by Scott Wagner
May 21, 1977, and the oppressive humidity from the Ohio River smothered Cincinnati like a weighted blanket. Inside the convention center, at the annual meeting of the National Rifle Association, the air conditioners had been switched off, turning the poorly ventilated conference hall into a sauna of human angst and frustration. The environment did little to dull the electricity of the moment. Outside, the sleepy city of Cincinnati drifted listlessly into another idyllic summer; inside, the members of the NRA were about to witness a coup.
The “Revolt at Cincinnati,” as it came to be known, was the turning point in the history of the NRA. With the election of Harlon Carter to the role of executive vice president, the organization turned away from its sportsmanship roots and became an obstreperous political advocacy group devoted to defending the Second Amendment. Their lobbying has ushered in one of the most permissive eras for firearm possession in American history—yet not for the benefit of Black Americans. The conservative forces leading the charge for gun ownership more frequently cast Black Americans as a source of terror rather than a demographic in need of support. The sinister tendrils of racism undergirding Madison’s folly over 200 years ago remain inextricably linked to the conversation surrounding the Second Amendment in the United States today.
The promises of equality from Reconstruction lay in tatters, dormant in the US political consciousness for much of the twentieth century. The fight for civil rights moved in fits and starts, a car engine that couldn’t quite find the right gear. A sign of progress here was followed by a noose there. The engine roared into life in the 1950s and 60s as a new generation of Black activists raised their voices for social and political equality. Though often overlooked, access to firearms was crucial to the success of the Civil Rights Movement. In the words of activist Charles E. Cobb Jr., “guns kept people alive.”
In historical memory, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is heralded as the guiding light of the Civil Rights Movement, remembered adoringly by white and Black Americans alike for his posture of peaceful resistance to racial tyranny. But his pacifist ways didn’t prevent King from taking necessary precautions. After his home in Montgomery, Alabama was firebombed by a reincarnation of the Ku Klux Klan in 1956, he applied for a concealed carry permit. Though the permit was denied, he still owned numerous firearms—Glenn Smiley, one of King’s associates, went so far as to liken the King homestead to “an arsenal.”
While King tried to downplay his arsenal, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale actively displayed theirs. Newton and Seale founded the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in 1966, preaching that “the gun is the only thing that will free us—gain us our liberation.” The Black Panthers used it persuasively, not violently. At the time, California allowed for open carry of firearms. Black Panthers would form what they called “police patrols;” they would monitor the streets of Oakland, following city police units. When police officers accosted or attempted to arrest a Black individual, the Panthers would stand a safe distance away, armed to the teeth, shouting legal advice on how to respond to police inquiries. The words had power; the guns gave them weight. The Black Panthers placed a check on the oft-unrestrained power and authority of police forces, but the (usually white) officers didn’t appreciate the supervision. The presence of armed Black men stood in the way of white authorities and the sight of Black men armed like revolutionaries invoked deep-seated racial fears among white Americans. Like the Founding Fathers and Southern Redeemers before them, they proposed a tried-and-true solution: take away the guns.
White leaders didn’t do it through political revolution, or paramilitary terrorism; no, they used that most insidious tool of racial repression: the legislature. The Mulford Act of 1967, named after California Assemblyman Don Mulford, proposed a repeal of California’s open carry laws. Seale and Newton were livid. Along with 30 members of the Black Panthers, they brazenly marched through the front door of the state capitol building in Sacramento, .357 Magnums and 12-gauge shotguns in hand. “The American people in general and the Black people in particular,” Seale proclaimed, must “take careful note of the racist California legislature aimed at keeping the black people disarmed and powerless.” Ominously, he continued: “The time has come for Black people to arm themselves against this terror before it is too late.”
It was already too late. Influenced in no small part by the militant display of the Black Panthers, the California legislature overwhelmingly approved the Mulford Act. In an extra twist of the knife, legislators added a clause specifically banning firearms in the state capitol. Governor Ronald Reagan signed the bill, stating that he saw “no reason why on the street today a citizen should be carrying loaded weapons.”
Ironically, just over ten years later, he was able to find countless reasons for citizens to be carrying weapons. At least one of them was the vociferous backing his campaign received from the newly invigorated National Rifle Association, which rode a tide of anti-government disillusionment and conservative anxiety to launch the Second Amendment into the national political conversation.
“The Price We Pay For Freedom”
The NRA erroneously calls itself “the oldest civil rights organization in the country.” It was founded in 1871 by Colonel William C. Church and General George Wingate to “promote and encourage rifle shooting on a scientific basis.” For the first century of their existence, the NRA was predominantly a sportsman’s club, more interested in hunting than political advocacy. When the Roosevelt administration moved to pass gun control legislation in 1934 and 1938, NRA president Karl T. Frederick supported the measure, testifying that he believed that the right to carry weapons “should be sharply restricted and only under licenses.”
