June 21, 1994
MINNEAPOLIS — For three days of its annual convention last month, the National Rifle Association (NRA) paraded its cheerful public face, showing off such varied supporters as actors Richard Roundtree and Paul Sorvino, baby-toting housewives, gospel singers, and an African American policewoman. And when that was done, the 123-year-old group convened its annual board of directors meeting in Ballroom D of the Hilton Hotel. Unbeknownst to the 74 directors, eight officers, and 25-odd NRA staff and VIP members assembled, the Voice was present, there to witness the inner workings of the most powerful single-issue lobby in the nation.
Most of the people in the room were beefy white men. And the atmosphere was tense. The NRA’s eight executive officers sat behind banquet tables on a raised platform, looking down on the assembled board. The printed agenda called for reports by each executive officer — but surprisingly, all but the treasurer claimed to be unprepared. Lack of preparation, however, had nothing to do with it. Everyone was anxiously awaiting the nominating committee’s report on its choice for the NRA presidency. Normally this is matter of simple procedure, as the NRA rotates officers in an established order of succession. Tradition dictated that 1st Vice President Thomas L. Washington, a big-game hunter from Michigan, should be president next.
But this year was different, thanks to the behind-the-scenes maneuverings of NRA firebrand Neal Knox, who is far more powerful than his position as a board member would suggest. As the rumors swirling throughout the convention for days hinted, Knox had exercised his influence on the nominating panel. Instead of Washington, committee chair T. J. Johnston nominated 2nd Vice President Marion P. Hammer, a hard-nosed, 55-year-old grandmother who helped pass the law in Florida that allows modestly trained residents to carry loaded guns. The motion for Hammer was seconded and opened to discussion.
“This is nothing more than a total power struggle. It’s a palace coup,” Robert K. Brown protested to the board. As a hardline gun advocate, and the editor and publisher of the mercenary magazine Soldier of Fortune, Brown should know.
The internecine conflict was further evidence of the growing crisis at the NRA, which has 3.3 million dues-paying members and assets of $160 million. Last year, it spent a whopping $22.4 million on lobbying alone. The NRA supports political candidates who abide by its views, and mercilessly tries to punish those who don’t. Its appetite for loyalty is insatiable: Republican senator Robert Dole, an NRA member and honored guest at its banquet in 1986, has been branded a traitor for softening on gun control.
Once considered the most powerful lobby in Washington, the NRA is on the defensive now. For decades, it has succeeded in crushing almost any form of gun control legislation, but the recent passage of the Brady law and the success of the “assault weapons” ban bill in both the House and Senate confront the NRA with its most severe challenge yet. The gun-owning community it purports to represent has split, with fissures between sport shooters and Second Amendment “fundamentalists” cracking visibly open for the first time. All major national law enforcement organizations have already withdrawn their support from the NRA. Dissent is also on the rise internally, with many of its state associations directly challenging national leaders. Meanwhile, most dues-paying NRA members have little sense of how the organization is run.
The controversy centers on Neal Knox. The 58-year-old former Oklahoma national guardsman had a BB gun by the time he was five. Today, he believes in arming, it seems, everyone. Last fall, Knox suggested solving the Somalia crisis by distributing Kalashnikovs to mothers: “If [they] had been armed what do you think would have happened if some old boys in a Jeep with a .50-caliber machine gun had pulled over the truck that was bringing a little bit of food to some mother’s starving baby?” he asked in The Wall Street Journal. “That mother would have blown away everybody on that truck, and that would have been that. THAT is an armed people.”
Knox is so aggressive that even those who endorse his zealotry — such as Soldier of Fortune‘s Brown — complain about his ambition. Once fired from the organization over his bullying tactics, Knox came back even stronger in 1991 and soon engineered the promotion of Wayne R. LaPierre Jr., who now runs the NRA’s daily affairs as its executive vice president. Today, Knox controls up to seven of the eight executive officers, and possibly 56 of 75 board directors. “If you want to understand the NRA board,” Knox is quoted as saying in Under Fire, a 1993 book about the NRA by Osha Gray Davidson, “you study the Politburo.”
