By the mid-1980s, during a successful campaign to scale back some of the provisions of the 1968 Gun Control Act, Ackerman McQueen staff members had begun moving into the second floor of the NRA’s headquarters on Rhode Island Avenue in the District. And before long, the NRA’s in-house public affairs staff, including Aquilino, was fired en masse, the jobs outsourced to Ackerman McQueen.
The agency took an increasing role in fundraising and grooming senior NRA officials for public appearances.
“They had an awful lot of control,” said Jeff Knox, the son of a former NRA executive who clashed with Ackerman McQueen over its high fees.
The NRA advertising produced by “Ack-Mac,” as the firm is sometimes called, gradually became more hard-edged.
“Should you shoot a rapist before he cuts your throat?” asked one ad that showed an assailant wearing a nylon-stocking mask. “American women” the ad continued, “are realizing that they must take responsibility for their own self-defense.”
Another spot showed an elderly woman being assaulted on her front stoop. “If you’re attacked on your porch, do you want your neighbors to be opposed to gun ownership, or members of the NRA?”
In 1995, when President Bill Clinton supported crime legislation that included new gun-control measures, Ackerman McQueen responded with one of its more incendiary print advertisements, suggesting that the legislation would permit the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to “intensify its reign of storm trooper tactics.” The full-page ad, which ran in The Washington Post, among other publications, showed federal agents in black SWAT gear bearing submachine guns and bursting into a home.
The headline: “Tell the Clinton White House to stay out of your House.”
At the same time, in a fundraising letter, the NRA said that a Clinton administration ban on semiautomatic weapons “gives jack-booted government thugs more power to take away our constitutional rights, break in our doors, seize our guns, destroy our property and even injure or kill us.”
The letter was signed by LaPierre but written by Ackerman McQueen, former NRA executives said.
“Not too long ago,” the letter continued, “it was unthinkable for federal agents wearing Nazi bucket helmets and black storm trooper uniforms to attack law-abiding citizens. Not today.”
The following month, the federal building in downtown Oklahoma City was bombed. Two weeks later, former president George H.W. Bush sent the NRA a letter to say that he was canceling his membership.
Bush noted that among those killed in the bombing was a Secret Service agent who had served on his security team. “He was no Nazi,” the former president wrote. The NRA’s “broadside against Federal agents deeply offends my own sense of decency and honor; and it offends my concept of service to country.”
Said Feldman, the former lobbyist, in his book “Ricochet: Confessions of a Gun Lobbyist,” “The advertisement and Wayne’s harsh words were poorly timed.”
Helping to win fights
By the late 1990s, there was growing unease in the NRA about the amount of money Ackerman McQueen was earning. In addition to retaining a no-contract flat monthly fee of approximately $80,000, the firm was earning potentially much more from commissions for fundraising drives and the placement of advertising, according to former NRA executives and members.
One senior NRA executive, Jim Baker, distrusted Ackerman McQueen so much that he had his office swept for bugs, Feldman said. Neal Knox, then the first vice president of the NRA, ordered LaPierre to fire the agency. But in the end, it was Ackerman McQueen that managed to sideline Knox.
“If you are a company that has a client that is your golden goose, you are going to do what you can to maintain that client,” said Jeff Knox, Neal’s son, who remains an NRA member.
Although LaPierre said he had carried out the order, he instead teamed up with Tony Makris, president of the Mercury Group, to have Knox replaced with actor Charlton Heston.
Makris and LaPierre had been friends since the early 1980s, former executives said. And LaPierre’s wife has worked at the Mercury Group.
“With the help of Ackerman McQueen, [LaPierre] accused Knox of ‘right-wing extremism’ and claimed that his majority board members wanted to turn the NRA into a ‘militia-type organization,’ ” Feldman later wrote.
With Knox gone, Ackerman McQueen and the Mercury Group retained their lucrative contract. The Oklahoma company also briefly picked up the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which represents gun manufacturers and had been threatened with lawsuits by city governments in the late 1990s.
At one point, Ackerman McQueen prepared an advertisement that showed the stars and stripes being ripped from an American flag as a voice-over alleged that big-city mayors and their greedy lawyers were attempting to destroy an industry that had won world wars.