But the seismic shifts of the 1960s dislodged NRA orthodoxy. High-profile assassinations of President John F. Kennedy (1963), Martin Luther King (1968), and Senator Robert Kennedy (1968) pierced the illusion of security softening life in the United States. Protests against the Vietnam War, racial injustice, and cultural conservatism—some peaceful, others violent—shattered the halcyon existence of most US citizens. The Summer of Love became the Autumn of Insecurity. Crime was on the uptick; crime rates rose 17.6% in 1973 alone. The media swarmed to sensationalist acts of criminality like piranhas to a shipwreck, popularizing vicious killers like Ted Bundy and the Son of Sam. The United States no longer felt safe.
But surely the government could be trusted to protect its citizens? Not anymore. The suits in Washington had demonstrated their duplicity in their handling of the Vietnam War, promising mothers that the conflict would soon end in triumph even as they ordered more sons into the meat grinders of the Vietnamese jungle. The “silent majority” that remained faithful to Washington was soon betrayed by the crook in the Oval Office. After his nefarious campaign tactics and paranoid leadership style came to light during the Watergate Scandal, Richard Nixon resigned the presidency in disgrace. The country was becoming a more dangerous place, and the government was mired in a morass of corruption and inaction. Citizens felt the need to provide for their own defense.
That was fine and good with Harlon Carter. A bulldog of a man who clung to obstinacy and pugnacity like a religion, Carter was a longtime NRA board member with years of service in the US Border Patrol to his name. He resisted the passage of the Gun Control Act of 1968 and despised the spineless NRA board members who tacitly accepted the law. “We can win it on a simple concept,” he wrote to members of the NRA criticizing the passage of the bill: “No compromise. No gun legislation.”
No gun lobbying might have been a better description of NRA ideology at the time. Executive Vice President Maxwell Rich wanted to remove the NRA from the political sphere, even proposing to move the headquarters of the organization from Washington to far-flung Colorado Springs. That didn’t sit well with Carter, who at the time headed up the Institute for Legislative Action (ILA), the NRA’s lobbying wing. When Carter kicked up a fuss, Rich kicked him to the curb, firing Carter along with the rest of the ILA in 1975.
Never one to admit defeat, Carter planned a populist revolution. He and his ideological ally Clifford Knox rallied support among NRA members through targeted mailings, pushing narratives of self-defense through gun ownership and rigorous devotion to Second Amendment rights. By the 1977 NRA annual meeting, he had amassed enough support to vote out Rich and the apolitical leadership of the organization. A jubilant Carter took the stage as the new Executive Vice President of an NRA with a novel mission: prevent gun control at all costs.
Under Carter’s leadership (1977-85), NRA membership more than tripled. He marketed the NRA by playing into the fears and anxieties of a shaken American public, warning them that the pistol was the only defense for their freedom, the rifle the surest guarantor of their cherished liberties. And on liberty, compromise is never an option. When testifying in front of Congress in 1975, Carter was asked by Congressman George E. Danielson if he opposed a screening process for “convicted felons, mentally deranged people, violently addicted to narcotics people” who wanted to own guns. Carter admonished Danielson, chiding him that allowing those potentially dangerous elements of society to have guns was “the price we pay for freedom.”
But as the actions of the NRA have demonstrated since 1977, their paradise of freedom has a sign hanging on the door: Whites Only. No Blacks Allowed.
“A Dystopian Cultural Rant”
Before Harlon Carter was in the NRA, before he had even reached maturity, he was a boy in Laredo, Texas who came home to find his mother crying. She had spotted three Mexican teenagers outside the house and believed that they might have been responsible for the theft of the family car three weeks prior. Young Harlon took matters into his own hands; he picked up the family shotgun, tracked down the three teenagers, and demanded they come speak to his mother. Ramón Casiano, one of the teenagers, refused and pulled out a knife. Apparently fearing for his life, having only a meager shotgun to defend himself in a knife fight, Carter fired from close range. The blast tore a cavernous hole through Casiano’s torso, killing him in minutes. Carter pleaded that the murder was an act of self-defense.
Though Casiano’s life was extinguished, Carter’s was just beginning to spark into a flame. After serving two years of a three-year sentence, Carter was released from prison on a technicality. He joined the Border Patrol a few years later and became the head of the organization in 1950. Carter led what he called “the biggest drive against illegal aliens in history” to deport Mexican immigrants along the southern border. The name itself precludes any attempt to paint the program as anything other than a racist and xenophobic cleansing: it was called Operation Wetback.
