a slide toward tyranny. The top NRA officer, Franklin Orth, wrote in the association’s publication American Rifleman that “the measure as a whole appears to be one that the sportsmen of America can live with.”
The key word: “sportsmen.”
In 1972, a new federal agency charged with enforcing the gun laws came into being: the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF). Lawmakers raged against the terror of cheap handguns known as Saturday night specials.
It was in that environment that Neal Knox rose to prominence.
Clifford Neal Knox – born in Oklahoma, raised in Texas, a graduate of Abilene Christian College – started out as a newspaper reporter and editor before founding, at the age of 30, Gun Week magazine.
He wanted to roll back gun laws, even the ones that restricted the sale of machine guns. He believed that gun-control laws threatened basic American freedoms, that there were malign forces that sought nothing less than total disarmament. There would come a point when Knox would suggest that the assassinations of the 1960s and other horrors might have been part of a gun-control plot: “Is it possible that some of those incidents could have been created for the purpose of disarming the people of the free world? With drugs and evil intent, it’s possible. Rampant paranoia on my part? Maybe. But there have been far too many coincidences to ignore” (Shotgun News, 1994).
In the second half of the 1970s, the NRA faced a crossroads. Would it remain an Establishment institution, partnering with such mainstream entities as the Ford Foundation and focusing on shooting competitions? Or would it roll up its sleeves and fight hammer and tongs against the gun-control advocates? Or flee to the Mountain West? The latter was appealing, and the NRA leadership decided to move the headquarters to Colorado and also spend $30 million to build a recreational facility in New Mexico called the National Outdoor Center.
The moderates felt rejected by both the NRA hard-liners and the Washington elite.
“Because of the political direction the NRA was taking, they weren’t being invited to parties and their wives were not happy,” says Jeff Knox, Neal’s son and director of the Firearms Coalition, which fights for the Second Amendment and against any laws restricting guns or ammunition. “Dad was on the phone constantly with various people around the country. He had his copy of the NRA bylaws and Robert’s Rules, highlighted and marked. My father and a lot of local club leaders and state association guys organized their troops.”
Theirs was a grass-roots movement within the NRA. The solution was to use the membership to make changes. The bylaws of the NRA gave members power on the convention floor to vote for changes in the NRA governing structure.
“We were fighting the federal government on one hand and internal NRA on the other hand,”Aquilino says.
In Cincinnati, Knox read the group’s demands, 15 of them, including one that would give the members of the NRA the right to pick the executive vice president, rather than letting the NRA’s board decide. The coup took hours to accomplish. Joe Tartaro, a rebel, remembers the evening as “electric.” The hall’s vending machine ran out of sodas.
By 3:30 in the morning the NRA had a whole new look. Gone were the Old Guard officers, including Maxwell Rich, the ousted executive vice president. The members replaced him with an ideological soul mate of Knox’s named Harlon Carter.
Carter, a longtime NRA board member, had arrived in Washington in 1975 as founding director of a new NRA lobbying unit, the Institute for Legislative Action (ILA). His pugnacious approach, which rankled the Old Guard, was captured in a letter he wrote to the entire NRA membership to discuss the fight in Congress over gun control: “We can win it on a simple concept —No compromise. No gun legislation.”
He had a shaved head (“bullet-headed” was one description) and vaguely resembled Nikita Khrushchev. A former U.S. Border Patrol agent and chief, Carter was an outstanding marksman who racked up scores of national shooting records. (Four years into his tenure, he would acknowledge that, as a 17-year-old, he’d shot and killed another youth, claiming self-defense. He was convicted of murder, but the verdict was overturned on appeal.)
Within months, thanks to Carter, Knox was working in the NRA headquarters, running Carter’s old lobbying unit. And Carter made clear in an interview with The Washington Post that the NRA wouldn’t be relocating to Colorado:
“This is where the action is,” Carter said.
Over the next few years, NRA membership tripled. With the presidential election of Reagan, the energized activists went on the offensive, hoping to roll back the 1968 gun-control laws and, in the process, abolish the ATF.
Aquilino, who became the top NRA spokesman, remembers those days as great fun: “We were a bunch of 25-year-olds, and we created the whole grass-roots lobbying concept.”
