One day in 1982, Knox came to work and discovered that he’d been locked out. He’d been fired as head of the NRA’s lobbying shop and replaced by a mellower character, Warren Cassidy. Cassidy portrayed himself in an interview with The Post as a reasonable man: “There have been lobbyists at the NRA whose zeal has occasionally gotten in the way of their common sense.”
“They felt Dad was too extreme and too uncompromising and they could get more mileage with honey than vinegar, so Harlon pulled the rug out from under him. It was hugely painful. They were best of friends,” Jeff Knox said. “Dad showed up to work in the morning and there was a security guard with his boxes of stuff at the front door, and he wasn’t allowed back into the building.”
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.”
Knox, however, wasn’t going away.
A shift back
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.
“What you’re seeing now is the NRA on the way back,” he said at the time.
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, then 41, had been a PhD student in political science at Boston University with political skills smooth enough to land a job offer after college with Tip O’Neill, the legendary liberal House speaker from Massachusetts.
Instead, LaPierre gravitated toward the lobbying world and, in 1978, was hired by Knox 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.”