A cautionary tale of how the NRA was hijacked by conspiracy theory radicals


Posted by AzBlueMeanie:

BlackhelicoptersbelieveLast week the Washington Post published a lengthy investigative report on how the NRA was hijacked by conspiracy theory radicals during the "Revolt in Cincinnati" in 1977, and turned a venerable gun safety organization into the home for anti-government "black helicopters" conspiracy theorists who believe the "guvmint is comin' to take your guns!," and adopted an absolutist position in their interpretation of the Second Amendment. These Sovereign Citizens believe that they are the last line of patriot defense against the "jack booted thugs" of government tyranny.

Since this report has not been republished in Arizona newspapers that subscribe to the Washington Post news service, here it is for your enlightenment. How NRA’s true believers converted a marksmanship group into a mighty gun lobby – The Washington Post:

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 D. Aquilino, speaking by phone from the border city of Brownsville, Tex.

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 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.

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.

* * *

“[Neil Knox] 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.”

* * *

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.

* * *

On Capitol Hill, lawmakers chafed at NRA pressure. Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) complained of the NRA, “You have to have a litmus test every five minutes or you’re considered wavering.”

* * *

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 further tightened the restrictions on 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.”

* * *

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.

* * *

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 gravitated toward the lobbying world and, in 1978, was hired by Kox 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, Tex., that culminated in a fire killing 76 people.

* * *

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 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 Neal 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.

* * *

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!”

* * *

The next spring, citing the election results, Fortune magazine ranked the NRA as the most powerful lobbying group in Washington, surpassing even AARP.

* * *

The NRA is now headquartered outside the Beltway, in Fairfax, and, according to its 2010 filing with the IRS, has 781 employees and 125,000 volunteers. Annual revenue tops $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 B. 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 Web site 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.

* * *

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 J. 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.”

* * *

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.) [An "enemies list"]

* * *

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.”

Riiight. We maintain records of automobiles from "cradle to grave" with VIN numbers and title transfers, and we require Americans exercising their lawful right to travel to pass proficiency exams to obtain a driver's license, to pay a vehicle license and registration fee, to provide proof of liability insurance, and to pay a gasoline tax (use tax). There are pages and pages of laws pertaining to the lawful operation of a vehicle on the highway. There are pages more of laws regarding sellers and the sale of vehicles.

There is no legitimate reason why firearms should not be treated the same as automobiles. It is the paranoid fears of the "black helicopters" conspiracy theorists who believe the "guvmint is comin' to take your guns!" that is the reason why. Paranoia is a mental condition that really ought to disqualify one from owning a gun.


  1. Sorry, I did not see mention of the constitutional right to the automobile in the USSC ruling you sited either. Nor did it state that the right to travel required a valid driver’s license.

    This is sailing right over your head isn’t it Blue? Hint: Are Catholics required to register with the Federal government, can the Feds tax individuals for the right to attend the “Drinking Liberally” meetings, must one buy a pre-paid legal plan to retain the right to counsel, could Washington require bloggers to pass a proficiency exam and obtain a license before they would be permitted to attack the second amendment……….any of this sparking any of those synapses in that old brain-housing group?

  2. The post is excerpts from a very lengthy investigative report. In fact, I tend to provide more from an article than i probably supposed to do. Did you not see the continuation marks “* * *”? I provided the link to the article, which you were obviously able to use.

  3. “Riiight. We maintain records of automobiles from “cradle to grave” with VIN numbers and title transfers, and we require Americans exercising their lawful right to travel to pass proficiency exams to obtain a driver’s license, to pay a vehicle license and registration fee, to provide proof of liability insurance, and to pay a gasoline tax (use tax). There are pages and pages of laws pertaining to the lawful operation of a vehicle on the highway. There are pages more of laws regarding sellers and the sale of vehicles.”

    “There is no legitimate reason why firearms should not be treated the same as automobiles.”

    Earlier, you stated that I did not strike you as an historian. You apparently were correct Blue because I cannot for the life of me recall the passage(s) in the Constitution dealing with the automobile.

  4. There are certain paragraphs in the original that aren’t in this version. For example these paragraphs:
    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.

    What gives?