The hard-charging style of Knox created internal and external turbulence. Carter kept looking over his shoulder at Knox, who clearly wanted the top job. On Capitol Hill, lawmakers chafed at NRA pressure. Sen. Bob Dole complained of the NRA, “You have to have a litmus test every five minutes or you’re considered wavering.”
One day in 1982, Knox came to work and discovered that he’d been locked out. He’d been fired as head of the NRA’s lobbying shop and replaced by a mellower character, Warren Cassidy. Cassidy portrayed himself in an interview with The Post as a reasonable man: “There have been lobbyists at the NRA whose zeal has occasionally gotten in the way of their common sense.”
“They felt Dad was too extreme and too uncompromising and they could get more mileage with honey than vinegar, so Harlon pulled the rug out from under him. It was hugely painful. They were best of friends,” Jeff Knox said. “Dad showed up to work in the morning and there was a security guard with his boxes of stuff at the front door, and he wasn’t allowed back into the building.”
Neal Knox hovered around the organization. He managed to get elected to the board in 1983, only to be expelled a year later. (“My mistake – Mine! – was not to have cleaned house on the board when I had a chance,” Knox told The Post in 2000.) Carter, meanwhile, retired in 1985.
What happened next revealed the NRA’s delicate position as a Washington institution representing a large and increasingly hard-line membership. 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.
A huge NRA triumph, the media declared. Some lawmakers said off the record that they would have voted against the act but feared retaliation from the gun lobby. And yet the Second Amendment fundamentalists were furious. The NRA endorsed the act even though it included a last-minute amendment pushed by gun-control advocates that banned the sale of fully automatic weapons – machine guns.
The hard-liners like Knox feared that the NRA had gone wobbly. Membership declined. Knox blamed the organization’s financial and membership problems on Cassidy and a general “compromising and wimpiness.” Cassidy shot back in the press: “Neal is unhappy about everything about an NRA that can function without Neal Knox… . Neal believes that the sun does not rise unless he permits it and does not set unless he permits it.”
Knox, however, wasn’t going away.
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 purchaser.
“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 Post’s account.
The membership once again shoved the NRA to the right, electing dissidents to the board, including the editor of Soldier of Fortune magazine. Among the new board members was a familiar face: Neal Knox.
“What you’re seeing now is the NRA on the way back,” he said at the time.
The organization had a new executive vice president as well, Wayne LaPierre, who knew the organization inside and out from years in the lobbying shop. LaPierre, then 41, had been a Ph.D. student in political science at Boston University with political skills smooth enough to land a job offer after college from Tip O’Neill, the legendary liberal House speaker from Massachusetts.
Instead, LaPierre gravitated toward the lobbying world and, in 1978, was hired by Knox as an NRA lobbyist. He had helped write the gun-friendly 1986 legislation, and he maintained an unwavering stance on the Second Amendment. The NRA flourished under LaPierre’s leadership. As Bill Clinton ascended to the presidency, some 600,000 people joined the NRA, according to LaPierre’s tally. He appointed a Knox ally, Tanya Metaksa, as head of the NRA lobbying unit.
“Wayne was trying to protect his flank, and he needed somebody very hard core,” recalls Richard Feldman, who worked for the NRA in the 1980s and whose book “Ricochet” is a tell-all on gun politics.
LaPierre knew what notes to hit to satisfy the hard-liners. At the annual meeting in 1993, LaPierre told the members, “Good, honest Americans stand divided, driven apart by a force that dwarfs any political power or social tyrant that ever before existed on this planet: the American media.”
Democrats in Congress and some Republican allies passed an assault-weapons ban in 1994. That fired up the NRA base. The NRA’s rhetoric grew harsher. Out on the political fringe, the militia movement grew in influence, as anti-government activists warned of black helicopters carrying federal agents dressed like ninjas. The militants cited the 1992 shooting deaths of two civilians in a federal raid at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and the 1993 siege by federal agents of a religious sect’s compound in Waco, Texas, that culminated in a fire killing 76 people.
John Magaw, then the head of the ATF, recalls trying to set up meetings with the NRA to discuss gun issues. “They would not answer. They would ignore us.”
It was personal, too. Once, Magaw says, he saw LaPierre waiting to board a plane at Dulles International Airport in Fairfax County, Va. They were at the same gate.
“I went over to pay my respects and say hello,” he says. “He just turned and walked away. He wouldn’t talk to me.”
