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.
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.