“I’ve known Neal Knox for probably 20 years,” says Dave Edmondson from Dallas, a longtime NRA member and former board member who now leads the movement of state affiliates against him. “He’s very ambitious personally. I think his ego has gotten the best of him.”
That arrogance helps explain the Knox regime’s affront to Washington, a genial, conservationist NRA veteran who had considerable support on the board. The NRA was once run by men like Washington. Founded in 1871 after the Civil War by former Union soldiers, the NRA originally aimed to improve the marksmanship of the New York National Guard. It remained a quasi-military organization until after the Second World War, when its ranks were swelled by millions of returning soldiers who had acquired an interest in firearms. Enjoying increasing income and leisure time, many became hunters. Eventually, the NRA evolved into an organization of sportsmen. “The old guard?” says Ernest Lissabet, a retired U.S. Army first lieutenant who opposes Knox. “Those are the guys that I’m watching on television now from Normandy.”
In 1963, Lee Harvey Oswald killed President Kennedy with a bolt-action rifle he bought through an ad in the NRA’s American Rifleman magazine. And in 1968, when assassins shot and killed Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., Congress passed its first significant gun control legislation. The Gun Control Act regulated the interstate sale of firearms and banned machine guns or fully automatic weapons. (An automatic reloads and fires to “spray” bullets for as long as the trigger is pulled; a semiautomatic also reloads automatically, but fires only one shot each time the trigger is pulled.) At the time, the NRA leadership supported the bill. Its then executive vice president, retired general Franklin Orth, told Congress, “We do not think that any sane American, who calls himself an American, can object to placing into this bill the instrument which killed the president of the United States.”
But a group of NRA men beneath him disagreed and began to plot their way toward power. Harlan Carter was their leader, and Neal Knox was at his side. Nine years later, in 1977, they seized control of the NRA at its annual convention in Cincinnati: “Like the marines hitting the beach at Anzio, the group of hard-liners… took over the meeting, using parliamentary procedure as their heavy artillery,” writes Davidson in Under Fire. The organization “became the Gun Lobby.”
Carter ran the NRA as executive vice president, while Knox took over as director of its recently formed lobbying wing, the Institute for Legislative Action (ILA). But when Knox got too greedy and abrasive, the same Carter fired him in 1982. Rather than surrender, however, the resilient Knox began to plot his return. After Carter retired in 1985, the NRA floundered, its membership dropped, and it began to lose clout in Congress. Knox attacked Carter’s successor from outside the NRA, in columns in gun magazines like Shotgun News and Guns & Ammo, at the same time that rumors about the man’s alleged sexual improprieties began to spread. Knox also red-baited “moderates” on the board, insisting that compromise was the same as communism.
In the race for the NRA board of directors in 1991, Knox and his slate succeeded in winning 11 of 21 open seats, with nine more hard-liners led by Soldier of Fortune‘s Brown taking all but one that remained. Knox also enjoyed support among incumbents. Pugnacious and unapologetic, he was back.
Knox is still maneuvering to remake the entire NRA leadership in his image, and his immediate goal is to move all his field commanders into position. Besides LaPierre, there are two of primary importance, both women. Tanya K. Metaksa, an ex-director, was named earlier this year to direct ILA, the NRA’s lobbying wing, which Knox once ran. Metaksa is the first woman to hold an NRA command post. But anyone who thinks that this is a sign of political moderation is mistaken. In spelling her name for reporters, Metaksa says, “It’s AK, as in AK- 47, and SA, as in semiautomatic.” Another is Hammer, four foot eleven with straight brown bangs, who prefers to be photographed with a steely-eyed, straight-lipped stare.
Wearing a ruffled blouse and a sky blue jacket, Hammer listened without expression as her nomination for the NRA presidency provoked an unprecedented outpouring from offended NRA traditionalists. The first of more than a dozen directors to step to a mike was James W. Porter, an attorney from Birmingham, Alabama, whose father is a past president of the NRA. “When you open my veins, NRA blood runs out,” he said with an educated drawl. But he was upset that the NRA leadership would permit Hammer to leapfrog over Washington, who had rightfully earned the post, and appalled that word of Hammer’s impending nomination had been leaked to USA Today. Worst of all were what he called the “scurrilous accusations” that had been spread over the weekend about Washington. Porter said he’d reported the gossip and infighting over his “good friend” to his 84-year-old grandmother, a lifelong NRA member, who had replied: “That’s not the organization I know.”
