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.
John Magaw, then the head of the ATF, recalls trying to set up meetings with the NRA to discuss gun issues. “They would not answer. They would ignore us.”
It was personal, too. Once, Magaw says, he saw LaPierre waiting to board a plane at Dulles International Airport. They were at the same gate.
“I went over to pay my respects and say hello,” he says. “He just turned and walked away. He wouldn’t talk to me.”
The NRA did not make LaPierre or any other NRA official available for an interview for this article.
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.
Metaksa left ILA the next year, and Knox was off the board at decade’s end. He died in 2005. David Gross, a self-described “Knoxinista,” says Knox and his allies ultimately won the ideological battle even if they personally didn’t survive as NRA leaders.
“You know the old saying, ‘You never want to be first’?” Gross says. “The person with the alleged radical ideas, or the new ideas, they extend themselves, they fail, then somebody comes along, picks up the pieces and then develops the project.”
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 power of controversy
Had Gore managed to carry Arkansas or West Virginia — states full of gun-toting Democrats — or his home state of Tennessee, he would have become president even without any favorable recount of votes in Florida. The next spring, citing the election results, Fortune magazine ranked the NRA as the most powerful lobbying group in Washington, surpassing even AARP.
The paradox for the NRA is that it gains strength when under assault. During the 2000s, with gun control now largely off the table, the NRA membership leveled off. In 2004, the assault-weapons ban expired; in 2008, the Supreme Court ruled, in a 5 to 4 vote, that the Second Amendment establishes an individual’s right to own a firearm.