In 2000, Charlton Heston stood before the cheering delegates gathered at the annual meeting of the National Rifle Association. The man who had, as a Hollywood actor, played Moses and Ben Hur, the miracle worker who had parted the Red Sea and defended the human race against fascistic monkeys, now pledged himself to a new crusade. If government officials tried to take away his gun—well, they would have to pry it from his "cold, dead hands."
The line was a real crowd pleaser, and Heston would use it again. As president of the NRA from 1998 to 2003, he inspired gun rights activists with his grand and unflinching opposition to government encroachments on his Second Amendment rights. But neither Heston nor the NRA had always taken so uncompromising a position. Their stories—their evolution—reveal a great deal about the current intensity of the debate over the meaning of the Second Amendment.
The NRA was founded shortly after the Civil War by Union officers disturbed by the poor gun skills of the troops they had commanded in battle. Fittingly, for its first fifty years, the NRA built rifle ranges, sponsored shooting competitions, and organized gun safety courses. Its techniques and standards were adopted by the United States Army and municipal police departments; the NRA was perceived as a mainstream and civic—minded organization working at common purposes with local and national governments.
Before the 1930s, the NRA did not get involved in politics. And when it did, during the 1930s debates surrounding the first federal gun laws, it largely supported the government's objectives. The two major gun control laws of the decade, the National Firearms Act and the Federal Firearms Act, were both endorsed by the NRA.
But during the late 1950s, a hint of the NRA's later political activism and attitude began to emerge in its response to proposed changes in the 1938 Federal Firearms Act. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Division officials suggested that firearm manufacturers should be required to stamp a serial number on all guns, and gun dealers should be required to retain sales records for longer periods of time. NRA leaders protested that a bunch of federal bureaucrats were quietly expanding their control over gun rights and summoned members to send letters of protest to their congressmen.
During the 1960s, the NRA campaigned even more aggressively to defeat the gun control measures proposed by President Lyndon Johnson following the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Senator Bobby Kennedy, and civil rights leader Martin Luther King. Yet still, there was a certain flexibility in the NRA's position. Even while publicly urging members to write their congressmen urging a no vote on all gun regulations, behind the scenes NRA leaders worked with congressional leaders to craft an acceptable bill. During this time the NRA also supported a ban on cheap handguns (so-called "Saturday Night Specials") because they had "no sporting purpose." And NRA Executive Vice President Franklin Orth conceded that no "sane person" would oppose laws that prevented people from buying high-powered rifles through the mail.15
But in the mid 1970s, this "old NRA" came under attack from a new generation of leaders within the organization. Led by Harlon Carter, this new group criticized the accommodationist attitudes of past leaders and pledged themselves to a more aggressive and uncompromising defense of an individualist interpretation of the Second Amendment—that is, they insisted that the Second Amendment protected an unqualified individual right to gun ownership, not just the right of states to maintain a militia, and they pledged to combat any government attempt to limit that right. In 1977, Carter and his supporters won control over the NRA at its national convention in Cincinnati, Ohio. And with this "Cincinnati Revolt," the "new NRA" was born.
Harlon Carter dominated the NRA for the next decade. During his tenure, the organization's membership tripled, its annual operating budget swelled to $66 million, and the NRA's identity as an uncompromising defender of an individualist interpretation of the Second Amendment crystallized.16 But the positions staked out by the NRA on certain issues during these years alienated large portions of the public. In particular, the NRA's opposition in the 1980s to congressional efforts to ban armor-piercing bullets and the Glock 17 pistol offended moderates within the NRA as well as law enforcement officers and large sections of the public at large.
Armor piercing bullets, sometimes called "cop-killers," are Teflon-tipped and able to penetrate the "bulletproof" vests worn by police officers. The Glock 17 is made largely of plastic; its critics argued that the gun would prove difficult to detect by airport security machines. Congressional efforts to ban both items were quite popular with the public. And law enforcement agencies argued that these restrictions were common-sense measures that protected their lives, and the public safety, without treading heavily on individual gun rights. But the NRA countered that several types of hunting ammunition would be affected by the ban on Teflon-tipped bullets—and more importantly, the precedent set by both restrictive measures would pose a dangerous threat to gun owners' rights in the future.