Johnston, head of the nominating committee, insisted the group had paid no attention to unspecified rumors against Washington. He was “unacceptable,” Johnston flared, because he “made statements” against Knox appointee LaPierre.
There is little superficial difference between the rhetoric of Hammer and Washington, rivals for the presidency. Washington, from Michigan, is a conservationist who helped pass his state’s bottle bill and who hopes to promote the NRA as environment conscious. Along with his round, boyish face, and his courteous demeanor, Washington wants to use his moderate credentials to smooth the NRA’s image. But a nice guy is not what the Knox regime has in mind.
They want Hammer. Her appeal to Knox and his men is precisely her don’t-even-think-about-it attitude. She has launched fiery broadsides against the Clinton administration and Sarah Brady, whose lobbying group, Handgun Control, Inc., is the NRA’s. toughest opponent. After speaker upon speaker had denounced the plot against Washington, director Wayne H. Stump — who, as an Arizona state legislator, tried to abolish the Federal Reserve Board — rose in defense of Hammer. “She has fire,” he said. “Marion can take on Hillary.” Several Knox supporters followed Stump, mentioning, repeatedly, the need to take on “Hillary and Sarah.”
The turning point in the debate seemed to come when Lee Purcell, a petite, auburn-haired actress from the TV miniseries Secret Sins of the Father, and one of seven women NRA directors, spoke. “We must remember we were put here by the membership,” Purcell said calmly, “and I think that is sometimes forgotten.” She did not believe that the membership wanted Hammer: “I’m a woman, but I support Tom Washington.” The actress also pointed out that the press was aware of infighting within the leadership and suggested that if Hammer toppled Washington, word would get out.
This statement, finally, made Knox’s people nervous. Soon after, several asked the executive committee to close the ballroom’s door, although, by now, there were NRA staffers checking IDs at the door. Facing a rising number of enemies outside the organization, the NRA leadership has tried to downplay cross fire within. “Whatever we do, this jerkin’ around has got to end,” said Joe Foss, the ex-governor of South Dakota and a former NRA president, making a plea for consensus.
Shortly thereafter, a motion was made to go into executive session (something they might have done earlier, had they known that a reporter was present; although the board meeting, when not in executive session, is technically open to the public, a journalist who is an NRA Benefactor member was told he could not attend). Fearing this was only part of Knox’s plan to seize power, Washington and 17 of his supporters voted, in vain, against it. Everyone except directors and officers left the room. According to one report, those who remained discussed the “scurrilous accusations” made against Washington, as well as adding new ones about his alleged poor appearance. “They complained about his weight,” says one insider. “Petty things like that.” But if Washington were denied the position, the threat that his supporters might make Knox’s methods public remained real.
When the whole board reconvened and the secret ballot came, Washington, surprisingly to me, won. “By a wide margin,” said Jim Porter later in a telephone interview from Birmingham. His allies had apparently convinced a majority of the board that they would not be bullied into submission.
But this is only a small victory for Washington and his supporters. While the presidency could be used as a bully pulpit for a new-image-making leader, it has little formal authority within the organization. Moreover, in Minneapolis, before the board went into executive session, outgoing president Robert K. Corbin reminded directors that while the president normally serves two years by tradition, the NRA’s bylaws state that he must be ratified after one year. Although a two-year term is normally a given, Corbin said, “We could vote again in a year.” NRA spokesperson Bill Powers says the directors will. Oh, and Director Knox? Powers denied that Knox enjoys any special power, and then said: “But you might want to know, Mr. Knox was just elected 2nd Vice President.” In other words, when Washington leaves the pulpit post, Hammer will take over, then Knox.
