He wanted to roll back gun laws, even the ones that restricted the sale of machine guns. He believed that gun-control laws threatened basic American freedoms, that there were malign forces that sought nothing less than total disarmament. There would come a point when Knox would suggest that the assassinations of the 1960s and other horrors might have been part of a gun-control plot: “Is it possible that some of those incidents could have been created for the purpose of disarming the people of the free world? With drugs and evil intent, it’s possible. Rampant paranoia on my part? Maybe. But there have been far too many coincidences to ignore” (Shotgun News, 1994).
In the second half of the 1970s, the NRA faced a crossroads. Would it remain an Establishment institution, partnering with such mainstream entities as the Ford Foundation and focusing on shooting competitions? Or would it roll up its sleeves and fight hammer and tongs against the gun-control advocates? Or flee to the Mountain West? The latter was appealing, and the NRA leadership decided to move the headquarters to Colorado and also spend $30 million to build a recreational facility in New Mexico called the National Outdoor Center.
The moderates felt rejected by both the NRA hard-liners and the Washington elite.
“Because of the political direction the NRA was taking, they weren’t being invited to parties and their wives were not happy,” says Jeff Knox, Neal’s son and director of the Firearms Coalition, which fights for the Second Amendment and against laws restricting guns or ammunition. “Dad 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.”
He had a shaved head (“bullet-headed” was one description) and vaguely resembled Nikita Khrushchev. A former U.S. Border Patrol agent and chief, Carter was an outstanding marksman who racked up scores of national shooting records. (Four years into his tenure, he would acknowledge that, as a 17-year-old, he’d shot and killed another youth, claiming self-defense. He was convicted of murder, but the verdict was overturned on appeal.)
Within months, thanks to Carter, Knox was working in the NRA headquarters, running Carter’s old lobbying unit. And Carter made clear in an interview with The Washington Post that the NRA wouldn’t be relocating to Colorado:
“This is where the action is,” Carter said.
Another leadership change
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.
Aquilino, who became the top NRA spokesman, remembers those days as great fun: “We were a bunch of 25-year-olds, and we created the whole grass-roots lobbying concept.”
The hard-charging style of Neal Knox created internal and external turbulence. Carter kept looking over his shoulder at Knox, who clearly wanted the top job. 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.”