The public responded negatively to the NRA position on these issues. Its absolutist stance struck many as irresponsible, and even a little paranoid. NRA official Richard Gardiner's observation that "what the opposition really wants is a total ban on the private ownership of all firearms" struck many as the unbalanced hysteria of an extremist fringe group rather than the sober observation of mainstream organization.17
By the end of the decade, NRA membership was in sharp decline. Between 1989 and 1991, membership fell from 3 million to 2.3 million.18 But the NRA refused to temper its political philosophy or its rhetoric. After anti-government terrorists Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols destroyed the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995, killing more than 168 people, NRA Executive Vice President (and Harlon Carter disciple) Wayne La Pierre continued to defend fund-raising literature that compared the agents of the United States Department of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms to fascist thugs. With their "Nazi bucket helmets and black storm trooper uniforms," these federal officers, La Pierre declared, were bent on harassing and even "murdering law abiding citizens."19
Former President George H.W. Bush resigned from the NRA in disgust over the anti-government rant. In an angry letter he wrote that La Pierre's characterization of federal agents as "jack-booted thugs," even "in the wake of the Oklahoma City tragedy" was offensive to his "sense of decency and honor, and . . . my concept of service to country."20 Newspaper editors praised the Republican ex-president for his principled stand—no doubt the NRA expected as much from the "liberal" press. But it did not expect the negative response from gun enthusiasts. The director of a three-city Texas hunting exposition told the NRA to stay away. Claiming that the vast majority of the show participants were fed up with the NRA's increasingly extreme rhetoric, he suggested that the NRA had "lost the mainstream American, the sportsman, the heart of the organization."21
In addition, with the NRA's public image under attack, the organization's political clout diminished. In 1993, Congress overcame NRA opposition to pass the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, mandating a five-day waiting period and a background check for all handgun purchases. And in 1994, Congress passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, making it illegal to possess nineteen types of assault weapons.
Facing declining membership and public antagonism, and now at odds with law enforcement organizations and former political supporters, the NRA needed to change its image. Enter Moses.
Charlton Heston was a longtime member of the NRA and for several years one of its celebrity spokesmen. But when he made a surprise appearance at the 1997 convention as the newest member of the NRA executive board, he could hardly be pigeonholed politically. He had been an outspoken supporter of the civil rights movement and had participated in the famous 1963 March on Washington with Martin Luther King. Nor were his earlier gun politics representative of recent NRA leadership. While Harlon Carter was urging the NRA toward an absolutist position on the individual right to bear arms, Heston had urged more comprehensive gun restrictions during the 1960s. After the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King in 1968, Heston had called for tougher gun control laws. He labeled Congress's initial efforts to regulate handguns a "half measure," and he urged tougher restrictions on the sale of shotguns and rifles.22
But by the time Heston was elevated to the presidency of the NRA in 1998, his gun politics—and his broader cultural politics—had evolved. Convinced that American values were being threatened from all directions, he would transform the largely ceremonial NRA office into a soapbox for attacking feminists and gay-rights activists, identity politics, and political correctness; his crusade on behalf of an individualist interpretation of the Second Amendment became part and parcel of a defense of what he saw as the legacy and values of the "dead white guys" who had created the nation.
Heston's outrage over America's decline, and his campaign to restore its former character, went public in 1992 when he dressed down the board of Time-Warner for releasing a CD by the rapper Ice-T. Reading from the lyrics of Ice-T's controversial song "Cop Killer," underscoring its references to sodomy and the murder of law enforcement officers, he denounced Time-Warner for what he saw as its greedy surrender to an amoral pursuit of profits.
Over the next several years, Heston campaigned for conservative Republican candidates, and in 1996 he organized his own political action committee (ARENA PAC) to advance conservative causes. But it was as a warrior in the "culture wars" that he drew the most attention and spoke with greatest conviction.
In a 1997 speech before the Free Congress Foundation, Heston offered one of his most elaborate analyses of the contemporary crisis facing traditional values and those who held them. A "cultural war" was "raging across our land . . . storming our values, assaulting our freedoms," he argued. "There may not be a Gestapo officer on every street corner," he conceded, but the effect on intellectual freedom was just as crushing. Defenders of traditional values had been "shamed into silence" by revisionist history and political correctness, "killing our self-confidence in who we are and what we believe." Politicians pandered to racial militants and feminist and gay activists, Heston believed, but "Heaven help the God-fearing, law-abiding, Caucasian, middle class, Protestant, or—even worse— admitted heterosexual, gun-owning or—even worse—NRA-card-carrying, average working stiff, or—even worse—male working stiff, because not only don't you count, you're a downright obstacle to social progress."23
As Heston's crusade advanced—as he receiving adoring praise from some, and ridicule and abuse from others—he began to characterize his cultural war in even more grandiose terms. In a speech before the Harvard Law School Forum in 1999, he told his audience that if America's Revolutionary generation had kowtowed to political correctness like modern-day Americans, we would all still be British. And not satisfied with just one epic historical anology, he likened his campaign to that waged by Lincoln.