It is a measure of Knox’s grip that, even in the midst of heated debate, not one elected director raised the substantive issues about his administration. Much of the criticism comes from other hard-line gun rights activists who believe that he is mismanaging, some say destroying, the NRA. This view is growing among state-affiliated NRA leaders, and even among veteran staff members of the organization.
The State Association Coordinating Committee, organized by activist Edmondson, made its case known at the rank-and-file meeting in Minneapolis through an eight-page, fluorescent-green pamphlet. It complained that “the LaPierre/Knox watch” had lost major legislative battles, at the same time that it had squandered members’ funds. Indeed, the NRA has outspent its incoming revenues by $59.2 million over the last two years. It has supported its lobbying by cutting back on popular members’ services like shooting competitions and reportedly plans to reduce the frequency of its main publication, American Rifleman. And although the Knox regime has successfully increased membership — it claims an astonishing 900,000 new members since 1991, or 1000 each day — Edmundson says that about half the new members drop out after one year.
The pamphlet claims that while Tanya Metaska and her company have been handsomely paid — up to $194,000 for service in 1993 — the NRA is planning to slash a third of its lower-paid employees this year. (The NRA denies planning any large layoffs.) The pamphlet also says that Knox protégé LaPierre awarded contracts to two firms owned or controlled by Brad O’Leary — a longtime personal friend of LaPierre’s, according to Edmondson. Associated Press even reported that the NRA sold names and addresses of former members for profit, something that violates its own views about the Second Amendment. “After all,” the State Association pamphlet reads, “that list is a list of gun owners — and that’s exactly the kind of list required for gun confiscation.”
This discontent has even spread to executive officers. Firearms Business, a trade publication, reports that NRA secretary Warren Cheek just resigned “in apparent protest over the organization’s handling of veteran staff members and the ‘new NRA’s’ management policies… Cheek told NRA insiders that he considers the new management to be preoccupied with personal career goals rather than being dedicated to or even understanding the group’s mission or membership.” (The NRA says Cheek retired.)
But apart from mismanagement, much of the criticism also has to do with the NRA’s ardent defense of the Second Amendment. On this point, the gun-owning community that the NRA claims to represent is now split wide open. And some hunters, a potentially large group, believe that it’s time the NRA returned to its sporting purpose — promoting marksmanship, collecting, and other forms of gun-related recreation.
David E. Petzal, for one, thinks the present radicalization of the NRA is hurting the interests of gun owners. Petzal, who has given thousands of dollars to the NRA, writes the “Endangered Tradition” column in Field and Stream, another centenarian institution, many of whose 2 million readers are also in the NRA. This June, the magazine made a landmark decision to break with the NRA. “It took tremendous courage,” says executive editor Petzal.
“The bugle call known as reveille is a cheerful, energetic tune that, when I was in the Army, few soldiers actually got to hear,” he writes in an editorial. “Real-world reveille came for gun owners this February,” in the form of the assault weapons ban. Petzal, like the NRA, believes that this legislation is too broad. This is partly because it would ban weapons like “the AR-15/M-16, and the MIA in modified [semiautomatic] form, [which] are highly accurate, and have a legitimate place in organized target competition.”
But assault weapons are also implicated in terrible acts of violence, like the Stockton, California, shooting in which a deranged man killed five children and wounded 29 others using a semiautomatic AK-47 clone. “Gun owners — all gun owners — pay a heavy price for having to defend the availability of these weapons,” writes Petzal. “The American public — and the gun-owning public; especially the gun-owning public — would be better off without the hardcore military arms, which puts the average sportsman in a real dilemma.” Petzal concludes by advocating compromise, something that Knox and other members of his regime say they will never accept.
To the Knox regime, the hunters’ qualms are beside the point. “It’s not about Bambi, for God’s sake,” says Larry Pratt, of Gun Owners of America, who believes the NRA should stop pretending to be an organization of sport shooters and make it clear that its first priority is to defend the Second Amendment.