The NRA did not make LaPierre or any other NRA official available for an interview for this report.
Everything seemed to be going the NRA’s way in the aftermath of the 1994 midterm election, when Democrats were drummed from the House en masse. But then came Oklahoma City.
Timothy McVeigh’s April 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building killed 168 people, including 19 young children in a day-care center, and although the NRA had nothing to do with the terrorist attack, the association’s strident anti-government rhetoric drew national attention. News reports focused on a fundraising letter, signed by LaPierre and sent to NRA members before the bombing, that said the new assault-weapons ban “gives jackbooted Government thugs more power to take away our constitutional rights, break in our doors, seize our guns, destroy our property and even injure and kill us.”
Even staunch NRA members began to get queasy. Former president George H.W. Bush resigned his NRA membership. Former NRA president Richard Riley, who headed the association from 1990 to 1992, told The Post at the time, “We were akin to the Boy Scouts of America … and now we’re cast with the Nazis, the skinheads and the Ku Klux Klan.”
LaPierre apologized for having used language that he said was wrongly interpreted as a broad attack on federal agents. And he began to maneuver behind the scenes to keep the NRA from turning into a fringe organization like the John Birch Society. That would mean doing something about Knox, Metaksa and their allies.
At the 1997 annual meeting in Seattle, Knox ran for the office of first vice president, a position that would put him in the line of succession to become president of the NRA. But suddenly he had competition for that job from none other than Charlton Heston. The legendary actor and NRA supporter beat Knox by four votes and went on to become president.
“Needless to say, when you run against Moses, Moses wins,” says Joe Tartaro, the Cincinnati rebel.
Metaksa left ILA the next year, and Knox was off the board at decade’s end. He died in 2005. David Gross, a self-described “Knoxinista,” says Knox and his allies ultimately won the ideological battle even if they personally didn’t survive as NRA leaders.
“You know the old saying, ‘You never want to be first’?” Gross says. “The person with the alleged radical ideas, or the new ideas, they extend themselves, they fail, then somebody comes along, picks up the pieces and then develops the project.”
By 2000, the NRA had become even more closely aligned with the Republican Party and worked strenuously to keep Al Gore from becoming president. At the annual meeting in May of that year, Hollywood legend Heston provided what might be the signature moment in the history of the NRA. He spoke of a looming loss of liberty, of Concord and Lexington, of Pearl Harbor, the “sacred stuff” that “resides in that wooden stock and blued steel.”
Handed a replica of a Colonial musket, he said: “As we set out this year to defeat the divisive forces that would take freedom away, I want to say those fighting words for everyone within the sound of my voice to hear and to heed — and especially for you, Mr. Gore.”
He held the gun aloft.
“From my cold, dead hands!”
Had Gore managed to carry Arkansas or West Virginia — states full of gun-toting Democrats — or his home state of Tennessee, he would have become president even without any favorable recount of votes in Florida. The next spring, citing the election results, Fortune magazine ranked the NRA as the most powerful lobbying group in Washington, surpassing even AARP.
The paradox for the NRA is that it gains strength when under assault. During the 2000s, with gun control now largely off the table, the NRA membership leveled off. In 2004, the assault-weapons ban expired; in 2008, the Supreme Court ruled, in a 5-4 vote, that the Second Amendment establishes an individual’s right to own a firearm.
The NRA is now headquartered outside the District of Columbia in Fairfax, Va. and, according to its 2010 filing with the IRS, has 781 employees and 125,000 volunteers. Annual revenues top $200 million. It’s a tax-exempt, “social welfare” organization with the self-described mission “to protect and defend the U.S. Constitution, to promote public safety, law and order and the National defense.”
LaPierre received $960,000 in compensation from the NRA and related organizations, according to the 2010 documents. Kayne Robinson, executive director of general operations, was paid more than $1 million. Chris Cox, head of the ILA, made $666,000. NRA President David Keene, a longtime conservative activist who was elected in 2011, is unpaid.
