The Suprising Unknown History of the NRA
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Looking back, the seeds of a hostile internal takeover were everywhere.
Harlon Carter wasn’t just another hard-headed Texan who grew up in a small town that was once home to frontiersman Davy Crockett. He was an earlier era’s version of George Zimmerman, the Floridian young man who claims to have shot Trayvon Martin in self-defense in February 2012—even though police records and 911 recordings seem to show Zimmerman was looking for a fight. According to Carol Vinzant’s 2005 book, Lawyers, Guns, and Money: One Man’s Battle With The Gun Industry, a 17-year-old Carter found and confronted a Mexican teenager who he believed helped steal his family’s car. When the 15-year-old pulled a knife, Carter shot and killed him. His conviction was overturned when an appeals court said the jury should have considered a self-defense argument.
In November 1976, the NRA’s old guard Board of Directors fired Carter and 80 other employees associated with the more expansive view of the Second Amendment and implicit distrusting any government firearm regulation. For months, the Carter cadre secretly plotted their revenge and hijacked the NRA’s annual meeting in Cincinatti in May 1977. The meeting had been moved from Washington to protest its new gun control law. Winkler writes that Carter’s top deputy Neal Knox was even more extreme than him—wanting to roll back all existing gun laws, including bans on machine guns and saying the federal government had killed Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy as “part of a plot to advance gun control.”
Using the NRA’s parliamentary rules, the rebels interrupted the agenda from the floor and revised how the Board of Directors was chosen, recommited the NRA to fighting gun control and restored the lobbying ILA. Harlon Carter became the NRA’s new executive director. He cancelled a planned move of its national headquarters from Washington to Colorado Springs. And he changed the organization’s motto on its DC headquarters, selectively editing the Second Amendment to reflect a non-compromising militancy, “The Right Of The People To Keep And Bear Arms Shall Not Be Infringed.”
After Carter was re-elected to lead the NRA in 1981, The New York Times reported on Carter’s teenage vigilante killing—and how he changed his first name’s spelling to hide it. At first, he claimed the shooting was by someone else—and then recanted but refused to discuss it. Winkler writes, “the hard-liners in the NRA loved it. Who better to lead them than a man who really understood the value of a gun for self-protection?”
After the coup, the NRA ramped up donations to congressional campaigns. “And in 1977, new articles on the Second Amendment appeared” in American Rifleman, Burbick noted, “rewriting American history to legitimize the armed citizen unregulated except by his own ability to buy a gun at whatever price he could afford.” That revisionist perspective was endorsed by a Senate Judiciary Subcommittee chaired by Utah Republican Orrin Hatch in 1982, when staffers wrote a report concluding it had discovered “long lost proof” of an individual’s constitutional right to bear arms.
The NRA’s fabricated but escalating view of the Second Amendment was ridiculed by former U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger—a conservative appointed by President Richard Nixon—in a PBS Newshour interview in 1991, where he called it “one of the greatest pieces of fraud—I repeat the word ‘fraud’—on the American public by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime.”
Burger would not have imagined that the U.S. Supreme Court in 2008—13 years after he died—led by libertarian activist Justice Antonin Scalia—would enshrine that “fraud” into the highest echelon of American law by decreeing that the Second Amendment included the right to own a gun for self-protection in one’s home.