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.
“You’re with us or against us.”
An identity crisis
The National Rifle Association was founded in 1871 by National Guard and retired Army officers in New York who vowed to “promote rifle practice” and improve marksmanship. The first president, Civil War general Ambrose Burnside, had seen too many Union soldiers who couldn’t shoot straight. For generations thereafter, the NRA focused on shooting, hunting and conservation, and no one thought of it as a gun lobby.
The turmoil of the 1960s — assassinations, street violence, riots — spurred Congress to pass the Gun Control Act of 1968, the first major piece of gun legislation since the New Deal. Supporters of gun control originally included California Gov. Ronald Reagan, who worried about the heavily armed Black Panthers.
The NRA didn’t like the 1968 law, viewing it as overly restrictive, but also didn’t see it as a slide toward tyranny. The top NRA officer, Franklin Orth, wrote in the association’s publication American Rifleman that “the measure as a whole appears to be one that the sportsmen of America can live with.”
The key word: “sportsmen.”
In 1972, a new federal agency charged with enforcing the gun laws came into being: the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF). Lawmakers raged against the terror of cheap handguns known as Saturday-night specials.
It was in that environment that Neal Knox rose to prominence.
Clifford Neal Knox — born in Oklahoma, raised in Texas, a graduate of Abilene Christian College — started out as a newspaper reporter and editor before founding, at the age of 30, Gun Week magazine.