This position gradually emerged in April, when NRA witnesses testified in Congress before Brooklyn representative Charles Schumer, sponsor of the assault weapons legislation, and his committee. After listening to them, Schumer held up a Tec-9 semiautomatic, a highly inaccurate, short-range, high-capacity weapon. Shorter and more concealable than a Tommy gun, it is ideal for drive-by shootings. But when Schumer asked Tanya Metaksa if NRA members hunt with it, Knox’s lobbying chief scowled at having been asked the question, and then said, gruffly, “Some probably do.” (Indeed, the Tec-9 is the kind of weapon that dictator Idi Amin used on grazing wildlife in Uganda, wiping out all of its lions and most of its rhinos and elephants. But few self-respecting NRA members, who as a group take great pride in the quality of their firearms, would ever even own one.)
But when Schumer’s committee questioned NRA witness Suzanna Gratia, who watched a gunman kill her parents in the 1991 Luby’s massacre in Killeen, Texas, she said something else. “The Second Amendment is not about duck hunting… but it is about our right, all of our rights, to be able to protect ourselves,” she said, pointing to herself and other NRA witnesses, “from all you guys up there.” She pointed to the committee.
“They advocate a firearms fundamentalist viewpoint,” says Ernest Lissabet, the former NRA activist who founded a new group, the American Firearms Association, last year. “It’s a paranoid worldview.”
From this perspective, any encroachment on the right to guns is an invitation to tyranny. That was certainly the note struck before the nominating began at the board meeting. The invited speaker, Aaron Zelman, of Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership, based in Milwaukee, declared that the 1968 Federal Gun Control Act was modeled after the 1938 Weapons Law in Nazi Germany. If recent gun control legislation is allowed to stand, he said, the federal government will be that much closer to perpetrating a holocaust in this country. ”Charlie Schumer, who claims to be a Jew, should crawl back to the rock he came from,” Zelman said. His remarks were greeted by unanimous applause. Afterward, as many directors walked over to congratulate him, Zelman distributed posters of Adolf Hitler giving a Sieg heil! salute, with the caption: “Everyone in favor of gun control raise your right hand.” (Zelman also believes Rwanda’s government-led genocide proves his point — “another hellhole where they have gun control,” he says by telephone from Milwaukee.)
This belief, today, is the foundation of the NRA’s opposition to gun control. The Second Amendment says: “A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” As interpreted by the NRA faithful, this means that individuals have the right to defend themselves against a despotic government, and so must have access to no less firepower than the police, national guard, or armed forces. This is why the NRA opposes the banning of Teflon-coated bullets that can penetrate the body armor vests police wear, and likewise, in front of Schumer, Metaksa dodged all questions about whether the NRA supported the government’s ban on bazookas.
This is also why the NRA opposes almost any government regulation of the ownership or transfer of firearms, which is likely to be the next, most important battleground of the gun control debate. Both the Brady law, which makes gun purchasers wait five days, and the assault weapons ban bills are, at best, symbolic gestures, and partisans on both sides of the debate know it. The depth of the background check mandated by the Brady law is left largely to the discretion of local authorities, some of whom have already resisted compliance. And the pending bills would ban some of the deadliest semiautomatic weapons, but they would do almost nothing about handguns, which, in New York City, are used in 95 per cent of all gun-related homicides.
The problem America faces is not necessarily the mechanism of the weapons used, but their proliferation and ready availability in our society. A new Justice Department survey of high schools in crime-ridden neighborhoods in four states finds that more than one out of every five male students surveyed report owning a gun.
One solution might be a National Handgun Identification Card, recently advocated in an editorial by The New York Times. New Jersey has a similar card, which residents must present to purchase any firearm. To obtain a card, a resident must apply to the local police station, which fingerprints the applicant. Copies of the fingerprinted application are then sent to the state police as well as to the FBI. The process also includes a check of court records on mental health. It takes about eight weeks to complete. But once a resident has the card, he or she can purchase any long (or hunting) rifle or shotgun without waiting. With the same card, a resident may also purchase a handgun, but he or she must be fingerprinted by police prior to every handgun purchase and wait about six weeks for another background check to clear. (When meeting New Jersey gun owners, NRA members frequently offer condolences.)