"Dedicating the memorial at a Gettysburg, Abraham Lincoln said of America, 'We are now engaged in a great Civil War, testing whether this nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.' Those words are true again. I believe that we are again engaged in a great civil war, a cultural war that's about to hijack your birthright to think and say what resides in your heart."24
For the five years he served as its president, Heston brought these fierce convictions to his leadership of the NRA. By the time he resigned in 2003, he was worshipped by the NRA rank and file and by millions of other conservative Americans similarly absorbed by the "cultural war." In his final appearance before the NRA national convention, he rewarded his adoring supporters by hoisting an old rifle over his head and repeating his iconic line.
Two years before, Heston had been visited in his Los Angeles home by the liberal activist Michael Moore as the filmmaker prepared a documentary on gun violence in America. Unprepared for the sorts of questions Moore asked, Heston delivered an embarrassing performance before walking away with the camera still rolling. Heston's supporters immediately suggested that his confusion was due to the onset of Alzheimer's—the disease that would claim his life in 2008. And they angrily attacked Moore for blindsiding the aging actor with his trademark brand of gotcha journalism. But Heston's critics argued that the man had made himself fair game by the way he had led the NRA. As the longtime voice of the organization, Heston had to answer for the positions—and the consequences of the positions—he had advanced. Heston had surrendered any claim to special consideration, these critics argued, when he appeared at NRA rallies, shortly after the horrifying mass killings at Columbine, Colorado and Flint, Michigan, to toughen gun supporters against any challenge to their rights that these tragedies might inspire.
But even if Moore's brutal interview did damage Heston's image in some circles, there is no denying that Heston accomplished a great deal for the NRA. During his years as president, the group's membership surpassed 4 million for the first time and many of the rifts within the NRA were healed. More important, he helped repair the organization's image among the general public. Through programs like the "Eddie the Eagle" gun safety program for kids, Heston's NRA worked to rebuild its reputation as a mainstream civic organization.
At the same time, the NRA remained just as uncompromising on any form of gun regulation. For example, after two heavily armed students killed twelve of their classmates at Colorado's Columbine High School in 1999, President Bill Clinton proposed a series of new gun measures. These would have raised the legal age for purchasing or owning a handgun from 18 to 21, required background checks for guns bought at gun shows and a three day waiting period for all gun purchases, and made parents liable for gun crimes committed by their children. The sorts of ammunition clips used by the Columbine students would have been made illegal, and individuals would have been restricted to only one handgun purchase a month. But Heston and the NRA lobbied aggressively against all of these proposals and argued that more vigorous prosecution of criminals would do more to improve public safety than more gun laws. Revealing just how successful Heston had been in reconstructing the NRA's public image, even this hardline position in the wake of a well-publicized gun tragedy did not seriously damage the NRA's reputation or political clout.
In short, there is no question but that Charlton Heston accomplished exactly what NRA leaders had hoped for when they urged his selection as president. But perhaps the greater question is, was America's debate over guns advanced by Heston?
Lurking behind the ongoing debate between gun rights' advocates like the NRA and proponents of stricter gun control is the undeniable fact that America has a serious problem with gun violence. While just about everyone can celebrate recent declines in the gun homicide rate, these reduced rates are only relative to the enormous increase in gun deaths that occurred during the 1980s. And despite these improvements, gun deaths remain much higher in America than in any other industrial country. Gun homicides proportional to population are five times higher in America than in Italy, ten times higher than in Canada, and 26 times higher than in England.25 American children and adolescents seem to be at even greater risk. A Center for Disease Control study released in the 1990s reported that more than 5200 American young people (under age 20) were killed by guns during one year; during the same year, guns were used to kill only nineteen young people in Great Britain, 57 in Germany, 109 in France, and 153 in Canada.26 While some argue that most Americans are relatively safe since gun violence is not evenly spread across all sectors of the population—the gun death rate for young black men is eight times the national average—others argue that the disproportionate levels of gun violence within certain communities are hardly cause for complacency.27
So, are guns the problem? Can America's world-beating gun homicide rate be traced to the ready availability of guns? To the Second Amendment and its defenders? Or are the causes much more diverse, rooted in our history, culture, and economics? Is the American media to blame—have the shows we watch and the games we play left us trigger-happy? Or do we need to look at destructive social forces, developments like the rising divorce rate and the increase in single-parent households? Is America's violent society linked to our racial and ethnic diversity, or could it be tied to America's history of racial oppression? Would further gun regulation make Americans safer? Or, to the contrary, if guns were outlawed would only outlaws have guns?
These are tough, complicated questions—questions requiring serious and open-minded discussion, questions perhaps too complex to be answered by rousing pledges or grand platitudes… even if they are delivered by Moses.