Last election cycle, the NRA spent about $20 million on federal election campaigns, according to Opensecrets.org. It has endowed a professorship at George Mason University (the Patrick Henry Professorship of Constitutional Law and the Second Amendment). It’s a prodigious publisher of newsletters and glossy magazines, including American Rifleman, which in 2011 reported a paid circulation of 1.8 million. The NRA has a weekly TV show (“American Rifleman Television” on the Outdoor Channel and a satellite news service, NRA News. The website is as slick as they come (as it loads on the screen, the site informs the visitor, “The full NRA experience requires a broadband connection”).
Beyond the financial muscle, the NRA has people power. The NRA can inundate local, state or congressional offices with phone calls via a single action alert to the membership.
Cleta Mitchell, an NRA board member, says, “Obama famously referred to people who ‘cling to guns and religion.’ He was right. We do. And we are proud of it. This is about abiding principles, and people take action when they think someone or some group is taking away precious values.”
Grover Norquist, the influential tax activist and an NRA board member since 2000, believes that gun-control advocates fail to recognize that their efforts are viewed by many gun owners as a message that says, “You don’t like me.” That message blots out all other efforts to communicate, he says. And no one, he says, votes for a candidate simply because that candidate is in favor of gun control. Millions of voters, however, will vote against a candidate on that single issue, he says. He thinks Democrats’ efforts to pass new gun laws will backfire.
“The D’s keep coming back to this. This is so visceral to them,” Norquist says. “Again, it’s an expression of contempt for Middle America. They don’t like you and yours and don’t think you should be in charge of the capacity to take care of yourself. They know they can’t do this for you, but they’ve hired these nice people to draw chalk outlines of your kids, and that’s supposed to make you feel better.”
William Vizzard, a retired ATF official who is now a criminal justice professor at California State University at Sacramento, says the NRA is not trying to be like other Washington organizations seeking to influence legislation.
“The NRA is a populist lobby,” he says. “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.”
In the fall of 2009, Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, convened a gun conference that brought police chiefs and law enforcement officials to Washington from around the country. Wexler also reached out to the NRA. The NRA representative remained largely silent, and at the end of the day Wexler sensed that the NRA had showed up merely to say no.
“They were not willing to accept what police chiefs who deal with shooting and firearms every day were saying,” Wexler says. “It was like, we don’t really care what you’re saying because this is what we think. The NRA has a preconceived idea about what should be done. And that is nothing.”
The NRA keeps track of gun-control supporters and makes lists. The NRA compendium of “National Organizations With Anti-Gun Policies” includes AARP, the AFL-CIO, the American Medical Association, the American Bar Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics – just from the A’s on the list. (Toward the end of the list is The Washington Post.)
The NRA waited a week before it responded in depth to the Newtown massacre. LaPierre’s news conference, covered live on cable television, reintroduced America to the core values of the association. After calling for armed guards for every school, and uttering the line, “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” LaPierre predicted that he’d be beaten up in the news media:
“I can imagine the headlines, the shocking headlines you’ll print tomorrow. ‘More guns,’ you’ll claim, ‘are the NRA’s answer to everything.’ Your implication will be that guns are evil and have no place in society, much less in our schools.”
“CRAZIEST MAN ON EARTH” blared the front-page headline of the next morning’s New York Daily News.
“GUN NUT!” proclaimed the New York Post.
Among the most sensitive issues for the NRA is the idea of a national database of gun registration. It is orthodoxy among gun rights advocates that registration is a prelude to confiscation. The diehards invoke Hitler and other dictators who confiscated guns prior to slaughtering innocents. The NRA also argues that such registration is unconstitutional.
Two years ago, as part of The Post’s investigative series “The Hidden Life of Guns,” NRA lobbyist Chris Cox explained the organization’s position:
“The federal government has no business maintaining a database or a registration of Americans who are exercising a constitutional right. Just like they have no right and no authority to maintain a database of all Methodists, all Baptists, all people of different religious or ethnic backgrounds.”
Last week, Vice President Joe Biden said the administration might use “executive orders” to curtail gun violence, a remark that incited the Drudge Report to run a screaming headline with photographs of Hitler and Stalin splashed on the page.
Biden met with NRA representatives Thursday at the White House. The NRA listened to the administration’s ideas and then provided an immediate response.
“We were disappointed with how little this meeting had to do with keeping our children safe and how much it had to do with an agenda to attack the Second Amendment,” the NRA said afterward in a statement e-mailed to its members. “We will not allow law-abiding gun owners to be blamed for the acts of criminals and madmen.”
In short: No.