If a similar system were established nationally, it would preclude gang-bangers from the Bronx, for example, from driving to West Virginia and, in “straw purchases” through local residents, buying an unlimited number of handguns, semiautomatic shotguns, and Tec-9s from a local gun shop. But the NRA opposes such a system because it would mean that gun owners and their guns would be on file with the federal government — information that the government could use against them when and if tyranny comes. But this argument “is ridiculous, on its face,” says Petzal. “When the Bill of Rights was framed, the average farmer had the same weapon, the smoothbore musket, as soldiers.” But today, Petzal writes, “an Uzi or an AKM or an AK-47 should be no more generally available than a Claymore mine or a block of C4 explosive.”
Petzal’s defection from the cause is yet another indication that the NRA is losing the war of public opinion on gun control. Moreover, although the writings of James Madison and Thomas Jefferson support it, the NRA’s argument on the Second Amendment has no basis in American case law. U.S. courts have ruled that the Second Amendment protects the right of states to maintain their own armed militias, but not necessarily the right of individuals to bear arms. “Contrary to some popularized notions,” reads a newly released study by the Lawyers’ Committee on Violence, one of whose principal authors is Thomas D. Barr from the Manhattan firm Cravath, Swaine & Moore, “no court has ever declared that either the Second Amendment to the Federal Constitution or the New York Constitution is a barrier to laws which control or limit the sale, transfer or ownership of guns. The alleged ‘right’ of an individual to keep and bear arms is myth.”
The NRA is bleeding — but like any wounded beast, it is likely to be more dangerous now than before. Knox’s radicalism may not win him any friends in Congress, but incendiary rhetoric is still a force to reckon with — witness the influence Khalid Muhammad’s oratory brings him within the Nation of Islam. Under siege, the NRA may only become a more important player in local, state, and national politics. Rather than simply fighting gun control, it will turn its attention to fighting crime and targeting politicians who are unfriendly to guns. “We’re trying to build up files on people who run for office,” Metaksa explains to NRA legislative activists in Minneapolis. “Then we can pick out something from five years ago, and say, ‘Look what you said.’ ”
Such character assassinations will be part of organized state and national campaigns. Rather than limit its work to spreading the word about the Second Amendment, the NRA plans to prey on people’s fear of violent crime. As a result, the NRA has now turned its attention to the pending federal crime bill. One of its favorite slogans is, “If you do the crime, you should do the time.” By promoting it, the NRA has helped pass mandatory minimum sentencing laws that give the United States the highest rate of incarceration of any developed country in the world, while incidents of crime continue to rise.
Although the NRA’s primary public focus is on violent criminals, many of those punished under mandatory minimums are non-violent drug offenders who have already suffered the heat of the emotions whipped up by its campaign. The NRA can easily outspend its opponents — the lobbying group Families Against Mandatory Minimums, for example, worked from an operating budget of only $90,000 last year, while the NRA has so far spent over $2 million on “CrimeStrike,” a program for disseminating Willie Horton–like ads throughout the heartland.
Interestingly, the most vocal opposition at the NRA’s rank-and-file meeting in Minneapolis was over drugs. Speaking from a laissez-faire point of view, several members objected from the floor to “the war on drugs,” saying that it had failed miserably, and that frequently “the feds kick down your door for both guns and drugs.” Recognizing the NRA’s contribution to this climate, one speaker asked the leadership merely to consider forming a subcommittee to explore the issue. But Knox’s executives don’t like such questions. Each time the matter was raised, it was quickly crushed through parliamentary procedure to terminate debate.
“We have to stop tearing ourselves apart from the inside,” Hammer told the board just before her defeat. “Rather than fight each other, this organization has to build its moat outside the castle wall.” By beating back dissent from within, Knox and his followers hope to maintain the fiction of a united front — to use the collective clout of millions of gun-owners to advance a regressive crime agenda as effectively as the NRA once contained gun control. Listen to Metaksa. “Being tough on crime isn’t just good public policy, it’s the winning solution for your campaign,” she tells the faithful. “If you can start breeding young candidates and young people who know the politics of crime, we’re going to be very successful.”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 5, 2019