In Carter’s time, the NRA was white, male, and conservative. Little has changed. In 2015, according to a report by Mother Jones, 71 of the 76 NRA board members were white, and 65 of them were men. Race is rarely a talking point for the secretive leadership of the NRA, though musician Ted Nugent is a notable exception. He once called President Obama a “subhuman mongrel,” derided murdered Black teenager Trayvon Martin as a “dope smoking, racist gangsta wannabe” (despite the fact that Martin had no criminal record), and claimed that the n-word “has historically been used in a powerfully positive way.” Nugent was re-elected to the NRA’s board of directors in 2016.
Yet the NRA’s silence is perhaps more telling than their words. When Alton Sterling, a Black gun owner, was murdered by police in 2016, the NRA said nothing. When Philando Castile, a Black gun owner, was murdered by police a day later, the NRA said nothing. When Emantic Bradford Jr., a Black gun owner, was murdered by police in 2018, the NRA said nothing. The NAACP, however, issued a statement lamenting that “the NRA continues to demonize and alienate people of color who are gunned down and blamed for exercising their right to own and brandish firearms.”
In 1995, NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre wrote to NRA members that restrictive gun legislation “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 and kill us.” One would think, then, that the NRA would be the first to decry the presence of jack-booted government thugs in Washington DC and Portland deployed in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. But the NRA has been as silent as the grave. The NRA Twitter account has not addressed the murder of George Floyd, nor the authoritarian response of the federal government; instead, they tweet attacks on Joe Biden and tributes to fiddler Charlie Daniels.
To understand the NRA, understand that the lifeblood of their organization is fear. Fear of tyranny; fear of insecurity; fear of violence. NRA membership increases when the American public feels threatened and declines when Americans feel secure. The best way to ensure the continued power of the NRA is to give the American public something to fear—and throughout US history, what has been more terrifying to the white man than a Black man with a gun? As Kelly Sampson, racial justice counsel with Brady: United Against Gun Violence, said in an interview with Salon, “advocating for Black Americans’ safety does not sell guns.” Instead, the NRA paints Black Americans as a terrifying other, a group that must be armed against rather than armed. Mark and Patricia McCloskey did not brandish their firearms to support Black citizens’ Second Amendment rights; instead, they clutched them like babies with pacifiers, trusting the bullet to save them from the Black man.
Before it shut down in 2019, NRATV was the primary mouthpiece for this message of cultural othering. After the children’s show Thomas & Friends introduced a character voiced by a Black American actress, the NRATV show Relentless ran a segment featuring characters from Thomas & Friends garbed in Ku Klux Klan hoods. Chuck Holton, a correspondent with NRATV, celebrated Donald Trump’s electoral victory in 2016 by tweeting that it was time to scrub “Obama’s mocacchino stain off of America.” Even the leadership of the NRA worried they were going too far; in a lawsuit against advertising agency Ackerman McQueen, which ran NRATV, the NRA denigrated NRATV’s programming as “a dystopian cultural rant.” But Ackerman McQueen countersued, claiming that, on the contrary, LaPierre and the NRA leadership directed the cultural messages, even asking for “more gasoline.”
Now, though, the NRA is facing unprecedented challenges. Decreases in revenue and fundraising have forced the organization to lay off some 200 staff members. Its eagerness to fight court battles with every critic and opponent have resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars in legal fees. This month, a lawsuit filed by the New York Attorney General attempts to dissolve the organization entirely, calling it “a breeding ground for greed, abuse, and brazen illegality.” But even if the NRA shrinks or collapses, its ideas of racial othering and the anxieties induced by the sight of armed Black men are already in the bloodstream of the American political and social environment. They’ve been there for centuries.
* * * * * *
Charleston, South Carolina. 1822. Emanuel Church burned. The oldest African Methodist Episcopal church in the Southern United States, it boasted one of the largest AME congregations in the country. It was founded four years earlier by Denmark Vesey, a freedman and carpenter. His attempt to organize an insurrection of enslaved persons in the city of Charleston was foiled when white authorities were informed of Vesey’s intentions. He was tried and executed, but that was not enough to sate white lust for revenge over crimes not committed. The church that he had founded, the church that he had helped build, was turned to ash, and its timbers, much like his audacious gambit for freedom, went up in smoke.
Charleston, South Carolina. 2015. Emanuel Church wept. Nine Black congregants lay dead among the pews of the historic church, shot and killed by a white terrorist with a gun. They were praying; Dylann Roof was shooting. A white supremacist radicalized by far-right ideologies on the internet, Roof claimed that what he was doing was necessary. “I had to do it,” he told his victims, “they [Black individuals] were raping our women.”
The NRA did not apologize or express their regret for the incident. Instead, Charles L. Cotton, an NRA board member, suggested that Emanuel Church’s Reverend Clementa Pinckney was at fault. The Black congregants would still be alive, he suggested, if Rev. Pinckney “had expressly allowed members to carry handguns in church.”
Scott Wagner is Supervising Editor at INTERZINE.